In anticipation of Copa America Centenario and Euro 2016, and in homage to George Will’s 1990 book Men at Work, which examined baseball through a pitcher, batter, fielder and manager, SI will spend the summer exploring modern soccer through four world-class craftsmen. These men have been chosen not just for their skill but also for their ability to explain their jobs. In the coming weeks SI will talk soccer and watch video with goalkeeper Manuel Neuer, of Germany and Bayern Munich; defender Vincent Kompany, of Belgium and Manchester City; and midfielder Xabi Alonso, of Spain and Bayern Munich. To kick things off: Mexican forward Javier "Chicharito" Hernández, of Bayer Leverkusen. This story first appeared in the May 30, 2016 issue of Sports Illustrated. Subscribe to the magazine here.
English is not the first language of Javier Hernández, the golden boy of Mexican soccer, and yet his command of it—largely from his four years at Manchester United—is such that he enjoys transporting evocative expressions from Spanish into his newer tongue. Flashing a language maven’s smile that brightens a rainy day in the German Rhineland, North America’s greatest modern striker explains his knack for being in the right place at the right time in the penalty box.
“If you’re inside the box and a cross is coming,” he says, his hair freshly gelled after training at BayArena, “sometimes you need, as we say in Spanish, to smell the intuition, to smell where the cross is going.”
Chicharito ("little pea" in Spanish) is 28. He grew up absorbing the culture of the game from his father, Javier, and grandfather, Tomás Balcázar, both of whom also represented Mexico in a World Cup. He has played in the Champions League for Man United, Real Madrid and, this past winter, Leverkusen. He is constantly tinkering on the practice field, constantly studying his opponents, his teammates, himself. Like a master sommelier drawing on years of learning to sniff a glass of wine and identify it—South Australia, Clare Valley, 2009 Riesling—the 5' 8", 156-pound Chicharito uses the sum of his experiences to smell an impending cross and decide in an instant which run to make.
What does intuition smell like?
“Press play,” he says.
On the video screen in front of him, he’s running down the left side of a four-on-four break, left to right, against archrival Cologne. Leverkusen midfielder Kevin Kampl is advancing with the ball down the right channel and passes it even wider right toward an onrushing Admir Mehmedi. Entering the box at speed in the left channel, Hernández looks to his right, sees all seven players involved—three of his own, four of Cologne’s—and processes what he likes to call “the panoramic.” Teammate Karim Bellarabi makes a near post run, pulling center back Dominic Maroh with him and opening space in front of the goal. Chicharito knows a cross is coming—there’s no pressure on Mehmedi out wide—and now he has to decide: Should I continue my run to the far post? Or turn and cut hard to the open space in the middle?
Either way he will have to beat his marker, right back Marcel Risse.
“You play this sport in the mind, not only on the field,” Chicharito says. “If [your opponent] is more clever than you, you can be faster and stronger, but probably you are not going to beat him. He’s one step in front of you in the mind. On crosses, sometimes I make my move one or two seconds before the ball is coming because I’m trying to guess that the ball is coming there. It’s intuition. So I run. Sometimes the ball comes . . . sometimes not. But that intuition is working.”
Chicharito cuts hard to his right in the box—into the open space in front of the goal—even before Mehmedi hits a cross first-time toward that expanse. Here, Risse proves an easy mark, ball-watching. In fact, you half-expect Chicharito to reach around and tap Risse’s far shoulder as he flies behind the defender’s back, like a schoolboy pulling off a classroom prank. That split-second jump gives Hernández the advantage he needs, and the rest is execution: His snap-down header bounces off the turf and past goalkeeper Timo Horn, into the net.
Intuition. Anticipation. The scent of a goal scorer. Everything about Chicharito’s craftsmanship is cool, save for perhaps the mariachi music that blares on the P.A. after each one of his strikes.
All four Leverkusen players involved in the break contributed, notes Chicharito, whose 26 total club goals this past season all have a story in the details. On this one his early recognition and decisive change of direction doomed Risse, who committed the cardinal sin of what Hernández calls “standing up”—losing focus, remaining flat-footed.
“Do you see how I run?” Chicharito asks, rewinding and watching the play in slow motion. “Just two or three steps, and then I beat him because he is standing up. He has no idea. Too late.”
Some people in this world—many of them elite athletes—are possessed of a laser focus, a preternatural ability to remain calm under any circumstance. Chicharito, by his own admission, is not one of them. When the topic is soccer, he’s as animated as a Pixar film. Out of his seat, crouched low and looking you straight in the eyes, both hands waving, he jump-cuts from thought to thought as it enters and leaves his racing mind. Ask him to explain his idea of a modern forward, and his response takes nearly eight minutes.
“I like to breathe, eat and talk about football,” he says. Completing a 40-minute interview without him leaping atop his seat, like Tom Cruise on Oprah, feels like a minor victory.
This nonstop movement is precisely what serves Hernández best on the field. “I’m a person who cannot be doing nothing,” he says. “I have a deficit. In Mexico we say hiperactivo—hyperactive. I am hyperactive! I cannot be standing here like this in my life. I need to keep walking with my phone, speaking. I can’t be calm. On the pitch you can probably see that. I’m always moving-moving-moving. And I’m a cheeky player. I try to be there and there and there. And if you’re standing up, I’ll make it look like I’m moving this way—and then I move that way.”
Yet there are times when Chicharito is in razor-sharp form, his mobility creating chance after chance, and the goals just don’t come. On other occasions, even the chances run dry. Scoring, after all, remains the hardest thing to do in soccer. Why? For starters, the sport is more defensive-minded than it used to be, the result of a centurylong evolution in tactics. If you watch a match from any World Cup in the 1970s or ’80s, for example, it’s like viewing a different game. There are more attacking players on the field; the play is more open, with fewer crunching tackles. These days defenders are deployed in greater numbers, but they’re also more physically robust, often ruthless, using extralegal means to short-circuit a dangerous forward.
“Defenders kick you without the ball,” Hernández says. “They try to get you out of your focus and concentration, either physically or with verbal stuff.”
The tangible barriers to goal scoring are severe enough, but they’re compounded by the whims of the soccer gods.
“You have periods when, even if you close your eyes, you can score a goal,” he says. “And then other periods when, even if the goal is open, you put the ball off the crossbar. Why? I don’t know. It’s a mystery.”
The key when he misses a scoring chance, he says, is to follow the lead of former Mexico and U.S. coach Bora Milutinovic, who always quizzed his players: What’s the most important play? The next one.
“We are human beings,” says Hernández. “When you miss a clear chance, obviously that hits you. What I want is to get focused on the next one. The one that I missed, I cannot do anything [about that]. The next one is the one I can change.”
What’s the most frustrating thing about Chicharito’s job? Failing to convert chances is tough, he argues, but even worse is not having any scoring opportunities at all.
“If I have six chances and I miss [all] six, of course I’m not going to be happy—but I’m calm because I had the chances,” he says. “When you don’t even have chances, that’s the difficult thing.”
Given his hyperactivity, this is a rare occurrence for Chicharito, who takes over the laptop and cues up another scene. The opponent, Hannover, from earlier this past season, is playing a high back line (its deepest defenders closer to midfield), a staple of the modern game for teams that want to keep possession in the attacking end of the field. But soccer is a game of space. If the field is a king-sized bed, a team can only be a queen-sized blanket. Move the blanket up, and it creates a void in the back. Hernández can exploit those high lines with his movement, especially during the early unbalanced moments of a counterattack.
“That’s what I love most: to run into the channel [the space between an opposing fullback and his closest center back] and get coordinated with my teammates,” he says. “Some forwards are tall and big; we say those are more objective players”—target forwards—“because you can play long balls to them and they can hold the ball [while others catch up and join the attack]. I am not the tallest, not the strongest, not the quickest. But I am quick enough. I am strong enough. And I prefer to move more than be static. I prefer to run into space and receive balls at my feet.”
On the screen Kampl is advancing the ball, right to left, just past midfield in the first stages of a counter. Hannover’s high back line has 40 yards of open space behind it, and Chicharito is walking a tightrope: He starts his run into the left channel, making eye contact with Kampl and trusting that his teammate will release a pass while Hernández is still just onside with the line of two retreating center backs.
Kampl nails the timing, rifling a diagonal pass that Chicharito meets 25 yards from the goal. Now the striker is one-on-one with the center back Marcelo.
If Hernández had a dominant foot, Marcelo could cheat toward one direction in marking him. But Hernández is equally dangerous with either one—another hallmark of the modern forward—and so he dips into his bag of tricks. To many people, a “bicycle” in soccer is a dramatic overhead scissor kick. But Spanish speakers call that move a chilena, and Chicharito has a different one that he calls “the bicycle.” At speed, he steps over the ball with his right foot and slows down just barely, causing Marcelo to lean to his left for a split second. Then Chicharito explodes to his left, blowing past the hapless defender.
“Now I’m looking at the ball,” Hernández says, “but I can see in the panoramic that the keeper is coming.” Here the forward is raising the wine glass to his nose once again. If the goalkeeper, Ron-Robert Zieler, stays on his line, Chicharito will take a hard shot. But Zieler is advancing, trying to cut down the angle. Chicharito knows the keeper has to guess one way, so he jabs a perfectly placed left-footed dagger—it’s more like a pass than a shot—to the keeper’s left and into the far right corner of the net.
In a sport where goals are as precious as pearls, the ensuing sensations can verge on the metaphysical.
“When you see the ball going into the net”—he snaps his fingers—“I don’t think of anything at first,” says Hernández, who has scored a combined 130 goals for club and country. “Then I celebrate and say thank you to God, and I dedicate my goals. But when the ball goes into the net, sometimes I don’t remember that. You cannot explain exactly those moments. You need to live them.”
What is a modern forward? For Chicharito, the best ones have to be complete players on and off the field.
“I prefer to have a little of everything,” he says. “I can move with the ball and without it. I can jump. I can protect the ball. I can finish with my left and with my right. I can cross a ball. I can give an assist to another player. I can defend. And there are always things I want to improve. In the best leagues in the world you play three or four tournaments per year. So training, recovery, staying healthy—that’s even more important now. Europe isn’t like Mexico or MLS. Here, you don’t stop.”
Over the years people have called Hernández a goal poacher, a tag that suggests he’s lacking in skill. But they couldn’t be more wrong. Being in the right place at the right time nearly all the time to score goals is most definitely a talent. What’s more, the poacher label ignores his ability to create space for himself in the box. Like a dominant post player in basketball, Chicharito has developed countermoves that apply his skill with both feet. And these days he’s perfecting another wrinkle.
“I’m trying to improve on scoring goals from outside the box,” he says. “If they try to stop me [in the box], I need a Plan B.”
This time the foe is Borussia Mönchengladbach, earlier this past season. Attacking right to left on the screen, teammate Stefan Kiessling is being defended closely on the ball at the top-left corner of the penalty box. Kiessling sees Chicharito facing him, unmarked, eight yards away, just outside the top of the box, and lays off a short pass. Even before Hernández spins to his left, he has processed the scene. (“Panoramic!” he says with a smile.)
He has options: 1) pass the ball into the box; 2) dribble there himself and take on defenders; or 3) shoot from distance. On-screen, Chicharito’s back is to the goal; off-screen, he’s like Bill Bradley describing what it’s like to have “a sense of where you are” in John McPhee’s book of that name.
“I don’t see the goal, but I sense it. I know the goal is there,” he says. “When I was a kid, they taught me: You don’t need to look at the goal sometimes; the goal is not going to move. But you are going to move, so you need to read where you are.”
With the same decisiveness that he used to score with his left foot against Hannover, Chicharito now completes a spin move and powers a right-footed blast from outside the box. His defender, Havard Nordtveit, is a split-second late in jumping out at him—and even that action helps Hernández.
“He blocked the vision of the keeper,” he notes, watching as the shot sails past Yann Sommer, into the right side of the net, one of three Chicharito strikes in a 5–0 victory.
There may be mysteries when it comes to scoring goals, but improving as a player? That’s more clear-cut. It’s why Chicharito watches so much video (scouting clips, live games from Germany, England, Mexico . . .)—“not just watching the ball, and not just watching to enjoy the game,” as he puts it. It’s why he spends so many hours on the practice field, alone and with his team.
“You need to kick 300 balls [a day] to perfect something,” he says. “It’s an education every day. You can always learn something new from football. If a player starts thinking they don’t need to learn? They are dead.”