The long road to the World Cup quarter-finals for Mexico manager Tata Martino

The long road to the World Cup quarter-finals for Mexico manager Tata Martino

Being Mexico manager is a little like never being able to make someone happy. Only when leading Mexico does the manager, after winning a continental championship, have to take the time to assure fans that the team will get better. “We’re still not there. We need more time together, more time working and training, but we’re on the right path,” Gerardo “Tata” Martino said just moments after Mexico defeated the United States 1-0 to win the Gold Cup. “Nothing would’ve changed that with the final result. A bad result wouldn’t have changed that either.” 

Those comments, in the aftermath of that final before a largely pro-Mexican group of supporters on 7 July at Soldier Field in Chicago, encapsulates Martino’s current managerial situation. In Mexico, the national team manager doesn’t only have to answer to his bosses at the FA, but the 130m people who live in the nation and millions of others who have emigrated out of it for economic reasons.  

For Martino – winning his first trophy after taking over as manager just six months ago – it was more a moment of relief than joy. In his ten matches in charge, Martino has won nine and drawn one, an emotionally-draining match ultimately decided on penalties against Costa Rica in the Gold Cup quarter-finals. “It’s my first international trophy,” Martino said. “I have reached lots of finals and have suffered lots of defeats. It was great to break this streak.” 

Martino’s penchant for putting out a great football product but being unable to win major titles was the one thing that had frustrated many Mexicans upon his hiring back in January. At international level, the 56-year-old came close to capturing a title several times, but always failed at the final hurdle. He lost three Copa América finals – two with his native Argentina and one with Paraguay – after a lacklustre stint at high-profile clubs like Newell’s Old Boys and Barcelona. 

Winning the Gold Cup on American soil seemed a fitting outcome for a manager who earned his greatest coaching successes in the United States. He signed a four-year, $8.8m deal with the Mexican FA after guiding Atlanta United to the 2018 Major League Soccer crown. It was a title won after finishing the regular season with a 21-6-7 record, followed by a torrid playoff run that ended with lifting the trophy in just the club’s second year of existence. 

In many ways, winning MLS was a way to show the football world that Martino could succeed at the highest level. Following the 2013/14 LaLiga season, for example, Martino was dumped by Barcelona after failing to win anything in what was Neymar’s first season with the Catalan giants. A 2-1 defeat in the Copa del Rey final against rivals Real Madrid – after crashing out in the quarter-finals of the Champions League to Atlético Madrid – was enough for Barça to send him packing. 

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“When you lose a big game, like a final, what hurts is what people tell you afterwards, not how you feel inside,” Martino recalled. “Winning a final means, finally, you are doing well. Sometimes it’s the commentary, especially in the internet age, that can make for bad moments.” 

The following two years managing Argentina also failed to bear fruit, a streak that dates back to the last trophy won by the South American giants at the 1993 Copa América. Despite having a talented squad spearheaded by Lionel Messi, Martino didn’t win where many others had also failed before and since.

That’s when Atlanta came knocking, and the opportunity to build a winner from the bottom up enticed him. Once in the US, Martino was able to work in relative obscurity – and help from a side that featured attacking midfielder Miguel Almirón who is now with Newcastle – and eventually built a championship team in just two seasons. 

Mexico is a different matter. The team has been eliminated from the round of 16 at the World Cup in every edition since 1994. In that same 25-year span, Mexico has had 16 managers. The Argentine, who replaced Juan Carlos Osorio, was hired, in large part, to break that negative streak.

The next few months and years are meant as a build-up to the 2022 World Cup. Can Martino’s attack-minded football win hearts and minds? Does his resume highlight success or a string of high-profile failures? The crowd at Soldier Field was in ecstasy over winning a title against a rival like the United States. Talk of Martino’s ability to win wasn’t on the minds of fans following the victory. Winning can often do that for a manager. 

The passage of time and the ability to keep winning matters most to fans. In many ways, appeasing the Mexican public and Mexican-Americans is a major part of the job. Mexico plays most of its friendlies in the US, where large crowds turn out in cities like Dallas, Houston and Los Angeles. Mexico is tentatively scheduled to play a friendly in September against the United States in New York. 

A month before Martino was officially hired, veteran defender Rafael Márquez expressed measured optimism over Martino’s appointment. In an interview with beIN Sports last December, he said: “Maybe there were better [managerial] options, but at the end of the day we have [Tata] and now we have to support him and hope he does better than previous national team managers.” 

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Márquez, who retired from football in 2018, is widely considered Mexico’s greatest central defender. His 146 caps and five consecutive World Cups dating back to 2002 mean that the comments carried some weight. “Not winning a title with a team of that magnitude matters,” Marquez said of Martino’s inability to grab any silverware while at Barcelona. “But it’s not easy, it’s complicated. You have a tough opponent in Real Madrid and also other teams that have become more competitive.” 

What Martino is also preparing for, over the long term, is World Cup qualifying. A few days after the Gold Cup was completed, CONCACAF announced its new qualifying format. The revamped qualifiers will take place in two parts during the FIFA match windows starting next year and throughout 2021. 

The first part will be played between the top six teams based on the FIFA rankings as of June 2020. After teams play one another home and away in a round-robin format, the top three teams qualify directly for Qatar. Mexico is very likely to be in this group and a strong contender to finish first.

The second part of the qualification will involve CONCACAF members ranked seventh and below. After a group stage and knockout format, the team to emerge the winner will face the fourth-place finisher of the Hexagonal to determine the CONCACAF team that will play in the intercontinental playoff. For teams in this group, the road to Qatar will be difficult. It’s also not out of the question that Mexico may have to deal with a playoff. As recently as six years ago, they had to qualify for the 2014 World Cup after a home and away series against New Zealand, which El Tri eventually won.  

For now, the fans may have galvanized around Martino and the players sold on his tactics and leadership on the sidelines and the dressing room. After the players were handed the trophy surrounded by a swirling twister of confetti, team veterans Guillermo Ochoa, Mexico’s standout goalkeeper, and midfielder Andrés Guardado walked over to Martino and gave him a chance to also lift the cup. “It was emotional,” Martino admitted of the gesture. “It doesn’t happen often.” 

Jonathan dos Santos, who scored the Gold Cup final’s only goal, credited Martino with his brilliant form. Known for his creativity and flair, dos Santos played wonderfully throughout the tournament and gave Martino offensive options down the line should first-team players get injured in the future. “I do not know what he did with me,” dos Santos said. “Tata gave me confidence from the first minute, from the first team talk.” 

Order  |  Mexico

Mexico’s regional dominance is nothing new. In that way, Martino hasn’t done anything his predecessors haven’t over the past two decades. Winning the Gold Cup is expected; anything less is seen as a disappointment. In years past, Mexico took part as an invited side at the Copa América, and participating in a tournament with high-calibre teams such as Brazil, Argentina, Chile and Uruguay helped El Tri get tougher and more competitive. 

Nonetheless, Mexican fans still recoil in horror at the 7-0 defeat to Chile at the 2016 Copa Centenario, a hiccup in an otherwise great run to the 2018 World Cup that included a victory against defending champion Germany. Mexican sports newspaper Record, in an online poll after the game, asked which defeat was the most painful in the country’s history. The loss to Chile won, surpassing the defeat to the US in 2002, elimination to Arjen Robben’s penalty in the 2014 World Cup and the extra-time losses to Argentina at the 2006 World Cup and the final of the 2001 Copa América against Colombia.  

It is too early, some say, to judge Martino since Mexico haven’t played teams of the calibre that can win a World Cup. For the Argentine, getting to a World Cup, and even defeating a team like Germany, will mean nothing if he can’t get them to that elusive quinto partido – fifth match – that would mean reaching the quarter-finals. The team hasn’t done that since 1986, when Mexico hosted the tournament and former Real Madrid striker Hugo Sánchez was their star player. 

Martino is the type of man interested in developing Mexican football. Martino brought with him a close-knit group of assistants, including Jorge Theiler (his deputy at Atlanta), Sergio Giovagnoli and Rodolfo Paladini. He wants to encourage those playing abroad, like Javier Hernández and Hirving Lozano, to take those years of experience in Europe and translate that to national team success. In addition, he will need to develop young players, with help from Liga MX clubs, in order to ensure a steady stream of talent over the next few years. 

Martino tried to nurture some of those youngsters as part of the setup at the Gold Cup. They included a pair of 21-year-old midfielders in Edson Álvarez of Club América and Uriel Antuna of the Los Angeles Galaxy. “I’m really happy with the way some of these players have responded in their first major international tournament,” he said. 

Tata Martino said he wants to have a working relationship with club managers in Mexico so that young players can be nurtured and brought into the national team. Asked if he needed to win the Gold Cup to earn credibility with domestic bosses, he said: “The reality is that I don’t need to win to get this. I want to create better conditions for Mexican football to succeed. I want to have meetings with club managers and others to produce something and see what comes of it.” 

By Clemente Lisi @ClementeLisi

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