Friday, July 20, 2012

Mexican League Kickoff, and the Return of Nery, Efraín, and Pablo

It seems like the Mexican apertura starts off at an earlier date every year. Here we are, July 20, and a pair of games are scheduled for this evening. The European powers are just starting their North American swings, the Olympics are weeks away, the British open just teed off yesterday, the MLB All-Star game was only last week, and NFL teams are yet to report for training camp, and yet here Mexico goes with its rite of the fall. In short, summer has barely even started, but I'm happy for any sporting diversion, so no complaints.

Here's a new piece of mine about the return of a Mexican footballer from Europe generally, and the specific challenges faced by three such players this coming season. Highlights:
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.

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