When Mexico faces Argentina on Saturday, Mexican fans will bear mixed feelings toward the country that should be their ultimate rival on that night.
The reason: the lasting mark Argentine coaches have made on Mexican soccer.
Many Mexicans credit the Argentine coach Cesar Luis Menotti with revolutionizing Mexican soccer by elevating playing style over strength during his run leading the national team in the 1990s. Even though he stayed less than two years and never coached Mexico in a World Cup, he remains a beloved figure there, even as he now serves as the director of Argentina’s national teams.
On his first day in Mexico, Menotti, who had led Argentina to the World Cup title in 1978, told reporters that he planned to probe deep into Mexico’s soul “because the only way you can lead a national team is by understanding how it is inextricably linked to the country’s inner life.”
With flowing hair and bushy sideburns, Menotti smoked cigarettes on the sidelines, wore sharp suits, freely quoted literature and brought up politics, an unusual brew for conservative Mexico at the time. During his last interview as Mexico’s coach, he said he now “understood Mexico better than many Mexicans.”
Since then, there have been two full time Argentine coaches of the Mexican national team (more than any other non-Mexican nationality). Neither has enjoyed the reverence shown for Menotti.
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Ricardo Antonio La Volpe coached Mexico from 2002 to 2006, including at the 2006 World Cup in Germany. His style was to have Mexico play the ball out from the defense to start attacks. He took the team to the semifinals of the 2005 Confederations Cup, where Mexico lost in a penalty shootout against none other than Argentina. Argentina went on to eliminate Mexico in the World Cup a year later.
Those losses exposed La Volpe to brutal criticism and questions about his dedication to Mexico. He was endlessly antagonized by the Mexican press, and the disdain was mutual. He once threw water on journalists after a training season.
So it was with that mix of reverence and suspicion for Argentine coaches that Gerardo “Tata” Martino entered this year’s World Cup.
Martino has been slammed for leaving the national superstar Javier “Chicharito” Hernández off the team. Mexican commentators complain about the team’s declining performance over the past two years, including losses in important games against the U.S. men’s national team. They questioned Martino’s loyalty after a photo surfaced of him talking to Argentina’s coach, Lionel Escaloni, while the two attended a game of Newell’s Old Boys, the team from Rosario where they both debuted as a players.
“I don’t like that a coach who is not Mexican is directing the national team,” Hugo Sánchez, considered Mexico’s greatest player of all time, told ESPN.
Martino said in a news conference he feels like “public enemy number one” after Mexican fans chanted “Fuera Tata” — fire Tata — in the stadium and many shared the hashtag #fueratata on social media.
Matías Vuoso, an Argentine with Mexican citizenship who played a dozen games for Mexico’s national team from 2008 to 2015, said the relationship between the two countries has always been “special.”
“I think you have to give Martino the benefit of the doubt,” said Vuoso. Dealing with so much criticism and so much history at the same time, he said, “is a lot of heavy baggage to carry. It doesn’t benefit the players or the team.”