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Global Oct 14, 2014

Mexican Women’s National Team stagnates as funding, machismo limit program’s growth

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After the U.S. Women’s National Team’s recent dominating wins over Mexico (the USWNT won last month’s twin friendlies by a combined score of 12-0), many were left asking: What happened to Mexico?

For many, the most indelible memory of the Mexican Women’s National Team is their 2-1 stunning upset of the U.S. in the semifinals of the 2011 Women’s World Cup qualifiers in Cancun, Mexico. That loss forced the U.S. to qualify for the World Cup via a home-and-away intercontinental playoff with Italy that snared them the final spot in the 2011 tournament in Germany. 

However, history reveals that Mexico has always been thoroughly dominated by their rivals north of the border, with the USWNT holding an all-time record of 28-1-1 in the matchup. So perhaps the best question isn’t “what happened,” but “why hasn’t anything changed?”

Mexico are currently ranked 25th in the world. Their FIFA ranking peaked in January 2011, just before the 2011 World Cup in Germany. Meanwhile, their lowest ranking in the last 25 years came in December 2002, when FIFA released their first set of rankings based on the current criteria and Mexico came in at 31st in the world.

Tournament fortunes have been mixed. Mexico qualified for the 1999 World Cup, but failed to qualify again until the 2011 World Cup. This year Mexico, like the rest of CONCACAF, will benefit from tournament hosts Canada gaining an automatic spot in the tournament as well as the expanded field from 16 to 24 teams. As a result, Mexico appear to be a virtual lock for a CONCACAF spot in the 2015 World Cup.

It is worth looking at the roster named for the qualifying tournament to see what lies ahead of them at the WWC. Five different players scored for the team during the 2010 World Cup qualifiers, but only two of them will be in this year’s picture as only 10 named to the roster this year played in 2010.

Mexico had one of the youngest rosters in the tournament in 2010 and little has changed this year, as Mexico have the second-youngest group in the competition, behind only Guatemala, with an average age of just 23 years. The common refrain to explain poor performances has been that the team is young and in transition.Unfortunately, that has been true for over a decade. At some point, the team should age, but it doesn’t because of player turnover.

The lack of stability in the program can be attributed to myriad factors, but two of the most glaring are low compensation and the less-than-successful participation of the federation in the NWSL.

+ READ: NWSL: Breaking down 2014 attendance numbers, part I

National-team players receive an average of 4,000 pesos, approximately US$300, monthly. With such low compensation from the national team, many promising players are either forced to leave the team just one or two years after college for better opportunities or pursue better opportunities. Some attempt to rejoin the team for significant tournaments – like Alina Garciamendez, who declined to participate in the NWSL in favor of attending dental school.

Just before the publication of this article, learned that in addition to the $300 monthly stipend from the Comisión Nacional de Cultura Física y Deporte, players will also receive a $40 per diem from the federation while they are in camp. This is a massive development as the team spends a considerable amount in camp and the per diem has the potential to double (or more) a player’s compensation each month. Time will tell if this measure will have an impact on turnover.

Mexico’s participation in the NWSL has also been mixed, with some players fitting in well to their teams with minimal issues. Veronica Perez had a solid season with the Washington Spirit, scoring their lone goal in the semifinals against Seattle Reign FC. Another NWSL success story was Bianca Sierra, who was not allocated by the Mexican federation, but earned a spot on the Spirit roster in preseason by showing her defensive versatility, playing both left back and center back for a team that desperately needed depth at both spots.

Bianca SierraHowever, several other Mexican players have found themselves permanently rooted to the bench and others never completed a season with their allocated club. Notably, last season Dinora Garza was allocated to play for the Boston Breakers, but declined to play in the league, while Jackie Acevedo played only two games for Portland Thorns FC.

One of the few elements of stability within the Mexican team is head coach Leo Cuellar. He has been head coach of the team since 1998, achieving a record of 67-98-16 during his tenure. The notion of having one coach at the helm of the national team for over a decade is an entirely foreign concept for many national team programs, including the U.S. In fact, the USWNT has had six different full-time head coaches during Cuellar’s tenure. For better or worse, each coach has brought a new approach and style to the team, helping it evolve over time.

The U.S. is an extreme example, but it is notable that Tom Sermanni was fired from his position as the head coach of the USWNT earlier this year following the team’s poor performance at the Algarve Cup. U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati stated following Sermanni’s dismissal that the Algarve results weren’t the primary factor in the decision, explaining that the vision and direction of the program were the issue.

Ultimately, this shows that there is constant evaluation of the U.S. coaching staff, something that appears nonexistent within the Mexican federation.

Looking at Cuellar’s tenure, it is hard to understand the logic of maintaining the same head coach for such an incredible amount of time. His results have been mixed, making major tournaments some years, while missing them in others. The team had a relatively unimpressive peak in the FIFA World Rankings considering the relative popularity of soccer in Mexico and the resources of the Mexican federation. Notably, however, the team’s ranking has never dropped to anything that would be considered ‘alarming,’ with their lowest ranking at 32 in 2002.

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A former Mexico team captain, current ESPN and Fox analyst and founder of the Gonzo Soccer Academy, Monica Gonzalez is uniquely positioned to comment on potential path forward for the program. She noted that the federation has made several considerable positive changes in regard to the women’s team, including opportunities to travel overseas for competitive tournaments and improved training facilities. The team now has a hotel onsite for their national camps, a major departure from the previous arrangement – here the team was only permitted to use the changing facilities onsite if they weren’t in use by a men’s team.

+ READ: Alex Morgan, Abby Wambach lead USWNT past Mexico

Gonzalez believes that the most immediate need for the team is to establish a youth program to provide structure and training at an earlier age for players. Currently, no robust system is in place, which means that young girls don’t have the mindset and opportunity for physical training that athletes in other countries have.

“They don’t understand what it means to get on the line and run until the lactic acid in your legs builds up and then push through that,” explained Gonzalez. “In Mexico and South America this type of running isn’t common because coaches don’t think it is safe and there is a view that the girls need to be protected.”

She pointed out that proper physical education and a strong youth soccer infrastructure can help overcome obstacles like that and build toward a stronger national team.

Gonzalez explained that the need to protect the girls and women is tied to a cultural phrase in Mexico called ‘machismo.’ Men in the culture feel the need to protect and shield girls, which results in the training philosophy outlined above. However, this machismo extends to both the Mexican federation and press. Gonzalez noted that the press is generally very positive about the team and frequently writes from a viewpoint of protection rather than accountability.

veronicaPEREZThe Mexican press are frequently relentless in their criticism of the men’s team, because they hold such high expectations for the program. Yet there appear to be no such expectations held for the women.

The notion of protection rather than holding the women to a high standard extends to the federation as well. The men’s national team has gone through nine full time coaches during Cuellar’s tenure. Coaching changes can happen for myriad reasons, but ultimately the changes show that there is an expectation of achieving certain objectives and outcomes. Certainly given the mixed results of the previous 16 years, if the women’s program was being held accountable for their outcomes there would have been some change in the coaching staff like there has been on the men’s team.

With the country’s intense passion for the sport, it is encouraging to see the steps forward for the women’s game. However, it also appears that there are a variety of ways the federation can accelerate that growth to propel the program to new heights, rather than be satisfied with the current plateau.