The Swift Rise and Inevitable Political Fall of Mexican National Team Coach Miguel Herrera

Not long ago, El Piojo was a national hero in Mexico. Now, after assaulting a reporter in the Philadelphia airport, he's unemployed.

by David Agren
Jul 31 2015, 12:15pm

Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

Mexico's men's national soccer coach Miguel Herrera won fans at home and across the globe during the 2014 World Cup with his colourful sideline antics. Memes of him losing his mind, stomping along the sidelines went viral.

Herrera's hot-headed ways worked wonders with an underachieving Mexican soccer squad. But recently, his style has rubbed Mexicans the wrong way — and ultimately, it cost him his job. The coach, commonly called, "El Piojo," or, "The Louse," for his scrappy style, accosted soccer commentator Christian Martinoli — a harsh Herrera critic — in the Philadelphia airport on Monday, a day after Mexico defeated Jamaica 3-1 to win a Gold Cup tournament that was rife with so many refereeing miscues that many fans believe it was rigged in in Mexico's favour.

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The Mexican Football Federation (FMF) handed Herrera a pink slip on Tuesday. "Nobody on this team can be above a situation like the one we experienced," FMF president Decio de María said in a statement.

It was a swift fall from grace for Herrera, and the latest embarrassment for a Mexican soccer federation prone to petty politics and poor management practices. Combined with the middling performances on the pitch and poor player behaviour — such as the wild celebration after questionable wins over Central American squads Mexico had previously stomped — some observers say the Mexican soccer system's issues mirror many of the issues the country faces writ large: struggles with corruption, a lack of meritocracy, and culture in which the political and business classes prefer collusion to competition.

"Soccer in Mexico is less of a meritocracy than in other (countries) and hence it reflects the lack of professionalism that plagues the important positions in the country," said Manuel Molano, adjunct-director of the Mexican Institute for Competitiveness. "Either playing, or training or managing the team, we cannot make sure that the best possible Mexicans are the ones in charge. Politics and some of our businesses work the same way."

Herrera took over a troubled Mexican team that was on the verge of failing to qualify for the World Cup in late 2013 as the fourth coach in a five-game stretch. With some help from the United States, Herrera convincingly led the team to victory in a pair of qualification matchups against New Zealand. And under his guidance, El Tri performed creditably in World Cup, though it suffered the usual heartbreaking exit in the Round of 16 on what many Mexicans still consider a phantom penalty against the Netherlands.

Herrera capitalized on his status as savior, going from hero to huckster and pitching everything thing from cellular phone services to antacids to tourism in Chiapas state — a rural state governed by a Green Party politician. But he became toxic after tweeting out election day endorsements of the Green Party — an outfit accused (like many of Mexico's political parties) of running roughshod over election advertising rules, and more forcefully promoting a return of the death penalty rather than endorsing any environmental issues. His relationship with the media turned testy in the aftermath of the tweets. It worsened as the team struggled in the Copa America (in which Mexico fielded a "B" squad of players) and played poorly at times in the recently concluded Gold Cup.

"The backlash to the tweets was severe," said Tom Marshall, a soccer journalist with ESPNFC. "He put himself in a position where people were taking shots at him. Then you throw in the bad results and you get what's happening now."

Better days for EL Piojo. Photo by Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports

Twitter users piled on Piojo, who says he wasn't paid to tweet pro-Green Party messages. But the coach started symbolizing some of the worst shortcomings of an underachieving soccer system, which is accused of being more interested in making money for Mexico's big broadcasters (Televisa and TV Azteca) than unifying the population, or you know, winning soccer games. The FMF is often accused of being beholden to the parochial and political interests of the Mexican league owners who comprise the confederation, and whose whims are said to trump merit in player and coach selection. One-time coach Sven Goran Eriksson accused owners of meddling in management decisions.

Herrera's own comments also caused controversy. "If they make a mistake in your favour, take advantage of it," he said after questionable penalties against Central American competition pushed Mexico into Gold Cup final – which it convincingly won over Jamaica.

The comments underscored the notion that Mexican soccer culture is one in which corners are cut with impunity, as well as the notion that CONCACAF was rigging the refereeing in favor of Mexico – a country with a rabid fan base on both sides of the border. (Biased refereeing also is a common accusation made against the rich clubs of the Mexican league.) The team is an enormous source of income for soccer tournament organizers and athletic gear manufacturers, too.

"What we've seen on the field has to do with what we've experienced in the country, where shameless corruption has returned," said Diego Petersen Farah, columnist with the newspaper El Informador in Guadalajara. "That the team didn't play well, but advanced thanks to [alleged] corruption is a clear metaphor for the country."

Mexico ranks 103 on Transparency International's index of corruption perceptions, down almost 40 places from a decade ago. President Enrique Peña Nieto's popularity has plunged as he, his wife and his finance minister have been hit with allegations they purchased properties from government contractors.

Cartel kingpin Joaquín "El Chapo" Guzman's escape out of a maximum security prison sent the president's popularity plummeting further. The peso is plummeting as well, and statistics show that poverty has increased during the Peña Nieto administration.

Herrera's fall has been swifter—unlike presidents in Mexico, soccer coaches are not elected to six year terms.

"His personality was absolutely perfect," Marshall said. "When he came in, the team was at rock bottom. ... (He) came in with his big personality, the energy that he's got."

But a string of poor play put Herrera on the hot seat. The team's wins with late penalties over Costa Rica and Panama in the Gold Cup playoffs sent Mexican fans into a tizzy as they called for the coach's firing, apologized for the victories and even promised to cheer for Jamaica in the final.

"The team has been playing like crap for a year, in spite of the fact that this is probably the most talented generation of Mexican players ever," said Alejandro Hope, a security analyst, who tweeted support for Jamaica. "If the powers that be take notice that the fans could abandon the team or the league, they might bring on some changes."

Also driving down the team's appeal for fans like Hope: "The national team is basically owned by Televisa."

Televisa is a major institution in Mexican public and political life, and a controversial one. The broadcaster is accused of courting close ties with Peña Nieto and his Institutional Revolutionary Party. The Televisa signals reaches the most remote corners of a country where more people own TVs than refrigerators. And its influence is so strong that critics accuse the broadcaster of pushing Peña Nieto (who coincidently married a Televisa soap opera starlet in 2010) into the president's office. (Both Peña Nieto and Televisa deny any untoward relationship.)

Its influence is also strong over the FMF and Mexican soccer as a rights holder for Mexican team telecasts and the owner of Club América – the Mexico City powerhouse, which has employed Herrera and invites critics to "Hate me more" every time it wins.

"Ever since (Televisa's founder) bought Club América and built the Azteca Stadium in the 1960s, Televisa has acted like Mexican soccer's overlord, dominating TV rights and often imposing its choice of national coach," said Andrew Paxman, a historian at the Center for Research and Teaching in Economics (CIDE) and author of a biography on Televisa founder Emilio Azcarraga Milmo. "It's part of the legendary feudal arrogance of the company."

Herrera's future remains uncertain. He issued a public apology for his outburst. But he also promised, "I'll return, being the same."