As the World Cup starts, there's a short list of favorites to win — Spain, Aregentina, Germany and host-country Brazil. No one seems to put Mexico on the list.
Yet the country has won the World Cup twice in recent years, the Under-17 World Cup that is, in 2005 and 2011. So if the youth dominate globally, what happens when they grow up?
I went to Mexico City to explore the question of why the Mexicans always falter on the world's largest stage as their young stars become men?
My first stop was the prestigious Cruz Azul Academy in Mexico City, a place where some of Mexico’s top young players hone their soccer skills. Jesús Ramirez, the director of Cruz Azul, said the boys' international triumphs were a big deal in Mexico.
“In Mexico, the passion for soccer is widespread. Men, women, children, they all follow soccer,” he said.
The Mexicans also beat Brazil to win the gold at the 2012 Olympics in London. That was a big deal, too. Still, many soccer aficionados dismissed Mexico’s victory with this excuse — Olympic teams are made up mostly of younger players in their teens and early 20s.
So while the boys, and young men, have brought great pride to Mexico, the "real" men of Mexican soccer have brought untold suffering — they haven’t made it past the second round of the World Cup in five straight tries. And they almost didn’t qualify for this year’s tournament.
One of the boys at Cruz Azul, 12-year-old Rodrigo Andre, offered his theory on why the Mexican boys succeed while the men falter. He said, “It’s because Mexican men are skinnier and the other players, from Europe and Africa, are usually better built. When the players clash, they send us [Mexicans] flying.”
Coach Ramirez thought the problem was less physical.
“I think our mentality is what’s holding us back,” he said. “[Mexican men] are not warriors enough, not disciplined enough, not humble enough. I think that in Mexico the player earns well, has a new car, a good life … he’s not interested in fighting anymore.”
That seemed to be the most popular theory among most Mexicans: Too much money makes the professionals soft. But top soccer stars from every nation are generously paid. So why are the Dutch, Brazilian, or Spanish players still hungry to win the World Cup?
Nabani Vera Tenorio, who is making a documentary about soccer and what it means to Mexican society, said there’s more to the national team’s failures than just money.
“Football across the world is a business. It’s the same in Mexico. The problem here is it’s a business that’s not good," he said. "They’re looking for results immediately."
“If you don’t deliver results, they cut the coach,” Vera said, snapping his fingers.
The Mexican national team recently went through three coaches in a matter of weeks. And when the Mexican team loses, the players can also get benched. Add it all up, Vera said, and the Mexicans never gel as a unit.
“Mexicans haven’t found their style yet. The Germans are very precise. Argentines are strong. Brazilians are smooth. Mexicans, we don’t have a style.”
I asked the boys there why the Mexican men can’t win. Most, like 14-year-old Luis Abram, called the players lazy.
“When they’re boys, they have the hunger to win. But when they are bigger, I think, well, I don’t know,” he said shrugging his shoulders.
To him, not giving it your all seems unimaginable.
Still, hope springs eternal in Mexico. Carlos Camacho Gomez was coaching the boys at the field. He thought Mexico would go on a deep run at the World Cup. His reasoning? The tournament is being held in Latin America, and Mexico will have the second most fans after Brazil. He said Mexicans will fill those stadiums and spur the team to glory.
That hopeful outlook was in the minority, though. When I asked 12-year-old Facundo Patron if Mexico could do well, he gave a curt response. “No. That’s the truth,” he said.
Filmmaker Nabani Vera also isn’t falling for the same hope, again. “If I have confidence, that’s the problem. Every time I have confidence, nothing happens.”
So, for now, more international youth victories may be as good as it gets for Mexico. Unless, of course, the men can quickly remember how they used to play back when they were boys.