For a country of close to 120 million people that has hosted two of the best World Cups since 1970, and which has a deeply ingrained football culture, has made very little impact on the field of play.
Mexican fans are guaranteed to bring colour to any event and Mexican players are generally good technically. But their team has never instilled fear in the world football powers.
Mexico have lost more matches than any other team in the finals and despite being one of only three teams to get out of the group stage in the last five World Cups – Brazil and Germany are the others – El Tri have never gone beyond the Round of 16 outside their own country. They have won just six of their last 20 games, stretching back to 1994.
There are a plethora of reasons for such underperformance, but a key one is that the country lacks players featuring regularly in Europe’s top leagues. At least, that isthe case according to the director of youth national teams at the Mexican federation, Dennis te Kloese, who seeks to produce talent to take Mexico to the next level.
“There are not a lot of Mexican players abroad that make a huge impact, if you compare it to Brazil, Argentina or some European countries,” said the Dutchman, in an interview with the Guardian.
“There are a lot of players that stay in the domestic league, which has a lot of foreign players and doesn’t have a lot of continuity within the clubs.”
Only seven of Mexico’s 23-man squad for Brazil play in Europe and only three can truly say they have been regulars throughout 2013-14.
Mexican players have long lacked the experience of different styles of play, modes of training and tactical varieties and the pressure that comes with moving to the leagues where the very best players and managers operate.
They have also, at times, been woefully underprepared to travel. The former Fulham defender Carlos Salcido may have overcome an impoverished childhood, but that when he first moved to Europe – to PSV Eindhoven in 2006, aged 26 – he was lost and resorted to eating McDonald's and Kentucky Fried Chicken every day. It was hardly a textbook start to a career in Europe.
“The team owners and organisations [in Mexico] don’t need to sell players to keep their finances balanced,” said Te Kloese, helping to explain the lack of preparation for the likes of Salcido and the fundamental differences compared to other Latin American leagues. “[Mexico] is not an exporting country.”
Mexican football has largely sat on the periphery of the world game, developing outside the core centres of South America and Europe, wedded by geographical fate to the Concacaf region. Following the theory in Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski’s book Why England Lose, Mexico has been one of the countries that has been “closed to innovation”.
In contrast, European and South American teams have been able to regularly test each other, finding themselves forced to improve with every tactical and physical development.
Mexico stayed at home and remained the giant in an underdeveloped Concacaf competition, qualifying for World Cups as a matter of course and hitting a glass ceiling against genuine world powers.
Or so the theory goes. In truth, the wealth and spending power of Mexican football in not widely recognised. Carlos Slim – the world’s second-richest person, according to Forbes – has a stake in two first-division clubs. Valencia’s Andres Guardado has said he could double his wages by moving back to Mexico. And Salcido in May 2013 that he didn’t take a wage drop when he moved to Mexican club Tigres from Fulham.
That helps to explain why Mexicans have traditionally been reluctant to leave, unless they have been especially driven to do so.
But while an awful Brazil 2014 qualifying campaign that saw Mexico finish behind the USA, Costa Rica and Honduras and only just scrape past Panama into the intercontinental playoff hardly inspires confidence, there remains reason to believe that El Tri could step up. Much of that hope lies in the youth.
Over the years since Mexico’s Under-17s won the 2005 World Cup in Peru with a team featuring the likes of Giovani Dos Santos, Hector Moreno and Carlos Vela, there has been a concerted effort on the part of clubs and the federation to invest in youth. It has intensified in recent years.
“Mexico now has a concrete [development] project and it’s more likely to achieve results now there is a structure,” said Ricardo Zayas, general manager and lecturer at the Johan Cruyff Institute in Mexico City.
“Clubs realised that spending in youth systems is not an expense, but an investment.”
The federation has also played a key role alongside the clubs in setting up U17 and U20 leagues that play the same fixture list as first teams, preparing wannabes for the rigors of the professional game. The impact has been seen at youth level, with Mexico winning the U17 World Cup in 2011 and finishing third in the U20 World Cup the same year, then placing second in the 2013 U17 World Cup and, the pick of them all, winning the Olympic title, effectively at U23 level, in 2012.
“There is a mentality aspect, too, that I think is changing little by little,” said Zayas. “The Mexican player now has a more professional, open mentality and recognises what is required from a professional player.”
“It’s a big change from what I saw 10 years ago,” said Te Kloese, of when he arrived in Mexico as scouting director at Chivas. “A few years ago it was hard for a Mexican team to get an invitation to a tournament at youth level. Now most of the time we have to reject invitations because the calendar is full.”
Te Kloese, talking on the phone from the Toulon youth tournament, continued: “In Holland they have done this for years, but Mexico has made very big strides to catch up to be a serious contender at international level in the near future.”
The next generation of Mexican players will surely not be eating at fast-food joints when they sign for European clubs. Brazil 2014, however, may still have come a little too early for a country getting to grips with serious youth development.