Mexico World Cup Profile | Can “public enemy No.1” Tata Martino break the second round curse?

The Plan | It has been a rough couple of years for El Tri. Gerardo Martino is under fire while his team seem to be regressing as the World Cup comes closer. Doubts about their competitiveness have grown and grown since the defeat in the CONCACAF Nations League Final against the USA in June 2021. The Argentinian, however, has always found a way to see the glass as ‘half full’. “I’m happy and excited. I have a strong positive feeling about the team in every sense”, he said last September after beating Peru. Three days later, Mexico lost to Colombia despite a two-goal lead at halftime.

The fact is that, unlike other World Cups, fans are not connecting with Martino’s team. El Tri games in the World Cup used to be a major event in a strongly passionate country. Not anymore. When they qualified for Qatar there was no massive party at the Azteca Stadium as in the past. Despite this, at least 40,000 fans are expected to travel to Doha. As the Mexican writer Juan Villoro said: “In Mexico we are not sure that the future exists. Every joy can be the last and that´s why thousands of fellow Mexicans will go to the World Cup.”

In theory, Mexico’s tactics may be quite attractive: a high pressing team with aggressive forward play on the flanks. Martino likes to control the game by having the ball and play with quick passing exchanges. Wingers such as Alexis Vega, Hirving Lozano, Uriel Antuna and Roberto Alvarado are crucial for the implementation of Martino’s ideas. The main problem for the coach is the inability to play well for a whole game. In fact the only consistency seems to be their inconsistency. Martino is also fretting on the fitness of two key players: Raul Jiménez and Jesus “Tecatito” Corona.

The Coach | Gerardo “Tata” Martino is a world-renowned veteran coach who arrived in Mexico in January 2019 with the task of breaking the “fourth game” curse. Remarkably, El Tri have reached the last 16 of every World Cup since 1994 but never managed to go any further. After a promising start for Martino – winning the 2019 Gold Cup and beating a powerhouse such as the Netherlands – the momentum started to fade away. They lost three games in a row against the United States in 2021, which drove Martino’s project into a crisis. The qualification for the World Cup became a torture with wins being eeked out and no beautiful football at all. Tata has called himself “public enemy number one in Mexico” and he is not entirely wrong.

Star Player | Hirving Lozano – ‘Chucky’ is a force of nature and it seems, at times, that the only way to stop him is through illegal methods. An explosive winger, turned into a sort of false nine, he is quick with a great shot. The right-footed forward’s impact at Napoli fades in comparison to his stature with El Tri. He was Napoli’s record signing – even more expensive than Diego Maradona – and after a time of adaptation he is having a superb season in 2022/23.

Unsung Hero | Edson Álvarez. No player is more important in Martino’s system than Álvarez. Even though the spotlight is on Lozano, Guillermo Ochoa or Vega, Álvarez is the master in the shadows. He started as a central defender playing for América but evolved into a prominent and elegant defensive midfielder who gives teams cohesion between the lines. He is so good with the ball at his feet that some fans call him ‘Edsonbauer’ as they feel his style is reminiscent of that of Franz Beckenbauer. Either way, Álvarez is essential for Martino’s plans.

Probable Line-up | 4-1-2-3 – Ochoa – Sánchez, Araujo, Montes, Gallardo – Álvarez – Rodríguez, Guardado – Lozano, Martin, Vega

Qatar Stance | Mexican footballers are not used to talking about politics or human rights. In fact, the Mexican football scene has historically been a non-political bubble. Players in the domestic league have not managed to form trade unions to fight for their own rights. Add to that the fact that Qatar’s human rights record has not been a significant issue in Mexico – even the media have barely spoken about it – and it is easy to see why the players have kept quiet. There is a paradox, though, in that Mexico have problems of their own, related to drug cartels that spread throughout the country and there is an increasing demand that footballers are more vocal and involved in their communities.

National Anthem | The Mexican National Anthem is a cry of war. It was first used in 1854, written by the poet Francisco González Bocanegra the previous year and composed by the Spaniard Jaime Nuno. The lyrics call on Mexicans to defend their homeland with Bocanegra trying to represent the patriotic ideals that Antonio López de Santa Ana, president at the time, was looking for when he launched a federal contest to create the anthem. With a bellicose melody, it fits perfectly in a football context for El Tri fans.

Cult Hero | Jorge Campos is the embodiment of the Mexican soul. Born in Acapulco in 1966, he became a 1990s symbol in Mexican culture. A colourful, flamboyant, acrobatic, unorthodox goalkeeper, he became a huge national hero status thanks to his risky and chaotic style of play. The fact that he could also play as a striker – he scored 35 goals in his career – and his unorthodox, iconic, colourful and self-designed goalkeeper jerseys made him unique. His popularity shows no sign of abating as he is now a loved TV commentator. He is pure Mexican folklore and, rightly, goes by the name ‘The immortal’.

By Eduardo López of AS Mexico via Get Football’s partnership with the Guardian

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