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There's plenty of blame to go around for Mexico's soccer woes

Underachieving players are partly to blame for poor play, but the country's dysfunctional soccer federation has made a mess of things by repeatedly changing coaches, leading to instability. Mexico has had four coaches since September.

October 19, 2013|By Kevin Baxter
  • Mexico's Hugo Ayala grimaces while fighting for the ball with Costa Rica's Christian Bolanos during Mexico's 2-1 loss to Costa Rica during a World Cup qualifying match on Oct. 15.
Mexico's Hugo Ayala grimaces while fighting for the ball with Costa… (Moises Castillo / Associated…)

Justino Compean, president of Mexico's soccer federation, hasn't been right very often this year. But he came close last week when he offered this assessment of the country's national team.

"We've touched rock bottom," he said.

If anything, that evaluation may be a little optimistic. This year Mexico won only two of 10 World Cup qualifiers, washed out in the semifinals of the Gold Cup for the first time in eight years and was eliminated in group play of the Confederations Cup.

The blame for that lies largely with the players and coaches.

But what has taken Mexico's plight from unfortunate to embarrassing is that the national team has had more coaches (four) in the last six weeks than victories (one). And the blame for that lies with Compean and the dysfunctional way in which Mexican soccer is run.

The federation's most important decisions are heavily influenced by television companies, sponsors and owners of clubs in Mexico's top domestic league, many of whom are impetuous and know little about soccer. As a result, many of those actions, such as last week's sacking of Victor Manuel Vucetich as national team coach, are shortsighted and selfish.

The evidence for that is Vucetich's replacement, Club America Coach Miguel Herrera. A straight-talking 45-year-old who played briefly for the national team in the mid-1990s, Herrera led America to its first league title in eight years in last season's Clausura tournament. He formally takes over the national team Sunday and will coach his first game Oct. 30 in a friendly with Finland in San Diego.

Herrera has neither the stature nor the resume of Vucetich, whose penchant for turning around struggling teams earned him the nickname "King Midas." And the Mexican national team is nothing if not struggling, making it the perfect situation for Vucetich

The former Monterrey coach was given little time to work his Midas-like magic, though. He did guide Mexico to a victory over Panama this month, which wound up saving Mexico's World Cup-qualifying campaign. Because when the U.S. also beat Panama four days later, it allowed Mexico to stave off elimination and secure a spot in a two-leg intercontinental playoff with New Zealand for an at-large invitation to Brazil next summer.

And this is where the plot thickens. A loss to New Zealand would not only cost Mexico a World Cup berth, but it would also cost the federation and its backers, all of whom expected to benefit from the exposure of the World Cup, more than $600 million, according to Mexican sports marketing expert Rogelio Roa. Among the most heavily invested is TV giant Televisa, which owns not only the broadcast rights to the World Cup but Club America as well.

With so much on the line, Televisa was among those pushing to put its own guy in charge under a bizarre agreement in which Herrera and the Club America coaching staff will be "loaned" to the national team for a month. After that Compean and the Liga MX club presidents will meet again to discuss a full-time national team coach.

Assuming Mexico beats New Zealand and assuming Televisa doesn't want to give up Herrera full-time, Mexico would begin preparations for the World Cup with its fifth coach in four months.

Not everyone agrees with the plan. Although Compean said the decision to replace Vucetich with Herrera "was unanimous," Friday's news conference to announce the move was delayed nearly an hour, reportedly by club presidents who said they weren't consulted about the change, underscoring the lack of transparency that has corrupted Mexican soccer.

Instability on Mexico's sidelines is nothing new. Although the U.S. has had four coaches since 1995, Mexico has had four since September and 11 since 2000. Only once in the last 44 years has a coach kept his job for an entire four-year World Cup cycle.

"This is not ideal, and nobody likes to keep changing coaches," Compean said, adding that Mexico was "in a crisis situation."

It's a crisis of the federation's own making. It was obvious the national team needed a change after failing to score in four of its first six World Cup qualifiers. That was followed by an uninspired performance in June's Confederations Cup.

But rather than giving Jose Manuel de la Torre the boot as coach, Compean gave him a vote of confidence.

After Mexico lost twice to Panama in the Gold Cup, the federation held an emergency meeting in which it pledged support for De la Torre, support that evaporated when De la Torre lost his next competitive game, against Honduras.

Luis Fernando Tena, who led Mexico's under-23 team to its first Olympic title in London, coached the next game. After Tena lost to the U.S., Vucetich was hired. And when he, too, was ousted after two games, Vucetich was quick to hint Mexico's problem wasn't with its coaches or even its underachieving players, but rather with a national team program in such disarray that divine intervention may be needed to turn things around.

"I am … King Midas, but not God," he said. "That's why it has come to this."

Twitter: @kbaxter11

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