Identity crises

Sven is quietly settling in as Mexico manager while his lookalike makes the headlines, says Martin del Palacio Langer

Mexico has always had stormy relations with its national-team coaches. The process is generally the same. They arrive amid great expectation and, after a few poor results, end up arguing with the press and being hated by the fans. Although the national team got through the group stage of the past four World Cup finals, no coach has lasted more than four years since Ignacio Trelles, who was in charge between 1958 and 1968.

Sven-Göran Eriksson was far from being a unanimous choice as the new técnico. Some pundits felt his vast experience in Europe could help the younger players and that his diffident manner would be a relief after the tumult surrounding his predecessor, Hugo Sánchez, who loved to be in the limelight and left office with his popularity on the floor.

Others, however, argued that ­Eriksson’s lack of knowledge of Mexican football would be an insurmountable handicap, just two months away from the start of World Cup qualifiers. In addition, they criticised his defensive outlook and the perceived lack of mental toughness that England players showed at key moments under Eriksson.

Among the group that opposed his arrival were key players such as Carlos Sal­cido and Jared Borgetti, and Manuel Lapuente who coached what is seen as the best Mexico side of recent times, at France 98. “For me, his appointment is not the right decision,” Lapuente said. “He doesn’t know the players and needs time to adapt. If he arrives, I’ll support him, but I would prefer another manager.”

These are significant times in Mexican football. Never before have so many players been exported to Europe: 15 will start 2008-09 with teams in Spain, England, Germany, the Netherlands and Turkey. Most of the emigrants are very young and part of a group that is considered to be best the country has produced – Sánchez was duly sacked when he failed to get the Under-23s to the Olympics.

The cabal of club owners who control Mexican football gave themselves the task of finding a “world-class manager”. After being rejected by José Mourinho, Luiz Felipe Scolari and Javier Aguirre, the FA officials insisted that Eriksson met all the requirements for the post. His main supporter has been the influential Jorge Vergara, owner of Chivas of Guadalajara, the country’s most popular team. “The criticisms are ridiculous,” he said on the day of Eriksson’s appointment. “Hugo Sánchez knew the Mexican players and he failed.”

Two months into the job, Eriksson has taken care to placate his critics. He has watched more than 30 matches involving Mexican clubs and the national team, who have played four times under an interim coach. He appointed two locals to his coaching staff and has held meetings with most club coaches in the country. His workmanlike attitude has gone down very well in a country where the general view of foreign players and coaches is they are lured by big wages, do the bare minimum, then leave at the first opportunity.

Eriksson’s image is now so good that the newspaper Record recruited an English lookalike, Derek Williams. In his Sven disguise and accompanied by two female companions, he made a surprise visit to the training camp of Pumas, one of the capital’s top clubs, whose players and staff were entirely taken in.

But Eriksson has not had charge for a match yet and his debut could hardly be more difficult. El Tricolor will face one of their most bitter rivals, Honduras, who are also regarded as having the best team in their history. Any result other than a home win will trigger a wave of media criticism.

For now, the honeymoon continues. Even the most staunch critics have been won over. After a conversation with the Swede a few weeks ago, Lapuente said: “He has a lot of confidence in what he’s doing, he knows the players, those in Europe and the ones I told him about, and has seen them in person or in videos. He’s really professional.”

From WSC 259 September 2008