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Leap of faith

Hugo Sanchez, who was an acrobatic, scoring star for Real Madrid, sees quality on Mexico's team.

March 28, 2007|Grahame L. Jones | Times Staff Writer

OAKLAND — It was the somersaults that once defined Hugo Sanchez, the celebratory acrobatics that he indulged in every time he scored a goal.

Sanchez scored several hundred of them. In his heyday during the 1980s, he was the Spanish league's top goal scorer for five seasons, firmly cementing his place as one of soccer's all-time great strikers. In 1989-90, the Real Madrid star was the top scorer in all of Europe.

Now, at a still fit but no longer quite as spry 48, Sanchez ruefully admits that the somersault days are behind him.

"No," he said, shaking his head, "I can't do that anymore."

These days Sanchez is focused instead on trying to get a jump on Mexico's opponents.

Tonight, at the sold-out McAfee Coliseum, Mexico plays Ecuador in Sanchez's fourth game since becoming the Mexican national team coach. So far, his resume includes a loss to the U.S. in Phoenix, followed by victories over Venezuela in San Diego and Paraguay in Monterrey, Mexico.

"I have the same goals that I had as a player," he said. "To be the best."

Before being named Mexico's coach, he engaged in a long, loud and very public feud with his predecessor, Argentina's Ricardo Lavolpe. "I felt that the coach should be Mexican. The national team is a symbol of Mexico. The previous coach was not a good person. He treated the players very poorly," Sanchez said.

Now that he is in charge, Sanchez, who played for Mexico in three World Cups, wants to stamp his own mark on the Tricolores.

"There is quality and there is talent," among the players, he said. "We want to make history and achieve what Mexico has not been able to achieve until now."

A frequent quarterfinalist or semifinalist on the international stage, Mexico has never won a major competition outside the North and Central American and Caribbean (CONCACAF) region.

This summer, Sanchez will have two opportunities to put Mexico on the map. In June, it plays in the CONCACAF Gold Cup -- and probably will encounter the defending champion U.S. in the final in Chicago -- and then, like the U.S., it takes part in the Copa America in Venezuela.

Tomorrow's players are the focus, though. With some established stars likely to be a bit long in the tooth by the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, Sanchez is grooming some very promising newcomers, led by Andres Guardado, Guillermo Ochoa and Nery Castillo.

"They are the revelation of the moment," he said.

Sanchez has significant ties with the United States. Early in his career, he played for the San Diego Sockers of the long-defunct North American Soccer League, and when Major League Soccer was founded in 1996, Sanchez played for the Dallas Burn, now FC Dallas.

Even then, he was not afraid to speak his mind.

"I suggested when I joined Dallas that MLS needed to bring in three of the best coaches in the world to contribute to the growth of the league," he said. "I also said it should get four or five of the best referees in the world and sign one or two of the best players in the world per team, to teach the players here.... Now they are bringing the players, so maybe it will extend to referees and coaches."

The player reference was to David Beckham, who, unlike Sanchez, has endured a torrid, trophy-less time at Real Madrid.

Sanchez spent seven successful seasons with Real. The Galaxy-bound Beckham has spent three frustrating years at the same club, but Sanchez said Beckham should not be considered a failure in Spain.

"You can't consider only his time at Real Madrid, but his whole career," he said. "He was a very good player for Manchester United."

Sanchez said MLS is "getting better day by day and year by year. Now, with the new policy of bringing big stars, it's going to get better much quicker. That's why I worry."

As MLS improves, so does the U.S. national team and that means Mexico -- and Sanchez -- will not be able to treat the region as its own playground.

grahame.jones@latimes.com

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