Rejuvenated Chicharito reflects amid run of form at Bayer Leverkusen
Another game, another goal. That's been the story of Javier "Chicharito" Hernández's season since completing a reported €12 million transfer to Bayer Leverkusen from Manchester United in August.
Or at least it was until Saturday, when he scored a hat trick, the first of his club career, in a 13-minute span in Leverkusen’s 5-0 demolition of Borussia Mönchengladbach. The day before one of the best games of his career, Hernández spoke to SI.com about his move to the Bundesliga.
“All transitions in life, all changes, are very difficult so for me, it’s been very good,” he said by phone from Germany. “Even though I don’t speak German now, English helped me a lot to communicate to everybody. Ninety percent of the people who work in the stadium and in Cologne, where I live, they speak English.”
That he’s settled in quickly on the field would be a gross understatement for a player who is likely the steal of the summer transfer window. The Mexican international scored in his first start for Leverkusen, in the Champions League against BATE Borisov on Sept. 16, before putting away chances in six straight games in October and November.
A goal for Mexico against the U.S. in the Confederations Cup playoff on Oct. 10 kick-started a supreme run of form that saw him put away nine chances in seven games, including doubles against Viktoria Köln and Roma in the DFB-Pokal and Champions League, respectively. He’s scored seven of Bayer Leverkusen’s last 10 league goals and has an overall strike rate of 17 in 20 matches.
“Every goal that I score here is very important for me, and the most important one is the one that I scored most recently,” said the 27-year-old Hernández. “I’m a guy with a philosophy in the way that he sees life to live in the present. The past helps you to see what you’re doing good, what you’re doing bad, to improve and to learn. The present is the most important thing because the future, you cannot control.”
Hernández came by his footballing abilities genetically, as the son of Javier Hernández Gutiérrez—nicknamed Chícharo, “The Pea,” because of his green eyes, thus his son’s nickname, “The Little Pea”—who played for Tecos, Puebla and Monarcas Morelia in Mexico. Chicharito’s grandfather also played, so the youngest of the three has grown tired of the constant familial comparisons.
“Since I started playing football, they started comparing me and saying who is better, who is worse, if I’ll be able to have a very good career like my granddad or my dad,” Chicharito said. “They were the best motivation and the best help because obviously, my family has been there since I was born. … I have in my house the two best judges, if I can say that.”
Before his hat trick last weekend, Chicharito also scored against the best team he's played against this season, giving Bayer Leverkusen a 1-0 lead over Barcelona in the Champions League. On current form, he hardly looks out of place in a conversation involving the game's other goalscorer, Lionel Messi.
However, a 1-1 draw wasn’t enough to send Leverkusen into the knockout stage of the Champions League. Hernández, who self-identifies as a team player, said he’d happily trade the goals he’s scored recently for his team to be in the round of 16. Instead, Bayer will take on Sporting Clube de Portugal in the Europa League.
“It’s been very good,” he said, “[but] I would definitely change my personal goals to take very good results for the team.”
Manchester United also crashed out of the Champions League after the group stage, and Hernández’s form and his first hat trick since the 2011 CONCACAF Gold Cup only draw further attention to United’s current misfortune. United hasn’t won since a 2-1 victory over Watford on Nov. 21, scoring four goals in five matches.
In the same window, Hernández alone has scored five for his new club.
In preseason, it seemed United might have a place for Chicharito after sending him on loan to Real Madrid last season. However, even after Robin van Persie’s departure, rumors of his departure swirled, including a possible move to Orlando City SC in MLS.
“There were talks and meetings and everything,” Hernández said. “I stayed in United some months because the thoughts were that I would have a lot of opportunities. Then in the last two weeks and in the last week, I think it was the key moment when the truth was that I didn’t have a lot of opportunities. I wanted to go, and the manager let me go, and Leverkusen was there.”
A missed penalty against Club Brugge on Aug. 26, which spawned the long look on the bench between Louis van Gaal and Ryan Giggs, marked his last appearance for the English team. At the same time, Leverkusen sporting director Rudi Völler, deputy Jonas Boldt and manager Roger Schmidt initiated their efforts to land Chicharito.
He has been one of several Mexican players receiving consistent accolades for their solid play in Europe this season, including Porto pair Miguel Layún and Jesús “Tecatito” Corona and PSV’s Hector Moreno and Andrés Guardado.
“I want to appreciate that in the international game, the way they see us [is] that the Mexicans are improving a lot and that we are making good [steps],” Hernández said. “Probably in the future, we can speak now that there are 50 Mexican players playing in the best leagues in the world—and as well, American players. That would be very good for CONCACAF and for that part of the world.”
However, despite his and his countrymen’s successes in the world’s top leagues, Hernández said the rivalry between Mexico and the United States remains close. One or two results the other way, he said, and the current assessment of North America’s landscape could easily be reversed, especially after just the first year of a World Cup cycle.
“I want to be very respectful, and I don’t feel like my country is better than the U.S. or that the U.S. is better than Mexico,” he said. “For example, if the U.S. beat us that game in October, a lot of people would think the U.S. is better than Mexico.”
Hernández said he was struck by the level of support his team received at the Rose Bowl, although stateside ex-pats have always fanatically supported their home country. Based on the pure number of diehard fans nationwide and the crowd in Southern California, it wouldn’t be hard to conclude that El Tri is the most popular national team in the U.S.
“All the people who live in the U.S., for example, who are Mexicans, they support us very well,” he said. “In October, [even though] we were in Los Angeles, in the stadium you could feel that there were more Mexicans than Americans. All those people, I want to say thank you for the support, for my career and for all the Mexicans.”
It’s not hard for fans to support a player currently tearing through one of the best leagues in the world, seemingly threatening to score every time he touches the ball. It’s made more remarkable by the precarious way it started for Hernández, but after the first half of the European season, he has become CONCACAF’s most in-form player.
Not that he’ll ever be ready to make such declarations, as he’s clearly just enjoying his current stability and the reinvigoration it has provided.
“What I love most in my life [is] to be inside the stadium, inside the pitch, to play. If the good things are coming [as a result], it’s part of life and if the bad results or bad things are coming as well, it’s part of life,” Chicharito said. “I just came here very glad and very happy and very motivated to do what I love most, which is play football.”