Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Mexico victims of the English malaise

Mexico victims of the English malaise.
Five days after Mexico beat Ghana 2-1 in London, Hugo Sanchez was fired as Mexico's coach. How so? He had only been in charge a year and a half, so what went so badly wrong?

Under his tenure, Mexico lost the Gold Cup final 2-1 to the USA in Chicago, but that should have been no reason for dismissal since the CONCACAF bragging rights definitively crossed the Rio Grande when the States downed El Tri 2-0 back in the 2002 World Cup.

Mexico also thumped Paraguay 6-0 and beat Brazil, yes Brazil, 2-0 in last summer's Copa America in Venezuela, before finishing third overall; another reason not to sack him one would have thought.

Expectations had been raised by the fact Mexico won the U17 World Cup in 2005 and reached the last eight of the U20 World Cup in 2007, and thus the recent failure of the U23s to qualify for the Beijing Olympics was the biggest casus belli for the Federation.

Olympic soccer is roughtly on a par with five-a-side football for most European nations, but apparently not so in Mexico, where the national team coach, in this case Sanchez, is also tasked with coaching the team to go to the Olympics.

“We want leaders; we cannot accept another failure, another Olympic failure,” said Justino Compeán, the Mexican federation president. “If that was difficult, could you imagine if Mexico didn't make it to South Africa?”

Sanchez was perceived as arrogant and too much his own man, which got him on the wrong side of the big clubs, whose directors, each with one vote, ultimately blew the whistle on his tenure.

He was dismissed 16-1, his only supporter being his old team, Pumas. But don't we want coaches to be Brian Cloughs and not Graham Taylors?

That Premier League clubs could decide the England manager is a horrifying idea, but that it is they way they do it in Mexico.

Criticisms of Sanchez's rigid playing style are easier to entertain. Mexico were playing with some flair under previous coach Ricardo La Volpe but seemed to stutter into stifling 4-4-2 inflexibility under Sanchez.

Even in the flattering 2-1 win over Ghana, it was clear the full backs were not overlapping and that the static central midfield was inferior to that of the free-running Africans.

But I still think the sacking was premature. A year and a half is not that long for any coach, especially one who sees his players so rarely, and while the Olympic team fell short, is that really that important?

Mexico were always going to qualify for the 2010 World Cup, given that CONCACAF is the beneficiary of FIFA's largesse with three and a half places in the finals. And when it comes to the finals, Mexico reached the 1986 quarter finals (in Mexico), but otherwise have never advanced beyond the second round.

Therein perhaps lies the key to Sanchez' sacking. A large and Latin football-mad nation naturally has some arrogance welled up as a result. That it has never achieved anything of note on the world stage is a source of constant frustration, so the fans look to the Olympics for some succour.

Appointing its soccer icon as national team coach was always a dream waiting to be actualised, but like so many other countries and clubs have found out, the best players rarely make good coaches.

Sanchez obviously made enough enemies amongst the league clubs to be voted out of office so comprehensively, but his record was not that bad.

He walks away at least $8 million richer, but Sanchez' firing over a failed Olympic qualification (as if that really mattered) only masks the perennial failure of what should be one of the major football nations to take its place at the high table of world soccer.

Mexico have perhaps unrealistic expectations of one man to cure their ills, but rather like another great underachiever, England, they are also guilty of using him as a scapegoat so they won't have to look themselves in the mirror.

Rather than analysing what Sanchez did wrong, the Mexicans should be wondering what is it about their domestic football culture that has kept their national team so mediocre for so long.

(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile

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