Injuries the latest problem threatening to derail Mexico's World Cup aspirations

CARSON, CALIFORNIA - SEPTEMBER 20: Gerardo Martino of Mexico speaks with the media.
Mexico national team coach Tata Martino speaks during a news conference at Dignity Health Sports Park on Tuesday. Mexico heads into the final phase of its World Cup preparations with a number of key players injured. (Ronald Martinez / Getty Images)

Tata Martino looked tired and worn as he fidgeted behind the microphone at a news conference earlier this week. The embattled coach of Mexico’s national soccer team has less than two months left to prepare for the World Cup, yet even he has far more questions than answers about the roster he’ll take to Qatar.

Forward Rogelio Funes Mori and midfielder Hector Herrera haven’t played for their club teams in more than a month while dealing with thigh injuries. Forward Raúl Jiménez (groin) and midfielder Luis Romo (thigh) have both sat out more than two weeks. Alexis Vega (knee) is hobbled while another forward, Jesús Manuel Corona, broke a bone in his left leg and tore ligaments in his left ankle last month and is out.

Those six players have 328 games of international experience combined, yet only Vega will have a chance to play in Saturday’s friendly against Peru at the Rose Bowl, the first of Mexico’s two World Cup send-off games in California. How many will play in Qatar is unknown.

That’s bad news for a team that has been shut out four times in its last seven games.

“Thirty days ago, I never thought we’d be in this situation,” Martino, who appears to have aged a decade in the last year, said through an interpreter. “We have to pay attention to it with the time getting closer to … the start of the World Cup.”

The injuries are just the latest in a series of troubles that have befallen Martino and his team. Mexico lost its final two World Cup road qualifiers last year, then played their first two home qualifiers this year without fans, punishment for supporters’ continued use of an anti-gay chant.

In July, after the under-20 team failed to qualify for the 2024 Olympics, the Mexican federation, in search of scapegoats, forced out sporting director Gerardo Torrado, among others. It was a bold, even reckless move so close to a World Cup — and one Martino acknowledged by reportedly joining Torrado in resigning.

His resignation wasn’t accepted, but his contract expires after the World Cup and it’s clear Martino won’t be back. So the coach has taken off the gloves and begun punching back at critics in the Mexican press and elsewhere.

“Please don’t fire me. I’m still here, OK?” he joked at one point during a 25-minute news conference in which he answered the questions and criticism confidently but defiantly.

Mexico forward Rogelio Funes Mori celebrates after scoring against Honduras.
Mexico forward Rogelio Funes Mori celebrates after scoring against Honduras during the first half of a CONCACAF Gold Cup match in July 2021. Funes Mori is among the players injured for Mexico. (Rick Scuteri / Associated Press)

“I'm in a position where it is very difficult not to have obstacles, ups and downs, because leading a national team has everything involved. There is no way to do this job without obstacles,” he continued. “But I have learned something. It is very difficult to change something that, in my opinion, could make Mexican football better.

“There are some places where my suggestions or recommendations do not move forward. And there are other people that can make recommendations to make Mexican football better and in my opinion could have done a lot for this. But no. It is the same feeling that I have had from day one. That is what it means to be a coach of a national team.”

Martino has few tools and precious little time to turn things around since he must submit his World Cup roster by Nov. 13, nine days before the team’s opening game with Poland. Mexico will also play Argentina and Saudi Arabia in group play.

So he’s looking for quick solutions.

With Jiménez, Funes Mori and Corona out, Club América’s Henry Martín and 21-year-old Santiago Giménez of Feyenoord, who has yet to play a competitive international match, will get long looks at forward, probably playing alongside winger Hirving Lozano.

“We’re working to get to a [World Cup] level,” Lozano, one of 11 European-based players on Mexico’s 31-man roster, said in Spanish. “Part of the problem is with a national team, you don’t have much time to work. But we’re trying to get to that level.”

Lozano was the second-youngest player on Mexico’s team when he scored the only goal in a 1-0 win over reigning champion Germany in the World Cup opener in 2018. Now, with so many players sidelined, he has become a team leader and his 58 international caps are by far the most among healthy attackers.

“There are moments I feel more mature as a football player, more mature mentally, most mature as a human being. And that makes me better, no?” said Lozano, 27, who spent the last four years with PSV in the Dutch league and with Napoli in Italy. “I grew a lot in Holland, I grew a lot in Italy. So I feel good.”

For those whose spot on the World Cup team are far from guaranteed, the next six weeks, beginning with Saturday’s game against Peru, will be difficult.

“I’m a little nervous. Anxious too because I want to see what’s going to happen. Am I going to go or not?” Chivas midfielder Fernando Beltrán, 24, who is hoping to make his first World Cup team, said in Spanish as he shivered on a cool evening.

Asked if the shivering was because of the cold or the nerves, he laughed.

“The nerves,” he said. “This is the dream of every footballer.”

After Saturday, Mexico will play three more friendlies before leaving for Qatar, facing Colombia on Tuesday in Santa Clara, then meeting Iraq and Sweden in November in Girona, Spain.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.