My life has been comfortable and bathed in cutting edge luxuries—from Talkboys to touch screens, cul-de-sacs to central air, Justin to Kelly. I was born and raised in the United States of America. But like any true sports fan indoctrinated early in life with specific colors, you don’t run. And just like children will follow the teams of their fathers, I’ve been a subversive Mexican nationalist my entire life with respect to soccer.
I hate Landon Donovan and his whole orange slices and orange cones aesthetic. I once pre-gamed too hard in Philadelphia for a U.S.-Mexico friendly and booed the national anthem. My buddy Conor was there in his American Outlaws regalia and the drive home was radio silence. When Mexico beat the United States to win the ‘93 Gold Cup, I was celebrating in the streets of Mexico City with my 75 uncles.
When Gio Dos Santos caught fire in the 4-2, 2011 Gold Cup final, my little brother took a keg stand for every El Tri score in front of Conor’s parents. In terms of competitive play, Mexico’s national team is a rust belt city like Detroit or Buffalo. There’s tradition, deep fandom, scattered shades of optimism, and self-loathing for days. The last five World Cups—err, the last 20 years of my life—spell doom in bones to the tune of five-straight sweet 16
losses choke jobs.
I’m happy for Spain’s recent international success the way Ohioans are happy for LeBron James. Difference is, every time there is a sports story about him the comments sections doesn’t become an ugly referendum on whether or not we should build a wall along the border to keep out LeBron James.
Childhood was less political and contentious. Every summer I’d go away to Mexico and come back with posters, knock off jerseys, and a half-filled Holanda ice cream stamp book.
Walking into a classroom in your freshest Jorge Campos popped collaris not the best way for an American elementary school student to make friends on the first day of school. But if you grew up brown, these men were shorter Michael Jordans. We know the history—Hugo Sanchez is our lone delegate on bigger lists, Chava Reyes and Horacio Casarin are fine Wikipedia reads.
You’ve heard ad nauseum about Guillermo Diaz’s days in the minors (if your grandfather is Guillermo Diaz). I’m more interested in who and what we remember.
10. Clint Dempsey
Apologies in advance for snubbing Carlos Hermosillo, and it’s true, Dempsey is not Latino.
But he grew up in Texas playing soccer with Mexicans, learning how to showboat and experiment. He bumps Screwston rap. He supports Mexican beer. I’ve never identified more with an athlete’s back story. More importantly, Dempsey’s cool is a path to U.S. citizenship for Mexican-American fans.
9. Julio Gomez
El Niño héroe. Though he’s just a pup, few guys are as beloved these days. Gomez scored two goals to down Germany in the U-17 World Cup two years ago. Gomez’s game-winner came on a bicycle kick—a disjointed display of arrogance 99 percent of the time—because his head was bandaged and bloody and in no position to strike a ball. He’s a totem for an optimistic future wherein El Tri turns a corner and stares down European powers.
8. Jared Borgetti
The United States upset Mexico in the 2002 World Cup, a touchstone moment for America’s soccer culture. The game up was made possible by Borgetti’s stunner against Italy—a nasty header that won Mexico their group, secured a high seed, and setup a perceived gimme against the Yanks. On second thought, I hate Borgetti.
Like Borgetti, Luís Roberto Alves dos Santos Gavranic (Zague for short) was a lanky striker that camped out in the low post. He scored seven goals in one game during the ’93 Gold Cup (it was against Martinique, but still). Zague banked layups like dads that get talked into playing hoops in the kiddie pool–never with grace.
6. Alberto Garcia Aspe
If Mexico is Hufflepuff, Aspe is Cedric Diggory—honorable, kind, tragic. During the ’94 World Cup, he forced overtime with a 1-1 goal against Bulgaria. As is often the case, the extra period was conservative and matters were settled in a penalty shootout. Aspe, handsome and smart, is our team’s no brainer lead kicker. He’s going to set the pace and calm his team’s nerves. The ball flies into the stands.
Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez is too short to idolize, and he kind of runs like a rabbit. He’s an international star—a contributor on the world’s most famous team (Manchester United) with tremendous upside. His Twitter bio, for a long while, was “No tengo Facebook.” Carlos Vela was a prodigy, Chicharito started from the bottom. And whether or not he takes us beyond the Sweet 16 next summer in Brazil, Mexico loves him because he is the national little brother.
4. Luis Hernández
An appropriate ranking for Mexico’s fourth all-time leading scorer. “El Matador” Hernández, of the flowing gold hair, was probably too prideful. He tore apart South American nations during the ’97 Copa America and signed with Argentina’s Boca Juniors. He didn’t start and went home. Mexico at-large expected more in terms of international success, but as is often the case potential never turned a corner, even during his twilight stint with the Los Angeles Galaxy. Now that the bitter failure of the 2002 World Cup is behind us, however, only the fond thrills of Holland ’98 remain.
3. Jorge Campos
The Acapulco-bred goalkeeper had surfer dude calm and ease on the field. He also played forward, but I think he honed efforts elsewhere so he could have an excuse to dress differently. His outfits were Oregon neon, his dual threat panache was Deion Sanders.
2. Rafa Marquez
The captain, the stalwart. Marquez was a decorated, international fixture with Barcelona. But we loved his game in major international tournaments. The defending felt effortless, he scored in huge moments (see: saving Mexico from embarrassment against South Africa in 2010 with a late tying goal to which a Mexican color-commentator reacted, “My captain!”). His early strike against Argentina in 2006 set the table for what would become the most painful international loss ever for El Tri faithful. After years of inferiority, Mexico had the talent and rhythm to best its South American foe and lost. But worst of all, we knew the baby-faced Lionel Messi would soon grow up and devour us for years so it felt like a window slamming shut. The next morning the German press led with Mexico shows Germany how to beat Argentina.A sobering bar tab for the ages.
1. Cuauhtémoc Blanco
Why is the old guy taking a penalty kick in the World Cup against France? Because Blanco is a folk hero, and the hard-living, brash fighting, now chubby midfielder will push it through with his eyes closed. Let’s copy and paste some boring credentials: the only Mexican with an award in a major international FIFA event; five-time MVP in the domestic league; tied with Ronaldihno as the all-time leading Confederations Cup scorer; Mexico’s all-time leading scorer in World Cups. Blanco is transcendent.
Born in the rough Mexico City neighborhood of Tepito—where you go during Christmas to buy stolen flat screens and otherwise actively avoid—Blanco runs on clutch and creativity. There’s also a mafia sort of mystique to the guy. He was left off the 2006 World Cup team for political reasons, and when he returned a few years later for a run in South Africa, made sure disloyal lieutenants like Pavel Pardo and Oswaldo Sanchez did not. This month, he made headlines in Mexico for throwing stones at the current team, questioning leadership. Boilerplate has been quotes, except that we can’t help but trust him.
Blanco begets tattoos of his likeness and murals. He’s the Jay-Z of Mexican soccer.