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Viva El Piojo: How the fiery Herrera has revived once-rudderless Mexico

Mexico manager Miguel Herrera has led a revival for El Tri after a horrid World Cup qualifying run. Photo:

Mexico manager Miguel Herrera has led a revival for El Tri after a horrid World Cup qualifying run.

Mexico’s national soccer team trains in a modern facility in a neighborhood where the vast sprawl of Mexico City begins to fade southward into the mountains of the state of Morelos. The setting is almost idyllic: golf carts, low-slung country-club architecture, wide soccer fields landscaped into the hills. Were it not for the hovering smog and the bare cinder-block apartments rising behind high fences, you could mistake this for Tucson.

Miguel Herrera eases up to the complex’s gate in a black coupe with a 10‑cylinder engine. He’s sporting aviator shades and a tan blazer, and he smiles at the guards, who, like everyone else in Mexico, call him El Piojo. The Louse. He is famous for talking, for screaming, for fighting and, lately, for winning. When he was hired to coach the national team last October, the 45‑year‑old Herrera was fresh off a Liga MX title with Club América -- the Yankees of Mexico -- and in the midst of another run to the finals.

Mexico has for decades dominated other North American soccer sides, including, until roughly the turn of the 21st century, its archrival, the United States. El Tri (the team is nicknamed after the country’s tricolored flag) has five more World Cup appearances than any other CONCACAF nation and has been the most successful in World Cup play, advancing through the group stage now in each of the past six tournaments. 

The country has an obsessive soccer culture. El Tri’s home games are played in the massive Estadio Azteca, 7,400 feet above sea level in Mexico City. One moment 100,000 fans are screaming obscenities at the opposing goaltender. The next, the ball deposited in the net behind him, they are belting out the unofficial national anthem, “Cielito Lindo”: Ay ay ay ay, canta y no llores (sing and don’t cry).

For decades the question was not whether Mexico could maintain its death grip on CONCACAF but whether it could take the next step and become a world soccer power on the level of Brazil, Italy or Germany. Fans were anxious for El Tri to rise above its perceived mediocrity. Advancing to the round of 16 in the World Cup was no longer enough. The quarterfinal -- the elusive quinto partido, or fifth game -- loomed. And that leap has seemed possible, even probable. Mexico won the U-17 World Cup in 2011 and a gold medal at the London Olympics in ’12.  Then came ’13 and a series of epic failures that would lead Miguel Herrera to the gate of the training center on a sunny Wednesday morning.

Nobody is sure exactly why it happened, but Mexico stopped playing. Relative mediocrity gave way to the real thing. In the final stage of qualifying for Brazil 2014, under coach José Manuel de la Torre, the team forgot how to score. First there were three 0–0 draws at home; then, for only the second time in history, Mexico dropped a qualifier at Azteca, falling 2–1 to Honduras last September. Récord, a national sports newspaper, called the loss “the blackest night of qualifying, the most mediocre in history.”

Pessimism about El Tri is nothing new in Mexico. Neither is hyperbole. But suddenly both were justified. On the field Mexico looked even worse than its results indicated. It looked impotent.

The loss to Honduras was the last straw for De la Torre. Luis Fernando Tena, who had guided Mexico at the London Games, was named interim coach. He lasted one match, an uninspired 2–0 away loss to the U.S. With only two qualifying games left and Brazil in doubt, the national federation brought in Monterrey manager Víctor Manuel Vucetich, called King Midas for his tactical brilliance.

Vucetich survived his first match, nipping Panama 2–1 on a spectacular 85th‑minute bicycle kick by Raúl Jiménez. The team entered its final qualifier needing only a draw against Costa Rica, or a loss or tie by Panama against the U.S., to advance to a play-in game against New Zealand. The final CONCACAF qualifiers were played simultaneously: one in Costa Rica’s capital, the other in Panama’s.

After 90 minutes Mexico trailed Costa Rica 2–1 and showed no sign of another miracle. El Tri was done. Panama, meanwhile, led the U.S. 2–1. Then, in the 92nd minute in Panama City, Graham Zusi of the U.S. headed in a cross to even the score. Aron Jóhannsson added a winning goal for the U.S. one minute later. Mexico was saved.

The irony-laden moment -- the U.S. had saved Mexico -- inspired an eruption from TV Azteca announcer Christian Martinoli, who screamed in English over a split-screen broadcast, “Goooaaal de Estados Unidos! We love you! We love you forever and ever! God bless America!” Then, in Spanish, Martinoli ranted at El Tri, “You do nothing for the jersey! You don’t make the effort for the team, you didn’t put us in the World Cup, you didn’t keep us alive! It was the United States, not you, with your arrogance; not you, with your infamy.” The night air in Mexico City was filled with car horns and half-serious chants of U-S-A! U-S-A! To be rescued by their enemy was embarrassing to Mexicans -- but much less embarrassing than failing to qualify for the World Cup. 

Still, this was no step forward. Novelist Juan Villoro wrote in the newspaper Reforma: “In Dead Souls, [Nikolai] Gogol says that criminal acts can be redeemed but that nothing can save us from mediocrity. This is the case with the national team, which is on its way to the low level of hell that is the play-in [game].”

Vucetich, who had been placed in an impossible situation -- two games and practically no practice, with a spiraling team -- was promptly fired. “I’m King Midas,” he told the press, “not God.” 

The next day Herrera became Mexico’s fourth manager in six weeks and sixth in four years. He is not God, either. But he was exactly what Mexico needed.

Herrera, at least, already was sure of that. El Piojo is aggressive and forever optimistic. He espouses the soccer style his players have been craving: He loves to score goals. Lots of them. In a country where fatalism is an art form and reaching the quarterfinals would be considered a great success, Herrera talks about winning the World Cup. The training-ground gate opens, and Herrera rolls into the facility with the ease of a man pulling into his own driveway.​

So far he’s proven a winner. With a lineup consisting mainly of Herrera’s own Club América players and no players from European leagues, Mexico cruised through its home-and-away playoff with New Zealand 9–3 on aggregate. But that could have easily been a meaningless drubbing -- New Zealand is not of the same caliber as Mexico's CONCACAF qualifying and eventual World Cup opponents. In the lead-up to the tournament, fans and commentators speculated about whether Herrera would continue to rely heavily on talent from the Liga MX, and regardless of who played, whether an energized version of El Tri would take the field in Brazil. 

Herrera answered the first question by selecting Guillermo Ochoa of Ajaccio in France as his starting goalkeeper over Cruz Azul's Jesus Corona. The team answered the second by storming through its group, beating Cameroon 1-0, holding Brazil to a 0-0 draw on home soil, then blitzing Croatia 3-1 to secure a fifth successive trip to the round of 16. After the Brazil match, Ochoa was already being viewed as a saint and savior by Mexican fans. Now the elusive quarterfinals lie on the horizon.

World Cup Round of 16 Preview: Mexico vs. Netherlands

Does Mexico have what it takes to keep its World Cup run going? SI's Grant Wahl previews El Tri's round of 16 match against the Netherlands

Miguel Herrera was raised in Mexico City, the third of six siblings. He studied for a year in college to be a dental technician but left to play soccer, and since then the game has been his only job.

As a player Herrera was even harder to miss than he’s been as a manager. He was short, no‑necked and barrel-chested, with thick legs and arms, and he favored long, feathered mullets. He is heavier now, but his face is still so expressive that it borders on self-parody. You know what El Piojo is feeling. If for some reason you aren’t looking at him, he’ll gladly tell you. And if you aren’t listening, he’ll show you. 

The showing part is what got him into trouble. In 1993, Herrera was a 25-year-old national-team defender who lacked size, speed and technical skill but who overcame those deficiencies with energy and intelligence. Then, while chasing down a loose ball in a World Cup qualifier at Azteca, he got into a scuffle with Honduran striker Dolmo Flores. Herrera gave Flores a playful head butt. Flores came back with a soft right hook, and after a beat Herrera grabbed his own face in faux agony, falling to the grass with the dramatic flair of a lucha libre wrestler. Flores earned a yellow card; Herrera got off free. But later in the game Herrera took out his rival with a vicious two-footed tackle for which he was shown red.

So ended Herrera’s career with the national team. Mexico manager Miguel Mejía Barón left Herrera off the 1994 World Cup roster; he said Herrera was too short-fused, too great a risk. Seven years later Herrera, just 32 years old, retired to become a coach. He got his first managerial job in 2002, with Atlante, his club of 11 years, and began a long march to the World Cup.

“When you start off as a coach, the thought enters your head: The top of being a coach is to lead your country in a World Cup -- and fortunately now the job falls to me,” says Herrera. “We’re going with the idea of not just competing but of surprising people, reaching the final and winning it. If you don’t think like that, you hardly have the ambition to be a winner.”

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It is widely accepted that the Mexican Football Federation, and by extension the national team, is run by Televisa, the country’s largest broadcasting network. “They are the ones who name the federation’s [executives],” explains Daniel Blumrosen, a journalist who has covered El Tri for more than a decade. The federation’s current president, for instance, is a former longtime Televisa exec, and the company has broadcast -national-team games for decades, building its brand around them. Televisa even owns Estadio Azteca.

This has not always pleased supporters of Mexican soccer. For decades fans and analysts have accused Televisa of influencing roster selection and strategy, of placing business before victories. It certainly did not hurt El Piojo’s chances of becoming national manager that his club, América, is owned by Televisa and plays in Azteca. Even if Televisa is not ordering substitutions in the name of better ratings, it’s fair to say that it treats El Tri as a Televisa product, another TV show in a country dominated by TV screens.

Perhaps that’s the best way to understand the place of the national team in Mexican society: It’s a wildly popular show with characters and subplots that have developed over decades. Think of Herrera’s blowing his shot at the 1994 World Cup, then getting called in to be the savior 20 years later. The whole country talks about the team, lives by it, overreacts to it.

“Soccer in Mexico is a special phenomenon -- above all the national team,” explains Raúl Orvañanos, a former Liga MX goalie turned commentator. “For the Mexican people, when the national team plays badly, they’re not just bad, they’re terrible. But when they play well, they’re not just good, they are great.”

Photo:

Miguel Herrera, right, jokes with Mexican defender Paul Aguilar during training ahead of Sunday's round of 16 match vs. the Netherlands

"We have a saying that there are two untouchable icons for the Mexican people,” says Blumrosen. “The Virgin of Guadalupe. And the national team.” The team as a whole might be untouchable in this drama, but individual players and coaches are extremely disposable. They are television characters meant to rise and fall -- and sometimes rise again.

Take Carlos Vela. Arguably the best Mexican player of all -- he scored 29 goals over the past two seasons for Real Sociedad in Spain -- Vela refused to join his national team during this World Cup cycle for reasons that are not completely clear. The abiding theory: Vela is still displeased with the Mexican federation over a six‑month suspension he received in 2010. Thirteen players had been caught violating team rules, reportedly throwing a postgame party at which prostitutes were present, but only Vela and one other teammate received such harsh punishment. Vela (who declined to speak to SI for this story) has turned down every opportunity to suit up for his country since skipping the Gold Cup in ’11. After a recent meeting with Herrera he stated vaguely that he was “not 100 percent mentally and emotionally ready to represent” his nation. When Herrera announced his 23‑man World Cup roster on May 9, Vela was not on it.

Meanwhile, during Mexico’s bumbling qualification, El Tri’s core of European-based players came to be seen as villains by the public, reviled as arrogant and scapegoated for the team’s uninspired play. The media, sensationally and oddly, refer to these players as “Europeans.” But Marion Reimers, a sports anchor for Fox Deportes, loathes the term. “We talk about them like they are from another planet, outsiders,” she says. “All they want is to represent their team. There’s a reason they [play abroad].”

That reason is talent. But whereas once the explosion of Mexican players in Europe was seen as a sign of the country’s growth, now exports such as Manchester United forward Javier (Chicharito) Hernández, who was among Mexico’s most beloved and marketable athletes two years ago, are looked upon as traitors. He doesn’t even play with United, the typical complaint goes -- as if coming off the bench for United is the same as not starting for Cruz Azul.

When things go badly on this TV show, blame must be assigned, and there was plenty to go around during qualification. De la Torre, the man who could not extract impassioned soccer from his players (Europe-based or otherwise), received the brunt of it, and his collapse coincided with Herrera’s ascent. Their stylistic differences were highlighted by Herrera’s handling of the “European” issue: After the New Zealand playoff the new manager decreed that the players who were at their best -- and fit best in his system -- would go to Brazil, regardless of the continent they played on. In the end Herrera chose seven European-based players, one more than from Club América.

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The hiring of Miguel Herrera made perfect sense for the federation. He had recently won his first title as a manager after a decade spent shedding the image of a hothead. At América he not only won but also won with style. His clubs dominated possession and played aggressively -- the opposite of Mexico’s lethargic performances in qualification.

“I’ve been a manager since 2002,” Herrera says. “I’ve won a championship. I had a fall with Veracruz [which was relegated under Herrera in ’08] that helped me learn. When I started, it was all attack, attack, attack. I forgot that defense also wins games.”

Herrera has brought that more well-rounded approach to the national team. He instituted a 5-3-2 formation in which the wingbacks are free to wander up the sidelines, attacking as much as they defend. And he stated upon his arrival that 35-year-old Rafa Márquez would be his captain and center back, a move that created instant stability and a foundation on which Herrera could build. It was Marquez's 72nd-minute goal in the Group A finale against Croatia that all but clinched Mexico's passage to the knockout round.

“Miguel is an offensive manager, an optimistic manager, a manager who wants to win even when he’s just playing marbles,” says Orvañanos. Herrera is also media savvy, bringing a camera-friendly charisma to the national team. This coach genuinely seems excited to be in this position, despite the massive disadvantage of his having started with so little time before the World Cup. He arrived feeling certain that Mexico is and will continue to be a great soccer nation.

But does that mean he can lead El Tri to unprecedented heights?

Photo:

Miguel Herrera, second left, hoists goalkeeper Guillermo Ochoa in celebrating Mexico's 3-1 win over Croatia to seal El Tri's place in the round of 16.

El Tri’s training grounds are mostly quiet. The U-19 squad runs drills on one field, and a group of teenagers works out in a sandpit. Players from Jaguares de Chiapas, another club that uses the facility, wander among the buildings.

Herrera parks his car and chats on his cellphone, appearing smaller and more delicate than he does on TV. His hair is perfectly in place. Later, in the plainly decorated lobby of an office building overlooking the fields, he leans forward on a couch. “In the end we’re in the World Cup, which is the most important thing because for Mexico, [soccer] is part of life—part of the social, cultural and political spheres,” he says. “So we’re solid. I think we have a good team.”

Confidence, even in the face of yet another huge round-of-16 obstacle -- 2010 World Cup finalist, the Netherlands -- remains the only option. 

In the weeks leading up to the World Cup, Herrera was barely sleeping. He did not have time to go to the movies with the younger of his two daughters. Instead he watched game footage. He massaged the media. He filmed commercials. El Piojo, the excitable caricature, is nowhere to be seen.

But he lurks. A year ago Herrera childishly attacked Mejía Barón, the coach who left him off the 1994 Cup squad, questioning his “sexual predilection.” In his final game as Club América’s manager, having already been awarded the national-team post, Herrera was ejected for screaming at officials. His team lost the Liga MX final to León.

There is still a distinct possibility that Herrera will lose his cool in Brazil. His colorful, emotional touchline theatrics in the victory against Croatia instantly became an internet sensation. As the Dutch loom, any fan can run down a thousand ways things still could go wrong.

But the TV show must go on. Whether they're successful or mediocre, El Tri is the vehicle for hundreds of millions of dollars in advertising, in merchandising, in concessions. Everything is sponsored, even the team’s official song, “Voy a ganar” (I’m Going to Win), a falsetto ballad by a band called Moderatto that falls somewhere between KISS and Spınal Tap on the musical and stylistic spectrums. There’s a video, and somewhere in the middle of it, among the fireworks and the marching band, the music stops and the camera cuts to Herrera, sitting in an old Mustang with Moderatto’s lead singer. Herrera offers some advice on how to make the song more epic, more inspirational. “It’s missing a little bit of fall and a little bit of rise,” he says.

He sits in the passenger seat the way he sits in the driver’s seat of his own sports car, the way he sits on the couch at the training center: walled off from the chaos of the city around him, fully inhabiting his place in the drama of the team, of the country itself. Playing his role.

Eric Nusbaum is an L.A.-based SI contributor and editor of The Classical, who spent time with the Mexican national team in Mexico City between February and April for this story. He can be followed on Twitter @ericnus.

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