After a first six months filled with commercial obligations, El Tri’s coach is excited to work with his players toward this summer’s goal
Tata Martino’s calendar for the next month is set. He couldn’t be happier about it.
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The Mexico manager is preparing for his first major tournament. Shaking hands with civic leaders or showing up to an important function in some place or another is on hold for the summer. He’s going to be doing his job and nothing else.
On multiple occasions, the coach has mentioned his surprise and frustration at having so many obligations away from football, both official and unofficial, since coming on board with Mexico in January. However, he had to know that would be part of the gig.
“The reality is I’m not used to it,” the coach said after one such event. “After my arrival to soccer in the United States, after two years in Atlanta, I understood that my role as a manager was growing beyond what happened in a practice, a match or a training camp. There were social things I had to attend to because they were beneficial and positive for the club.
“So, from there, I understood from there that there were things I have to do. I don’t analyze it too much. When Mexico does an event with an American business, they do the games, this event in Dallas, it’s something I have to participate in. Am I used to doing it? Honestly, no. But I have to do it and do it totally calmly.”
More obligations await the manager after the summer. For now, aside from a news conference before every match and the occasional photo with a fan or coffee with an old friend, Martino will be working with his team.
There now is a singular focus: Win the Gold Cup.
The frustration about commercial obligations hasn’t been the only unpleasant surprise for Martino. The coach also has brought up his dismay that, as CONMEBOL confirmed Thursday, El Tri won’t be invited to the 2020 Copa America. Runner-up twice coaching his native Argentina and once with Paraguay, Martino would love nothing more than to win a South American championship, even if it’s with a North American team.
This annoyance may be more salient than the sponsorship, as it’s reasonable to believe both the coach and the FMF in January thought El Tri would take part in the tournament. However, the United States’ offer to host a competition similar to the 2016 Copa America Centenario was rebuffed and the South American directors turned their attention toward Asia.
“We always want to play against the best and if we could play every day against Argentina, Brazil, Germany, France, we would,” Martino said after a 3-2 win over Ecuador last week. “I don’t pick the game, but yes we want, we want to compete in the Copa America. That’s what is going to make Mexico grow.
“We want to leave the comfort zone that comes with playing in the United States, where we’re always the home team. Of course we want to play against Ecuador in Ecuador or against Chile in Santiago. In fact, Mexico played two games in Argentina last year, but we know that with the commercial commitments that it’s out of the football-side of things and we have to do that as well.
“Let there be no doubt at all, I have no fear of losing 10 games in a row if we’re going to play against opponents that really are superior to us.”
Games against opponents better than Mexico on paper aren’t happening, though. The ones in the Gold Cup group stage against Cuba, Canada and Martinique are.
With no Copa America test on the horizon, the Gold Cup is all the more critical. The newly birthed Concacaf Nations League will be the only competition in which Mexico takes part until World Cup qualification begins. Even there, El Tri often roll through qualification facing mostly teams that look to sit back and counter against the region’s top team rather than come out and play.
The other surprise for Martino was just how deep the fault lines run between the Mexican federation and some of his top players. Mexico enters the tournament as the overwhelming favorite, even with all the absences it has. You could make a starting XI that would be a favorite to win the tournament with the players who aren’t here for El Tri, whether because of injury or a lack of desire to play on the national team.
There are plenty of great players still on the squad, though. They too have had a summer filled with answering questions about players who aren’t around, about their own dedication to the national team and about the responsibility now on their shoulders. Now they can worry more about whether they’re supposed to be tucking inside or overlapping than if they’ll make the final list.
It is time for the players to start playing, for Martino to start coaching and for everything else to fade away. This is what the coach and his players live for. It’s time for Mexico to prove it’s as good of a team as we think it is. Official matches in the Martino era are finally here. He can finally get to work.