When US border police found over half a million dollars’ worth of methamphetamine stashed inside Daniel Gómez’s car at 6am on 5 April 2017, the Tijuana reserve defender’s career came crashing down.
The 18-year-old US citizen explained he was heading to a Denny’s cafe in a suburb of nearby San Diego for breakfast before returning in time for a training session two hours later, but officers became suspicious about the condition of the spare tyre in his Chrysler Sebring and discovered almost 23 kilos of the drug. Despite proclaiming complete ignorance to its presence – he claimed that although it was his car, he had traded in another vehicle to reclaim it back a few days later and had no knowledge of it – he was detained.
Whether Gómez was actually complicit in trying to smuggle meth or was genuinely an innocent victim, on a much broader scale his case has become just the latest part of the winding, twisting cautionary tale of Mexican football. Many talented youngsters coming through the system are crushed by the weight of expectation or the lure of temptation, and are lost to the footballing community before they are even old enough to make an impact.
The drug trade on the Pacific coast – with the crazy amounts of money involved – is a constant menace not only to society and law enforcement, but potentially to players too. Some Mexican clubs have been heavily influenced by ‘narcos’ in the past, with the obvious mass popular appeal that football brings a powerful asset to their hold on power.
Of course there are myriad factors in the downfall of a player’s path, and one of them will never go away, however successful attempts to maintain law and order may be. “Mexicans live and breathe football,” explained Bryce Dunn, host of Golazo Podcast, “and there are always exciting players coming through like dos Santos, Vela, and now Hirving Lozano, but with that passion and love for the game no doubt pressures come along with them.”
The intensity of this pressure is unlike anything many European lovers of the game can fully appreciate; the atmosphere at Anfield for a Liverpool versus Manchester United clash, for example, is interwoven with a completely different fabric that wraps itself around the Mexican game. An unsurprisingly significant element is money; with the average monthly salary across the country around $120, the riches on offer to those who make it as a professional in Mexico are both intoxicating and all-consuming. “I suppose it isn’t too distant from the stresses of the South American reliance of the player making it due to the family potentially struggling financially,” Dunn added.
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Considering the average Liga MX salary is comfortably over $300,000 – the 10th most lucrative league in football, second only to Brazil outside of Europe – it is not hard to see quite how much the dream of a new life, and the alluring trappings that come with it, can envelop impressionable teenage prodigies. Carlos Slim, the Mexican-born magnate worth over $50bn and once ranked by Forbes as the richest man on the planet, holds a 30 percent stake in Pachuca and León, while only the Premier League, LaLiga and the Bundesliga can boast higher average attendances.
The quality of teammates is one of those trappings. Mexico is the destination of choice for most top players in the Americas looking for a step up, and with the packed stands that they play to the full gladiatorial stage is set.
There are downsides to the wealth, however, according to ESPN Mexico correspondent Tom Marshall: “The young players that do come through and shine in Liga MX find it difficult to move on to Europe because the prices asked by Mexican clubs are high,” he explains to These Football Times. “The Mexican internal market is artificially inflated by a gentlemen’s pact between owners, which means players command a transfer fee and aren’t free to move on even when their contracts have run out. In other words, the Bosman rule doesn’t exist.”
Hardly the most encouraging environment for prodigies to blossom. And prodigies there are aplenty; Mexico’s record at youth tournaments is the envy of the entire continent, with success for the various age group teams practically demanded, and understandably so. In May 2017, the under-17 side won the CONCACAF championship in Panama to claim their fifth title at this tournament.
In fact, across the nine editions they have entered, they have only failed to make the final twice, and have lost inside 90 minutes just twice in 52 total matches. The under-20 age group have won 13 of the 21 CONCACAF championships, while the under-23 side were victorious in the Olympic tournament – a title that carries a great deal more prestige in the Americas than it does in Europe – at London in 2012.
Miguel Gómez is manager of an under-18 side that do not have a full FIFA competition to aim for, but that play a crucial role in the development of players who will go on to play at higher levels and age groups. He spoke to These Football Times to explain the realities of coaching youngsters at a delicate stage of their development, and reiterated the concerns that many hole regarding distractions: “In this category [born in 2000, referring to the under -7 CONCACAF champions] there is plenty of talent and good football qualities, but they are just at the halfway stage of their process to go pro,” he said.
“Some of them manage to make their debut and become really good players, but others get stuck on the road for many different circumstances; distractions such as parties, girls, that kind of stuff … and they deviate from the commitment that requires a youth player to become pro.”
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Gómez has perhaps the hardest task of the age group national team managers. He has a limited time to mould the players in his image, since they will soon move on to the under-20 age group where they are blooded in more serious competition, and many of them are about to enter the first team squads of their respective clubs. This step up is the biggest leap they must take; attention will start to come their way as they begin to be known on a wider scale, and without the right guidance to maintain their focus, they can be lost forever as players.
Miguel Balderas was a former teammate of current full international Hirving Lozano, who played under Gómez at Pachuca, and agreed with his former coach about the temptations: “At under 17, the players are not mature yet, they have a lot of things to live, not just in football, but in life. So, those important years – 16, 17, 18, 19 – have a lot to do in the process of an academy player to become a footballer.”
The mental aspect, from youth development right through to first team football, is one that many have for a long time pinpointed as the root cause of the paucity of senior success in Mexico. When the great Hugo Sánchez moved to Spain, he initially suffered from an attack of nerves and couldn’t settle; the Spanish public even slapped the less than endearing nickname ‘Indio’ on him, in reference to his foreign heritage. It was assumed that Mexicans couldn’t adapt to life across the Atlantic, and although Sánchez went on to become one of Real Madrid’s greatest ever players – not to mention the now commonplace influx of his countrymen playing in Europe’s top leagues – there is still a wisp of underlying mistrust in the strength of the Mexican player’s character.
Before they dream of making a name for themselves in Europe, they must first show their worth domestically. Balderas admits that he wasn’t able to make the most of his opportunities when he was part of the Pachuca academy alongside Lozano. “I think my ambitions were realistic, but at the same time I know that my talent could have given me to get more,” he admitted. “In the end, I know what my mistake was; I never really realised where I was until I was out of Pachuca. I was in the best academy in the country. No kidding, at least in my age (born in 1995). I didn’t have a good and strong mentality, and I didn’t get that until I grew up and thought ‘Ok, if you had shown more character, if you had not felt less than the others’.”
One common theme that runs through the philosophies of the great youth academies around the world is the importance of developing the person first and foremost, and only then can the player emerge. Listen to any number of the famous alumni to graduate from La Masia, or to Les Reed mapping out the vision of Southampton’s much-vaunted Markus Liebherr campus, and you will learn about the complete grounding young players receive.
In Mexico’s case, there are promising signs of holistic academies bearing fruit, but too often it is only the top bracket of clubs that are able, or willing, to play the long game and be patient to develop their own youngsters in the right way. “One of the problems is that there aren’t enough clubs doing things right at youth level,” explains Marshall. “Then the second division is a shambles from a youth point of view and the number of foreigners in Liga MX mean it is much more difficult for a Mexican to debut in his domestic league compared to in a South American league.”
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Short-termism is a disease that blights almost every top league around the world but at least the Federación Mexicana de Fútbol (FMF) is taking some right steps to set a framework. There is a league structure set up for the under-13, under-15, under-17 and under-20 age groups which provides them with a healthy competitive atmosphere, with clubs such as Pachuca, León, Querétaro, Santos Laguna and Atlas stating their intentions to utilise their youth systems to build their squads.
Chivas – who won a Liga MX Clausura and Copa MX double last season – have gone a step further with their policy of only selecting Mexican citizens, akin to Athletic Club’s all-Basque policy. Under the guidance of former Lazio midfielder Matías Almeyda, they have claimed only their second league title in 20 years and enjoy one of the strongest supports in the country.
Gómez believes there is a wider issue that affects the formation of young players, however, and that the FMF has a central role to play in resolving it: “Things that can be improved between the teams would be to regulate a methodology of general training for all. As well as footballing qualities – technical, tactical, physical, mental – they should develop the values, which we are losing in Mexican society. Youngsters don’t give enough importance to family values. Mothers and fathers often both have to work and the young lads grow up alone and at times they make the wrong decisions.”
Having been through the system himself and witnessed the success and failure of many potential stars, Balderas agrees: “Young footballers here in Mexico are known as divas that think they have it all when they receive good salaries at the age that they are becoming adults,” he said. “Parties, girls, alcohol … all that kind of stuff drives them away from their goal. I have seen a lot of really good players that I thought we would see playing in the First Division, but no; no matter how good they were in comparison to their mates as teenagers, they didn’t get pro because some of the thing I mentioned before.”
The issue of foreigners in Liga MX is a thorny one. At present, there is a ruling that states every club is permitted up to 10 foreigners to be registered in a matchday squad, and while it is supposed to limit the flood of foreign players saturating the league, in reality it results in few opportunities for up and coming Mexican players to break through. For every star name like Keisuke Honda or André-Pierre Gignac, there are a dozen foreigners of negligible superiority over local talent – mostly from South America in search of a comfortable salary – padding out team sheets. Around half the players in the top flight are now foreign.
“On the one hand, the wealth means the standard of imports and play is high for the American continent, which benefits young Mexicans coming through,” Marshall says. “On the other, short-termism leads to owners buying ready-made foreigners – usually from South America — rather than developing younger players.”
Perhaps the most famous global example of importing talent ready-made is Real Madrid. Esteban Granero came through the cantera from the age of eight winning various youth awards, and although he went on to play in the first team for threes seasons, he struggled to hold down a starting place ahead of the likes of Xabi Alonso, Mahamadou Diarra and Kaká. Long-serving stalwart Guti said at the time that outsiders needed to learn to appreciate the value of the shirt, but Granero welcomed this Galáctico approach instant gratification with sanguine realism, claiming to relish the opportunity to work harder and prove himself against the best in the world.
“I think this should be every academy player’s motto,” Balderas suggests. “I think it’s ok to have foreign players in the league. It is true that some teams hire shit South Americans that take the places of academy players, but in the end, the young players have to earn that place.”
Perhaps it is unfair to suggest that there is a mentality problem as an endemic flaw amongst Mexican youngsters. After all, the pressure of being the undisputed giants of CONCACAF football is suffocating at times; opposition at all levels tend to play in the same stifling way, attempting to close out the stupendous talent facing them with packed defensive lines, and yet the expectation never drops.
While the case of Daniel Gómez is a great concern, it is by no means a rampant example of the vulnerability of young players. The threat of exploitation – or the temptation to turn a quick buck – is unfortunately always likely to be something that Mexican football will have to live with, however much the local or national government and the FMF attempt to stamp down on it.
In spite of these challenges, success has still been delivered on a consistent basis, and with the vastly improved infrastructure at most of the top clubs and at international level, conditions are developing in the right direction. “A lot of the young Mexican players coming through now are the beneficiaries of heavy investment in youth systems,” Marshall points out. “Most have travelled to tournaments around the world and should be as capable of making it as any young person from any other nation.”
Gómez remains positive about the progression of the up and coming generations. He has seen the best and worst of the modern football world, and while he is aware of the potential pitfalls mentioned before, he honestly believes there are grounds for optimism. “The young players see football as a career. They are disciplined, persevering, committed to football. They are talented, competitive, daring and we see this internationally when we go on tour, we’re a national team with prestige.”
Not many walls will keep them from crossing the border between promise and progress.
By Andrew Flint @AndrewMijFlint