Most federations have an easy way of appointing a national team coach: The president makes the call. In the United States, that’s Sunil Gulati, who has hired, extended, and promoted Jurgen Klinsmann. True, Klinsmann has made some disparaging remarks about MLS, but, hey, USSF and MLS are not the same entity. Their interests often align, and past MLS coaches like Bruce Arena and Bob Bradley have led the U.S., but no MLS club is twisting Gulati’s arms to hire or fire a particular coach in a particular moment.
For the Federación Mexicana de Fútbol Asociación, aka, the FMF, the story is more complicated. Consider the pain of Mexico’s most recent World Cup qualifying campaign. Despite a strong World Cup showing, Mexico only went to Brazil thanks to a U.S. win over Panama in the very last game of CONCACAF’s qualifying tournament. They were awful. The Estadio Azteca’s previously impenetrable fortress became a Holiday Inn. El Tri couldn’t score goals at home or away, and during the final harrowing months of qualification, Mexico cycled through interim managers like it was going out of style. They went from José Manuel de la Torre to Luis Fernando Tena to Victor Manuel Vucetich before settling on Club América’s Miguel Herrera for the intercontinental final playoff with New Zealand.
The funny part is Mexico always does this. Its Wikipedia page for managers has special notations for “caretakers.” During the 2010 cycle, the FMF hired and fired Hugo Sánchez after two years because his youth team did not qualify for the Olympics. They then hired Jesús Ramírez and eventually Sven Goran-Eriksson, who was a disaster. Luckily, Javier Aguirre rode to the rescue, arriving in 2009 and guiding the team to South Africa and a Round of 16 showing at the 2010 World Cup. Of course, he didn’t bother to stick around. Instead, the FMF hired “interm” coaches Enrique Meza and Efraín Flores before settling on De la Torre.
If this has happened before, then what gives? It must be structural, right? Kinda. While the FMF does elect a single president, that president forms either a “development” or “executive” committee of 12 persons to make a hiring or firing decision. Of those 12 committee members, normally eight are owners of major clubs. This super committee met before hiring Herrera. They also met before axing Sánchez. Generally, the mere fact of a meeting is bad sign. High-powered executives rarely get together to talk about how great things are going.
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And that’s part of the problem with El Tri. The elites pulling the strings are too focused on the game-to-game livelihood of the team, and not the goal of qualification. Sánchez got fired prematurely for the youth team not qualifying of the Olympics, and De La Torre (above) kept his job way too long because his team won Olympic gold. I don’t want to denigrate friendlies or the Olympics, but smart coaches all over the world use those games to evaluate the breath and depth of the playing pool. The goal is World Cup qualification but also a good tournament. Trying to see which players will blossom and be ready in four years is tough, and a wide net must be cast.
The other problem, of course, is that fans all over Mexico live, eat, and breathe fútbol. More importantly, they want to see passion from the players and also the coaches. And that dual role, as animadora and dealmaker, is why Herrera has thrived at the helm. His decision to play only Liga MX players in the playoff versus New Zealand had a bit of hubris, but also some political and populist elements. He made the club owners happy by picking their players, but also told Mexico, Hey, we’re good enough and the domestic players are good enough. He’s also famous for his sideline fist-pumps, hugs and shouts. His management style is Tommy Boy on meth, but the players feed off the energy. So do the fans.
In addition to actually managing a team, the coach of El Tri must be both a cheerleader and a skilled politician. There’s no room for in between. Eriksson could speak boardroom talk with the committee, but was ice cold on the sideline. Smoke came out the ears of Sánchez during games, but he couldn’t kiss CEO butt. Herrera is doing both exceptionally well. Expect to see him stick around.