Does a player stick to the domestic game or travel overseas for a chance at something bigger? The repercussions of this decision will likely affect the length, net earnings, and success of their career. Should they commit or should they go?
In Mexico, this question, now more than ever, is being asked with regular frequency. With the successes of the national youth sides, more attention is being focused on Mexican youth. It has been some time before Mexico has been so full of talent at such a young age. As such, eyes of European talent-seekers are looking for this Mexican talent. With such a profound success as Chicharito recently making the high-profile move to Manchester United, other European giants are looking to pounce on the next young impact player.
While painfully overused, and on its’ way to being obnoxious (hopefully not quite yet), the lessons of Moneyball once again apply here. Billy Beane and his staff in Oakland began to realize that they couldn’t afford the gamble of drafting high school athletes. They were not fully developed into the players they would become. Nor was their level of competition suitable to assess their performance against; the risk of the player busting was too great for their small market budget. Thus, they studied the college ranks for players who were either overlooked unfairly or had proven themselves statistically.
The major difference here is that the risk lies less with the clubs and more with the players. European clubs scouting the youth levels of Mexican soccer are more like the Yankees than the Oakland A’s. They can afford missteps in the players they sign, and they often do. The players on the other hand have the gamble of signing early. They may earn the quick money, but the effects of this signing could be quite detrimental to their careers. It has been for several.
Giovani Dos Santos
It’s a name that is known well by most US soccer supporters. Dos Santos is most recognized as the player in the Mexican National Team jersey terrorizing defenses. In the 2009 CONCACAF Gold Cup, he was awarded as the most valuable player of the tournament. Dos Santos was named as the runner-up FIFA Young Player of the tournament at the 2010 World Cup. He scored the greatest goal of the 2011 CONCACAF Gold Cup on a beautiful ball past Tim Howard in the final. His play with the Olympic squad further bolstered his stellar reputation in Mexico. Dos Santos is a great player who should be on the rise at both the international and club levels. But, while he has indeed become a fixture for El Tri, he’s not only failed to make a significant impact at the club level ... he can’t even crack the starting eleven.
Dos Santos started his career at an early age moving to the Barcelona youth system. There he moved up the ranks and into the senior squad. Cracking the senior squad with the Catalan giants and getting playing time as an 18 year old, certainly pointed to an upward trending career. His being sold to Tottenham in 2008, looked like a chance for more playing time and an opportunity to further develop as a player. Yet, his move to London resulted in a stunting of his development. He never managed to gain playing time and was shipped around on loan deals to Ipswich Town, Galatasaray, and Racing Santander. The worst would come in this past season when he merely sat on the bench for Tottenham.
At only 23 years age, Giovani Dos Santos still has plenty of time to turn things around, but that is exactly what he must do now. He will be digging out of a hole. His former manager, Harry Redknapp, publicly questioned his commitment. He was at odds with the man that had control over his ability to play at the highest level. For someone of Dos Santos’s skill level, no one man would have that power over him in his native land. There were plenty of people calling for Giovani to see more playing time, but they were 5,000 miles away and easy to ignore. Some of those same people might have been better equipped to keep the youngster on the straight and narrow.
Vela came up in the Chivas of Guadalajara youth system as a potential future Mexican star. He was an integral part of the U-17 squad that won the World Championship in 2005. After this he attracted interest from European clubs, and was sold to Arsenal that same year at the age of 16. Vela was immediately thwarted, however, by work permit laws that prevented him from playing. Thus he was loaned out to lesser Spanish sides for several years. He had some minor successes during this time, but didn’t light the world on fire. In 2008, Vela made his return and debut for Arsenal. Despite flashes of brilliance, Vela never became a consistent fixture for the Gunners. He did become a player that was used in FA and league cups. He would stay with Arsenal for 2 ½ years and only total twenty-nine appearances for the club. Had such inconsistent play thwarted his progress to becoming the player his ability projected?
Arsenal found a way to get him more playing time. They again sent him out on a loan deal. After a half season of play at West Bromwich Albion, he was shipped off to Real Sociedad in Spain. Vela was only twenty-two years old when he landed with Real Socieded last year. They are his sixth squad. Vela would make this stop count as he became a regular fixture and scoring threat for the club. Real Sociedad confirmed their belief in Vela by purchasing his rights from Arsenal and making his move to the team permanent. Vela, finally settled in to a team, now has the chance to work consistently with one team and one coaching staff. He only had to wait seven years to get to this point.
A clear precedent exists for Mexican footballers making significant impacts in European football. The careers of Hugo Sanchez, Rafa Marquez, and now Chicharito all point to the fact that great Mexican talent can easily translate to European play. However, none of these players made the venture to Europe before they had established themselves at the club level. They all had proven themselves at the highest levels of Mexican soccer. All of their Mexican club teams invested time and resources in to making them more complete players before they were sold to European clubs.
A new group of Mexican young players has been in the spotlight. With Mexico’s success in this summer’s Toulon tournament and the Olympic Games, European scouts haven’t had to book long flights to see this talent up close. Several players are drawing interest from major European clubs. Marco Fabian, Hector Herrera, Miguel Ponce, Diego Reyes, Raul Jiminez, Javier Aquino, Alan Pulido, and Jorge Enriquez have all been linked with various European sides as possible transfers. While all of these players are extremely talented with bright futures in football, only few have fully developed their games in the top Mexican division (Fabian, Ponce, and Reyes). The others have yet to become the staples in the starting eleven for their Mexican clubs. Yet, the possibility of a high cost, European transfer could be imminent.
The lesson of the Mexican goalkeeper may just dispel the line of thinking that playing in Europe garners more fame, recognition and reward. No shortage of quality keepers exists in Mexico. The decision of the national team manager when selecting his keeper is usually met with outrage from one camp or another. There are several that are considered every time, because they are all highly talented and virtually indistinguishable from one another. While there are probably four goalkeepers who have a decent claim to the starting role for El Tri, the position has been mostly split between two men in recent years. Both Jesus Corona and Guillermo Ochoa have been able to represent Mexico on many occasions. Until recently, both were playing at two of the most high-profile Mexican clubs.
Jesus Corona is the regular keeper for the Mexican club, Cruz Azul. Cruz Azul is recognized as one of the “big four” of Mexico. They always get plenty of media and fan attention. Corona, 31, has been the number one keeper for El Tri most recently in Mexico’s World Cup Qualifiers and the 2012 Olympic campaign. Guillermo Ochoa was the goalkeeper for Mexico City giant Club America for over 6 years. During that span, Ochoa has been a staple of the El Tri. He has often been the number one goalkeeper, but managed to get pushed to the backup slot just in time for major tournaments, like the 2010 World Cup. In 2011, Ochoa made the move to Europe and signed with the French squad, AJ Ajaccio. He had received offers from larger European clubs, but many backed away when Ochoa was involved in the tainted-meat scandal that hit the Mexican National Team. Although, acquitted of any wrongdoing, Ochoa found his choices limited.
So why would Ochoa sign with a team struggling to stay in Ligue 1 in AJ Ajaccio? It clearly wasn’t for the money, as he publicly admitted. Club America, owned by media giant Televisa, need not worry about shelling about the big wages; Ajaccio cannot match the spending power of his former club. He mentioned being loyal to the team that stuck by him through the scandal. I’m sure that was part of his decision-making process. I also have little doubt that he saw, as many do, the European move as putting him in a more high profile position. He is, after all, the first Mexican goalkeeper to play professionally in Europe. This high profile might then finally lock down the starting role in El Tri for him. Yet, when Mexican national team manager, ‘Chepo’ de la Torre, made his selection for his number one keeper he chose the player who was still plying his trade in Mexico. The luster of Europe is perhaps not as lustrous as one might think.
Risk v. Reward
The questions remains what makes a move to Europe worth the risk to Mexican players. At an early age, as it is likely to be the case, the choice to leave your home country and everything you have known for a foreign land across the ocean can be traumatic. In their book, Soccernomics, Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski, point out the lack of guidance for players coming from other countries. European clubs are just beginning to realize the importance of aiding these players in such a dramatic transition in their lives. But even with club representatives making this transition easier, the development of the player might not always be a top priority. With the money spent, there will be a push to have these new acquisitions on the first team where they are often unlikely to see playing time. Thus, they see plenty of bench time or are shipped off on loan deals to one team after another. This is hardly the minor league baseball system of quality experience guided from one organization. The players are likely to have come in to a bit of money, but the lack of playing time and quality experience may hurt their chances at the big contract when they are in their early twenties and at their peak of earning potential.
However, the pulls in both directions can be gravitational in force. For as much as this move can be detrimental, there is the chance that super-stardom awaits. Chicharito would be the most popular player in Mexico if he still played in Guadalajara, but he would not be the icon of Mexican success that he has become. Staying home and playing locally is certainly no guarantee of future glory and fame. Even established players have at times been unable to make significant impacts in Europe (see: Barrera, Pablo). Ultimately, it could be the only time some of these players get the opportunity to take the leap.
It’s an unenviable situation (as much as the possibility of making millions of dollars to play game allows for). If they stay there may be trouble, but if they go it could be double. Should they stay or should they go?
 Mexico won the U-17 World Cup, came in 3rd in the U-20 World Cup in 2011 and won gold in the most recent Olympic Games (which is mostly a U-23 squad).
 Although, playing time is suddenly hard to find for Chicharito at Manchester United as well.
 As in a matter of hours, for Hector Herrera.
 Ochoa along with four Mexican national team peers tested positive for the substance clenbuterol. The failed test was attributed to tainted batch of meat the players consumed.
 It is hard to avoid the gaze of Chicharito as you walk around Mexico City, as he is on a ridiculous amount of billboards and placards.
 Barrera was unable to replicate the success he cultivated in Mexico at West Ham. He recently returned to Mexican club side, Cruz Azul.
Photograph courtesy of Innadril. His work can be found here.