I’ve known Miguel Herrera for more than 20 years.
I first interviewed him a few months before the 1994 World Cup. Back then, he was known as a tough fullback, running up and down the field like a blonde bull — a defiant look on his face, unkempt mullet flapping in the wind.
Herrera was ferocious. He had grown up in a tough neighborhood in Mexico City and had learned to claw his way back from abuse. In that first conversation, Herrera told me of the many times he stood up to all sorts of street bullies. His blond hair exposed him to a strange sort of reverse racism. The fact that he lived with his mother and grandmother – apparently abandoned by his father – didn’t help, either.
The future professional soccer player quickly learned that there was one way to settle a score, and it was not through thoughtful conversation.
He became a brawler. A very good one.
As years passed, Herrera took his intensity to the soccer field. Not really blessed with any technical talent, he made up for it with an indefatigable attitude. He ran for miles each game, red in the face, never giving up.
Herrera soon joined the team that would carry him to fame: Atlante, the “people’s team,” a legendary outfit founded in 1916. His particular brand made him an endearing figure for the team’s fans and eventually earned him a spot on the Mexican national team.
That’s when I met him, with perhaps a year to go before the 1994 World Cup. Herrera was excited by the prospect of playing on soccer’s greatest stage.
But it was’nt to be. A few months later, Herrera made a mistake that cost him the dream of a lifetime.
It happened during a qualifying match against Honduras at Azteca stadium. Herrera was told to cover Dolmo Flores, a fast and wily Honduran forward. All match long, the two men fought. And every minute the rivalry got more and more heated. In the end, Flores got inside the young defender’s head. A scuffle near the line turned into a completely unnecessary (and violent) tackle, and Herrera was sent off.
The outburst led Mexican coach Mejia Baron to sideline Herrera from the final roster.
His temper had crushed his hope for history.
After the episode, Miguel Herrera began what one hoped was a transformation. For a while, at least, it seemed that way. For those of us who followed and liked him as both a player and then a coach, Herrera looked like the poster child for sporting redemption. He seemed to have learned his lesson, bridling his demons while maintaining a childlike passion for the game.
That led him to become one of Mexico’s top coaches, eventually winning a national championship with Club America. He then made a jump that must have felt quite close to poetic justice. As coach of the Mexican national team, Herrera saved a sinking ship. He took the team to Brazil, where El Tri performed quite admirably — barely losing, in the most dramatic fashion, to the Netherlands.
Back in Mexico, Herrera quickly capitalized on his new-found prestige. He became official sponsor for various brands. He appeared in every television show imaginable, and accepted interviews for and from every news outlet on the face of the earth (just a slight exaggeration, unfortunately).
And then fame started to work its wretched ways. The coach started to lose sight of what was important. The team struggled a bit.
But that was not what eventually led to Herrera’s downfall. The first nail in the coffin came due to (wretched) politics.
Blind to the consequences, the national team coach decided to promote Mexico’s Green Party on Twitter, breaking electoral law in the process.
It was to be the beginning of the end.
Herrera was severely and rightly criticized. Bewildered, he dug his heels in. He became defiant and resentful of the press, especially those who dared question his methods as coach.
The press (or part of it) didn’t help. In tune with the country’s mood, a number of sportscasters began to pummel not only Herrera but also a number of his players.
Things got personal.
Herrera denounced Christian Martinoli, a particularly acerbic critic, as “an asshole.” Martinoli quickly replied that the Mexican team needed a coach, not a crazed fanatic. The young(ish) Azteca journalist, a showman in his own right, known for his loud and provocative style, was most likely enjoying himself: what better feeling than successfully goading a public figure?
By then, Miguel Herrera was already beside himself. He publicly announced that he would settle things with Martinoli face to face.
And so he did. Last Monday, on his way back to Mexico from winning the Gold Cup, Herrera saw Martinoli at Philadelphia’s airport. Instead of holding back and acting like the bigger man, the coach took a swing at the journalist and sealed his fate.
On Tuesday, he was fired as Mexico’s coach, leaving the team headless at a particularly challenging time, with the qualifiers just a few months ahead, as well as a crucial match against the United States in October to settle who will represent CONCACAF at the 2017 Confederations Cup in Russia.
Just like in 1993, Miguel Herrera allowed his inner demons to defeat him.
There’s nothing sadder than a man who fails to learn from life’s mistakes. Now, in what has been a surreal, pathetic reenactment of his previous failings, Miguel Herrera has lost his one other shot at World Cup glory.