M.L.S. Brings Chicharito Closer to Mexico. But Maybe Not Close Enough.


The most explosive announcement of Major League Soccer’s off-season this year came in the form of an emotional, intimate moment shared on YouTube.

Through tears last month, Javier Hernández, the top scorer for Mexico’s national team, called his parents in his hometown, Guadalajara, and told them he had decided to end his decade-long career in Europe and sign a contract with M.L.S.’s Los Angeles Galaxy.

“I’m leaving the European dream,” Hernández, 31, said through a speakerphone from his house in Seville, Spain, where he had been playing for four disappointing months. “That’s what’s making me cry: It’s not so much that I couldn’t make it. It’s more about saying goodbye,” he added, cradling his infant son on his couch and getting hugs from his wife and his life coach.

“Now that the Los Angeles deal is closed, everything is perfect,” Hernández said, breaking down even more. “It is the beginning of my retirement.”

A few days later, at the news conference where he made his move to the United States official, Hernández was less humbled. He did not play down his European successes, which are many. He started his career abroad with Manchester United, winning two Premier League titles with the club, and then had a brief stint with Real Madrid, distinguishing himself as a reliable substitute. He went on to join Bayer Leverkusen in Germany, then returned to the Premier League with West Ham, before finally landing in Seville.

“Imagine coming back as a Mexican soccer legend,” he said of his return to North America.

The boast struck a nerve in Mexico.

The country has long had a complicated history with its sports stars, and especially with the members of its national soccer team. Players like Hernández and others are revered for their successes, but vilified for even the tiniest weakness. The attitude plays itself out in reactions from the stands, and in often-confrontational coverage in the Mexican news media. At times, the pressure has grown so intense that Mexico coaches have hired mental coaches to help their players navigate it.

In that context, then, it was not surprising that some viewed Hernández’s comments before and after his arrival in Los Angeles — and even his decision to join M.L.S., which many of his compatriots deride as a step down from the challenges players face in Mexico’s top league, Liga MX — as an unforgivable slight.

To his detractors south of the border, Hernández was less a national hero and more akin to a traitor, snubbing better opportunities at home by choosing Los Angeles.

Fans in Mexico seized on his weeping as a sign that Hernández, widely known as Chicharito, was sad about joining M.L.S. and that he knew he had signed up for a lower level of play.

“You watch the games when Mexican teams play against the M.L.S., and you can tell they are lacking, they don’t have any technique, they look like little kids all running after the ball,” said Eduardo Estrada, a 53-year-old flower vendor in Mexico City. “That’s why they call the league ‘the cemetery of the stars.’ Players just go there for the money.”

Commentators spent hours of airtime dissecting Hernández’s word choice — “legend” — and its legitimacy. Others continued a perpetual debate about his résumé (127 goals in Europe and 52 for Mexico), his playing style (an accidental scorer, rather than a pure one) and his soccer pedigree (he is the son of a former Mexican pro and the grandson of another).

But Hugo Sánchez, who also had an illustrious European career and is still considered the best Mexican player of all time, said that, in Hernández’s case, the title “legend” was justified.

“Javier played in the best clubs in Europe and can do and say whatever he wants,” Sánchez said in a telephone interview.

Hernández is a master at taking shots with fast, smart reactions. He has scored goals with the back of his head, stumbling and pushing the ball with his face, and with his back. His style may be unconventional — his critics call it stiff, even clumsy — but it is effective.

Hernández has long been different from most Mexican players off the field as well. He has always been more comfortable speaking English than his teammates, which has helped lift his confidence abroad. He broke the mold of previous Mexican soccer stars, who mostly came from modest means and sometimes struggled to express themselves as fully as Hernández did.

For the Mexican novelist Antonio Ortuño, who is also from Guadalajara, the efforts to diminish Hernández are just the most recent example of the fickle nature of public opinion in the country.

“We don’t like success that much, and with Chicharito you can see that very clearly,” Ortuño said. “He has been the most consistent player over the past 10 years — he has played with the best European teams — and even then, he is not loved.”

Ortuño said that when Sánchez was dazzling the world as a star forward with Real Madrid in the 1980s, he was disparaged in Mexico as vain.

Sánchez said he never let his countrymen’s opinions affect him.

“When I was in Europe, all the comments were out of jealousy and envy, which is very human, but I didn’t care,” he said. “On the contrary, it was motivation.”

Part of the problem, he said, is that Mexican fans will always see playing in the United States as inferior to playing in Mexico. For Cuauhtémoc Blanco, another of Mexico’s biggest stars who headed to M.L.S. as he neared the end of his career, the decision was difficult because of perceptions in his homeland that the United States is where careers go to die.

“Everyone told me that I had gone there to retire,” said Blanco, who joined the Chicago Fire in 2007, “but I still came back and played the World Cup in 2010, and several years more.”

Hernández, like Sánchez and Blanco, brushed off the criticism from Mexicans about his decision. But in an interview with Fox Sports, he clarified his comments about using the word “retirement,” saying he still had plenty left to give.

“A word is a word, and why do you take it in the negative extreme?” he said. “There’s a lot of positive extremes, too. Imagine if I decided to go to Mexico, and if I say the same word. Liga MX is not like a retirement league in Latin America, right? So it’s just — I’m close to it.

“The thing is, when you say something, people have a very thin skin, so you need to overexplain, overexplain, overexplain. It’s like onions: You have to take all of them, all the layers so they can understand.

“This is not a league of retirement. That’s why I came.”


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