Homeward Bound

What it means to come back from Europe for a Mexican footballer
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A Mexican footballer’s return from Europe to one of his home country’s clubs is invariably tinged with some unfortunate emotion. Even in the happiest version of this scenario, when the spell in Eindhoven or Madrid was successful and the player comes home as an héroe futbolístico, there is an inevitable melancholy: The return to Mexico is an incontrovertible sign that the best is in the rearview mirror, that the end is not so far off.. Of course, getting old and moving out of the top flight of club play is a universal phenomenon, but voyaging back home feels different, almost unique, for Mexican players.

Take Ricardo Osorio. Since joining Monterrey in 2010, Osorio has been one of the team’s most consistent performers. Not coincidentally, Monterrey has turned into the nation’s most successful club over that stretch, picking up two CONCACAF Champions League titles and making a pair of appearances in the Mexican league’s championship tie, winning once. Mexico’s is a quality league, and at 32 and playing on the back line, Osorio surely has a few more decent years ahead.

But winning trophies in Mexico isn’t quite the same as competing for supremacy in the Bundesliga. Osorio will almost certainly never again accomplish anything as significant as helping Stuttgart to a German title in 2007. His farewell laps at Monterrey could be compared to Derek Jeter, spurned by the big leagues, spending a few years in Scranton before calling it a career.

And so it has been with Carlos Salcido, Pável Pardo, and, if you want to track back far enough, even the great Hugo Sánchez. For each, after sundry accomplishments in the Netherlands, Germany, and Spain, respectively, the return home has served as a conspicuous marker: the final act has begun. This is natural and unavoidable, but nonetheless kind of depressing.

Of course, all players get old, and many greats have also put the final touches on their career in their native leagues. Ronaldo (the chunky Brazilian one), Maradona, Juan Sebastián Verón, and Ronaldinho, among many others, came home after shining in Europe. Verón was twice voted the South American footballer of the year and won the Copa Libertadores in his dotage; Ronaldo made headlines for running around with a transvestite hooker (I’d call it a win for both.) Even Leo Messi, who arrived in Barcelona at the age of 12, has mused about returning to his youth team, Newell’s Old Boys, back in Rosario at the end of his playing days, a move that might cause Catalonia to break off into the sea.

Yet the homecoming is typically bittersweet for Mexican players, for a number of reasons. Most obviously, there is the question of attention: there are relatively few Mexicans in Europe, which magnifies those who do make the jump across the pond. (In contrast, according to one tally, there are some 600 Brazilians in European leagues.) The Mexican league is also a cut beneath its counterparts in Brazil and Argentina. In Verón’s case, playing for Estudiantes may not have been the Serie A, but winning the Copa Libertadores represents quite a comfortable consolation (not to mention still playing well enough to start for Argentina in the World Cup).

There’s a certain uniformity to the Mexican pattern that is absent elsewhere. While many fabulously accomplished Brazilians come home for a victory lap, a significant handful have not: Roberto Carlos last played in Dagestan, Rivaldo still suits up in the Angolan league (!), Bebeto finished his career in Saudi Arabia, and Cafu retired as a member of AC Milan. The best African players are rarely lured back home—Didier Drogba is now playing in China, Samuel Eto'o lines up for Russia’s Anzhi Makhachkala. Americans often return from Europe, but the quality of American-bred players and the MLS has been so fluid over the past decade and a half that there is no real set pattern. A return from Europe in the twilight of a great American footballer’s career provokes relatively little interest, if only because it hasn’t happened that often in the MLS era. We’ll see if that remains the case when and if Clint Dempsey comes home.

In Mexico, it all plays out with an almost stifling sense of predetermination. Everyone comes home, eventually. The homestretch following a successful spell abroad provokes conflicting emotions for Mexican fans. The feeling is far more dispiriting when the stint in Europe was a flop, and the return home occurs during a player’s physical prime. Rather than that the fuzzy sadness stoked as a good thing comes to an end, when Juanito López turns out not to have been as talented as everyone hoped, the feelings are quite a bit more raw. Unfortunately for Señor López, even if he plays well again in Mexico, his career is always trailed by a “Yeah, but...”

Three such players, all of whom at one point inspired a great deal of optimism, are coming back to Mexico’s Primera Division somewhat prematurely this season, which kicks off on July 20: Pablo Barrera, who was unable to find a home first at West Ham and then at Zaragoza; Efraín Juárez, who flopped at Celtic before joining Barrera at Zaragoza and doing the same there; and Nery Castillo, whose signing with Pachuca for the upcoming term marks his sixth team in the past five years.

In putting their careers back on track, Juárez (who signed with América) and Barrera (who’ll suit up for crosstown rivals Cruz Azul) have certain advantages: they are young (24 and 25), their disappointing turns in Spain and the UK were brief, and they have balanced their club failures with a string of successes with El Tri, wrenching North American supremacy from the US in the process. Barrera, in particular, is virtually unrecognizable when he trades his club jersey for the Mexican national team; the winger whose pace helped dump France from South Africa remains a perennial threat.

Castillo is quite a different case. At 28, he’s well into a striker’s middle age. The son of a Uruguayan footballer stationed in Mexico, Castillo has also never actually played in the professional ranks of his birth nation. His signature moment for Mexican fans was the goal that helped dispatch Brazil in the 2007 Copa América, but that wonderful bit of skill occurred more than five years ago. Since then, he’s done virtually nothing for Mexico, decisively displaced up front by Javier Hernández, Carlos Vela, and Aldo de Nigris. His club fortunes have been equally dismal: while appearing in the MLS, the English Premier League, and the Ukrainian Premier League, he didn’t score a single league goal from 2008 to 2010.

Castillo has the added baggage of a prickly relationship with Mexico writ large. As a youth player in Uruguay, he earned caps with the Uruguayan U-17 team, lining up for Mexico only after he was discarded by the South Americans. Castillo also has the unfortunate antecedent of this notorious rant in 2009, in which he berated a somewhat contentious questioner at a press conference, telling him, “You know what the difference is [between you and me]? I’m in Europe, and you’re in Mexico. And you’ll always be in Mexico”. Physically speaking, they were both actually in Mexico at the time, though Castillo stormed off immediately afterward, presumably intent on flying back across the Atlantic as soon as possible.

Following the interview, which ended in an avalanche of boos and whistles from the assorted media as Castillo headed for the exit, everyone in Mexico (where I lived at the time) wanted to see Castillo professionally humiliated. But schadenfreude, of course, has its limits. After Castillo failed to make a splash with the Chicago Fire, many had come around to the opinion that he had suffered enough.

The reaction to all of these players’ arrival in Mexico has displayed the customary sense of disappointment. The question on every fan’s mind is, What went wrong?

To wit: in a recent interview with Televisa, Juárez summed up his European sojourn thusly: “I had moments that were very good, and not so good, but at the end of the day I don’t see it as a failure. For me, failing is not trying, [in my case] there were circumstances that didn’t come together.” Those aren’t the words of a conquering hero.

Whatever the reasons for their falling short—a bad situation, lack of mental toughness, insufficient talent—the goal for these returnees is to reduce the size of the aforementioned, “Yeah, but...” The hopeful example for this trio is Cuauhtémoc Blanco. The hobbit-shaped playmaker spent two years at Valladolid in Spain, playing in 23 games and doing little of note during his time there other than suffering a devastating leg break while with the Mexican national side for a World Cup qualifier. But upon returning to the friendly confines of Club América and Estadio Azteca, Blanco quickly recovered his flair and spent his 30s cementing his place as the most popular Mexican footballer of his generation. The memory of Blanco’s lack of impact in Spain remains, but it is far overshadowed by his sundry accomplishments and ongoing fame at home.

But for every Blanco, there’s a Kikín Fonseca, who was snapped up by Benfica after impressing in the 2006 World Cup, but lasted just eight games in Portugal; or an Omar Bravo, whose semester at Deportivo la Coruña earned him the dubious honor of a spot on La Liga’s worst starting XI. Neither man has ever recaptured the form that sparked the interest of the European sides to begin with. With this pair, it’s not just the return home that disappointed, but everything that has occurred since.

Cruz Azul, América, and Pachuca are traditionally among Mexico’s most successful clubs. Collectively, they’ve won 23 league titles, and they hold the top three spots for the number of CONCACAF Champions League trophies. But each club finds itself in the midst of lengthy fallow period—they don’t have a league championship among them in the past ten seasons.

Signing Barrera, Castillo, and Juárez represents a move by each club’s management to break that pattern and to secure some silverware in the near future. To succeed this trio needs to emulate Blanco more than Fonseca. Should they do so, the disappointment that Europe provoked will surely fade.

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