Mexico’s opening match in the Women’s World Cup seemed as good a chance as any for El Tri Femenil to win its first world championship match since it defeated Italy in the semifinals of the 1971 Women’s World Championship. Facing a less-experienced Colombian team, Mexico took a 1-0 lead into the 82nd minute before Daniela Montoya’s beautiful late strike salvaged a draw for Las Cafeteras. It all felt a bit like déjà vu: In 2011, Mexico squandered a 2-0 lead against New Zealand in the final group game, giving up goals in the 90th minute and in stoppage time to be eliminated before the knockout round.
Mexico has long been a team of unfulfilled promise. Only five years ago, El Tri Femenil defeated the United States for the first time – in a World Cup qualifying match that guaranteed Mexico’s trip to the 2011 World Cup in Germany and forced the United States into a playoff against Italy. At that time the Mexican squad seemed poised to regularly challenge for the top spots in CONCACAF.
Fast-forward to today, and Mexico remains in the second tier in regional competition. Instead of taking the step into the top tier of CONCACAF teams as hoped, El Tri Femenil has stagnated. The United States has not lost again to Mexico, winning the seven matches since by a combined score of 32-1. Worse, Mexico seems to have stagnated while other CONCACAF teams have gained strength.
Costa Rica finished ahead of El Tri in qualifying for the 2015 World Cup, while the Mexicans struggled to defeat Trinidad and Tobago for the final direct ticket to Canada.
The women’s team has been under the national team administration of the Mexican Soccer Federation (FMF) since 2009; prior to that it was under the auspices of the amateur wing of the federation. But its roots go much deeper, back to 1970, when a women’s team was formed on the back of volunteer support and in the face of official opposition from the FMF. For a few years in the late 1960s and 1970s, Mexican women’s soccer burned brightly. By 1969 a 17-team league existed in Mexico City, in 1970 multiple leagues formed, and in 1971 an estimated 20,000 women and girls played the sport. Mexico hosted the second Women’s World Championship, finishing second, and in 1972 Mexico had a national women’s league with sixteen teams.
But paradoxically, when FIFA and the FMF became more involved in women’s soccer, the sport withered on the vine. After flourishing for a few years, it would be nearly another 20 years before Mexico fielded another women’s national team. El Tri Femenil played in qualifiers for the 1991 and 1995 World Cups with hastily thrown together teams, but 1999 provided the team's easiest opportunity to make the finals thanks to the U.S. qualifying automatically as the host.
That opportunity—and money from the venture by getting FIFA World Cup payouts—spurred the federation put together a formal program. The FMF threw together a squad comprised predominantly of Mexican Americans, who received a total of $70,000 to prepare, trained at a remote site with one shower, and who used year-old men’s uniforms. The team has evolved is a tightly knit group of young women who train at the same facilities as the men and receive individualized kits.
Amidst the changes there has been one constant: Leonardo Cuellar, hired as manager in 1998, where he remains today. Cuellar is something of an icon in the Mexican soccer world. From 1973-1981 he was a formidable midfield presence with the Mexican national team, playing in 41 matches with the Mexican national team, including each of Mexico’s three losses at the 1978 men’s World Cup in Argentina.
Sporting a long, frizzy mane well before Carlos Valderrama made the hairdo popular, Cuellar spent seven important years with Pumas as the team won its first league title and two cup championships. Cuellar then left Mexico for the North American Soccer League, playing with the San Diego Sockers and the San Jose Earthquakes. His hiring as women's national team coach in 1998 suggested, for the first time, that the federation took the women’s game seriously.
The federation has only gradually expanded its support for the women’s game. Without doubt Cuellar deserves some credit for this. He has been crucial in the team securing the funding and support from that it receives from the Mexican federation, and he has been instrumental in setting up youth squads for the women’s program.
Still, the development of Mexican women’s soccer owes more to the girls soccer school established by former players like Iris Mora and Andrea Rodebaugh, the grassroots leagues and teams that sprouted up around the country, and the United States than it does to the federation. Just last October, Cuellar hosted open recruiting sessions to try to identify players to add to the talent pool, which reflects a lack of institutional engagement with the sport.
It was only in 2014 the FMF began an Under-15 program. But there are some signs of encouragement: in May 2015 the FMF announced the creation of the Liga Oficial de Fútbol Femenil, which will have U-13 and U-16 teams in 10 states, and expects to have 4,500 girls playing. While positive steps for long-term development, they are more than a little overdue.
Even without a solid national structure, the present Mexican team brims with talent. Stephany Mayor, Teresa Noyola, Veronica Pérez, Charlyn Corral, Renae Cuellar, and Nayeli Rangel form the core of a technically gifted and seasoned team that should be able to make it out of the group stage in Canada. That road was made much harder for the team by its opening tie with Colombia, as they likely have to defeat either England or France to have a chance.
The question is whether Cuellar will get out of his players' way. Crucial as he has been to getting the program to where it is now, his tactical decisions have long been questioned. Cuellar has been criticized as lacking—worse, stifling—creativity among his players, and of failing to adapt to in-game realities. Under Cuellar Mexico has been able to defeat weaker teams, but has proved unable to stand up to tougher rivals.
Cuellar’s conservative style, one that has remained consistent for almost 20 years, has been to lie back and rely on the counterattack. One former player noted in 2011 that his tactics remained the same as when she had played in 1998, even though the skill of his team had changed. Other commentators note his inability to play with a lead. He has also been accused publicly of surrounding himself with a tight circle of supporters, punishing those who question his tactics or decisions by leaving them off the team. This attitude would be somewhat understandable were Mexico winning, but El Tri Femenil loses more often than it wins.
After one of Mexico’s more recent losses, in the semifinals of the 2014 CONCACAF women's championship, Cuellar wearily ascended the podium at PPL Park in Chester, Pennsylvania. Mexico had played—again—a very defensive game, and again it had not worked. As would be expected, Cuellar had words of praise for his opponents. “They’re awesome,” he said, “they’re outstanding… They have so many weapons… so many good ideas.”
With this statement, Cuellar implicitly referred to his own shortcoming, one that has plagued the Mexican national team for nearly two decades: a lack of ideas.
At this point Cuellar’s longevity is more a testament to the indifference of the FMF than it is to his success in competition. Since 1998, the Mexican women’s team has a record of 79-20-97. Try and imagine a men’s coach in Mexico lasting as long with a losing record: you can’t. In fact, in the 17 years that Cuellar has coached the women’s team, 12 men have occupied the post for the men’s team, including a whirlwind four coaches in two months in 2013.
Ultimately, blame for Mexico’s stagnation lies farther up the command chain. If the FMF really considered women’s soccer a priority, it would find someone new to take charge of the team. And there are plenty of talented coaches available. Andrea Rodebaugh played under Cuellar, coached the Mexico U-20 women’s squad, and for the past few years has been running clinics for women’s soccer coaches around the world as a roving FIFA instructor. Monica Vergara, another former player who recently graduated from Mexico’s coaching academy and is now on the women’s team coaching staff, also stands out as a qualified replacement.
Cuellar once said that it was “difficult to change your ideas in middle of the tournament.” Perhaps this is true, though one mark of a great coach is the ability to make changes to fit the circumstances. He may have been the best man to build a foundation for the Mexican women’s national team program, and the FMF should thank him for his work. And then look for someone with fresh ideas.
Joshua Nadel is author of Fútbol!: Why Soccer Matters in Latin America (2014). His work has also appeared in The Telegraph, and the Washington Post. He is currently working on a book with Brenda Elsey entitled Futbolera: The History of Women and Sports in Latin America. He teaches at North Carolina Central University in Durham, North Carolina. He can be followed on Twitter @jhnadel.