BELO HORIZONTE, BRAZIL – Mexico’s renaissance under Miguel “Piojo” Herrera has seen them progress into the knockout stages of the World Cup for the sixth tournament in succession.
When the former Atlante, Monterrey and Club América boss took over in October, there was a real threat of El Tri missing their first World Cup since Italia ’90 when they were banned from the qualification process for fielding an over-age player in a preceding youth tournament.
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Herrera was the fourth boss the national team had appointed in the space of just over a month following Chepo de la Torre, caretaker Luís Tena and Victor Vucetich. Vucetich had enjoyed unprecedented success at club level with Los Rayados of Monterrey but lasted just two games with Mexico, another victim of their egregious qualification campaign.
Even King Midas—the nickname bestowed upon Vucetich due to his triumphs at club level—couldn’t get El Tri to click, losing against the World Cup’s surprise package Costa Rica in a crucial qualifying match in San José, consigning Mexico to contest a two-legged playoff to determine World Cup qualification.
With Mexican football in disarray at international level so soon after winning gold at the Olympic Games in London and the CONCACAF Gold Cup (along with the U-17 World Cup in 2011), Piojo’s appointment afforded El Tri the stability required to ensure their primary objective was reached. La Verde qualified for the World Cup in Brazil through the intercontinental playoffs, vanquishing the All Whites of New Zealand by an aggregate score of 9-3. Herrera eschewed Europe-based Mexican internationals in favour of an all-domestic squad, gradually easing those who play their club football outside of the Liga MX back into the side after qualification was assured. Disaster averted, hope renewed.
Herrera and his rejuvenated charges have impressed in the group stage of this summer’s tournament in Brazil, particularly in the match against the hosts in Fortaleza. The out-of-contract goalkeeper Guillermo “Memo” Ochoa produced one of the great goalkeeping performances in World Cup memory against La Canarinha, solidifying their claim for a berth in the round of 16. The victory over Croatia set up a clash against the Oranje of Holland in a mouth-watering clash that sees El Tri head back to the Castelao. Should they progress, it would be the first time Mexico has reached a quarterfinal outside of their home country.
Herrera has become something of a cult hero during the World Cup. His maniacal touchline celebrations have captivated many viewers worldwide, but those who know him from his long career in the Liga MX know it was always the case. After losing two national title finals during his time at the Estadio Tecnológico with Monterrey, he oversaw a most dramatic and unlikely Clausura victory for one of Mexico City’s giants, Club América, against cross-city rivals Cruz Azul last May.
Trailing in the two-legged Clausura final 2-0 on aggregate with a minute of the second match to play, América found the two goals required to force extra time at the Azteca. The second of those came from goalkeeper Moises Muñoz deep into stoppage time, eliciting another trademark Piojo celebration.
This Mexican side, not so long ago disparate, unmotivated and disillusioned, has taken on the characteristics of their coach. They are reborn, motivated and play with a passion and pride. Tactically, not a huge amount has changed from the World Cup in South Africa four years ago—Herrera’s job was to restore cohesion and encourage a harmony amongst the group of players under his care ahead of this tournament.
The dynamic of the squad in recent times has made this an incredibly tough task for Herrera, but one that he has accomplished swiftly. Mexican captain Rafael Márquez—the only man in World Cup history to lead his team at four successive tournaments—spoke of the changes to morale in the press conference before the crucial Croatia match.
“From the beginning of this new era with Miguel Herrera we resolved many important issues”, Márquez said. “With humility, dedication and concentration we can make history.”
With just seven victories in 30 matches against European opposition, Mexico will need the performances of their players to match those we’ve seen from the boss on the touchline. There is a real prospect of making the quarterfinals of the World Cup for the first time outside of Mexico in Brazil, and with Herrera in charge, anything is possible for this Mexican team.
Paul Sarahs is an English-based journalist who is covering the World Cup for Sportsnet in Brazil. Follow Paul on Twitter.