In 1988 Mexican football fell to the lowest point in its history. After fielding four over-age players in the qualifiers for the Under-20 World Cup, FIFA decided to ban all the country’s national teams from international football for the next two years. Apparently, the men in charge at the time didn’t trust the quality of young talent in the country and resorted to cheating in order to achieve decent results in the international arena.
Now, nearly 25 years later, “El Tri” can justifiably boast some of the best young talent in the world.
Since 2005 Mexico have twice won the Under-17 World Cup, finished fifth and third in Under-20 World Cups, and won gold at this summer’s Olympic Games, beating Brazil 2-1 in the Final – marking what could well be considered a changing of the baton in terms of youth power.
What has been the formula for such a dramatic change? Why has Mexico succeeded where other countries have failed in tournament after tournament? And how did Mexico develop the blueprint that has transformed an entire country?
The story begins with Mexico’s first major international victory: the 2005 Under-17 World Cup in Peru. Decio De Maria – then secretary general of the Mexican FA and now president of the domestic game’s top-flight Liga MX – explains how the project started.
“Before this victory there was a structure that had been created in 2002, but it was not professionalised,” says De Maria. “The title in Peru helped us to understand that there was a great amount of talent in the country and, if we handled it properly, we could generate triumphs constantly”.
As a result, the Mexican FA created a Sports Development Committee, whose first decision was to implement a radical measure: each top-flight club had to field a player aged under 20-years-and-11 -months for an average of 45 minutes per-game across the season. The move was harshly criticised, especially by club coaches who argued that they were forced to use players not yet ready for the highly competitive domestic game.
Nevertheless, the committee didn’t relent. The first division’s youth teams had competed in regional tournaments and easily dominated their weaker, amateur rivals. But now two youth tournaments that imitated the professional league system were created. Every game in the first division would be preceded by a match between the under-17 and under-20 sides of the two clubs. The contests were to be played in the same stadium and under the same conditions as the senior teams’ game.
Consequently, clubs were forced to invest in their youth academies – and, in some cases, even to create them.
Former Mexico midfielder Guillermo Cantu, who was then the director of national teams, saw the change in mentality. “When I was a player, I had to knock on the doors of clubs to be given a chance,” he recalls. “Now, every team has a professional scouting system, even in the second division. And the scouting is on a local and regional basis.
“With the large outfits, such as America, Guadalajara and Cruz Azul, the range is even greater. They have schools all over the country, and even in the United States”.
Although the under-17 side failed in its attempt to qualify for the 2007 World Cup, and then two years later also missed out on a trip to the Under-20 World Cup, the Mexican FA continued its project.
They invested in dedicated coaches and full-time scouts for every national team “The talent spotting process became easier as we implemented our youth tournament set-up”, says De Maria. “And then we invested a large amount of resources to the development of the age-limit national teams.
“We started knocking on doors to get invited to tournaments around the world. As a consequence there are years when their budget has reached BOOmillion pesos [£14.5m].”
Mexican teams not only started to travel but also started to win and generate their own income. According to the Mexican FA, the triumphs of the Under-17WorldCupin2011 and the gold medal in the London Olympics drew their own sponsors and are proof that the process works. And the actual under-15 side is the best of them all according to several staff members of the country’s national teams’ set-up.
In Mexico scouting begins at the age of 14. All clubs have under-15 teams that participate in a summer and the winter tournament. The FA also organises a tournament called “Mundialito” which involves eight teams from different parts of the world – with plans to expand it to 12 for the next edition.
The result is that when a Mexican player reaches an age-limit World Cup he does so with vast international experience. “Since we created the project we realised that, to succeed on the biggest stage, our players should know what and who to face,” explains Cantu. “Therefore we concentrated on tours and matches outside the country. Now, a Mexican player reaches an Under-17 World Cup with 50 international matches to his name – and double that for the Under-20 version.”
As its former head, Cantu also reveals the criteria used to develop the players in the national set-up. “From the beginning of our analysis we realised that, physically, the Mexican player was at a disadvantage compared to the world powers, so we’ve emphasised on improving,” he says. “We wanted players that were able to play to their best at full speed. We were not seeking a specific style because every coach has his own ideas. We wanted players who could perform in any system.”
For former Fulham player Carlos Salcido, who participated in the 2006 and 2010 World Cups and at the 2012 Olympic Games as an over-age reinforcement for the under-2 3 side, those are the main advantages of the new Mexican talents. “They adapt so easily because they come with lots of experience,” says the 32-year-old. “Even when they receive their first senior cap it seems that they have been with us for a lifetime – because they have been through it all with the age-limit teams.”
In addition, all Mexico’s national team coaches work in synergy. When the under-17s finished their participation in the World Cup, their coach became assistant to the under-20 coach, who in turn became second-in-command of the Under-23 side, whose coach, Luis Fernando Tena, is the assistant of the senior coach Jose Manuel de la Torre.
And the communal work is not limited to the bench. Each of those coaches can access specialised software in which they introduce reports on each player that has been called-up in any age bracket. The national teams committee, therefore, has a huge database that is also available to the club that own the transfer rights to each of those players.
However, the Mexican model is not for everyone. Although the directors of the Mexican FA are full-time staff, the ones who really make the decisions are the owners of the Liga MX clubs. They meet twice a year but do not experience the same conflicts of interest between the league and the national teams that happens in much of Europe.
The reason for that is purely financial. According to a study, the income of the Mexican national teams between 2006 and 2010 was $550million. The club owners, who are also the owners of the country’s largest companies, such as media giants Televisa and TV Azteca, or the cement mogul Cemex. know that the only way to maintain income is with victories on the pitch.
And now that they have started to arrive they have also changed the expectations of the Mexican fans, who have seen their national team fail to make it past the round of 16 in five consecutive World Cups.
“Now there is a lot of pressure from the media and the fans every time a Mexican national team steps on a pitch”, says Cantu. “Everyone expects Mexico to win every tournament they take part in. For many years we spoke badly of ourselves but not anymore. We now want to eat the world.”