ORLANDO, Fla. — For the third successive season, Bayer Leverkusen have decamped to Florida for the Bundesliga winter break. In the shadow of nearby rollercoasters and princess castles, the thoroughly agreeable January weather in Florida is the ideal place for Roger Schmidt’s side to reflect on the first half of the season and to prepare for the all-important second act of 2016-17. Not only must they make up the eight-point deficit that separates them from the hallowed ground of the top four, but an arduous Champions League round of 16 encounter with Atletico Madrid is visible on the horizon.
One man who knows all about knocking Atleti off their proverbial perch is Bayer’s star player Javier Hernandez. In April 2015, the diminutive forward made a huge addition to his personal highlight reel, scoring the goal that sent Real Madrid to the Champions League semifinals at the expense of their defensively stingy city neighbors.
Since then, Chicharito’s career has taken some unexpected turns. After returning from his loan spell at the Bernabeu, Louis van Gaal delivered the damning verdict that he only had a “one percent chance” of representing Manchester United, the team that had plucked him from his hometown club Chivas and placed him on the world’s biggest stage.
Rejected by the Red Devils, Chicha made the fortuitous decision to sign a three-year deal with Leverkusen for a reported $9 million.
It turned out to be one of the best-value signings of 2015.
Hernandez took to the Bundesliga like a duck to water, scoring 19 goals before the club’s winter sojourn to Orlando last year. Playing for the team that has bolstered the careers of Michael Ballack, Rudi Voller, Dimitar Berbatov and Landon Donovan, El Tri’s finest was a man reborn.
On his current trip to the States, however, the 28-year-old is not in such a rich vein of form. The Mexican international has failed to score in his last 17 appearances – or 1,277 minutes, to be precise – and rumors abound that he may be sold.
On Tuesday, Hernandez was quick to dispel any speculation of an imminent move. “The only thing I hear right now is rumors,” he told FC Yahoo in between training sessions at Bayer’s plush temporary home. “I know nothing of anybody trying to contact me or my agent. I’m very happy here.”
His happiness certainly comes across in his highly affable demeanor. The biggest star in Mexico is only too pleased to carry out his media obligations, and after training, no fan is left in want of a selfie or an autograph. The vast majority of supporters in attendance at the open session are high school age or younger, and almost all are decked in the colors of El Tri.
As one small child gets within touching distance of his hero, his face shines with the kind of joy that is typically reserved for the House of Mouse a few miles down the interstate. Hernandez radiates positivity.
September’s Bundesliga Player of the Month is undoubtedly in a goal drought – or what the German media refer to as a “Torflaute” – but he is confident he will get back on track. “I’m a human being and I’m always trying to do my best and improve – on and off the pitch. I never want to be comfortable; I’m always striving for better.”
To further emphasize the point, Chicha notes that he scored nine goals in the second half of last season, and a similar tally is perfectly possible upon his return to Germany in this campaign.
As for the rumors of Hernandez employing the services of the hypnotist who apparently cured Andre-Pierre Gignac’s barren spell?
“Excuse my language, but that’s bull—-.”
In spite of rumors of his departure, his lack of goalscoring and Bayer’s uphill battle to reach the Champions League promised land, Hernandez mentions on several occasions that he is “very happy” with his current situation.
Even when asked his feelings about starting on the substitutes’ bench for recent matches, he is pragmatic and unwilling to express negativity. “One hundred percent of footballers in the world will tell you they want to start every match, even if they are injured or tired!” he said.
Chicha is keen to stress that anything is possible in the beautiful game, but when the subject of players who make big-money moves to the Chinese Super League comes up, he is less willing to suggest that a move to the east could be a part of his future.
“For me, the money is crazy, but I don’t blame the players,” he said. “If they’re told they can go and earn €20m per season, I see no problem with them going. The only thing I can say is that we need to be respectful. Everyone has their goal and we must respect that.”
While the CSL might not be on the cards for Mexico’s second all-time top goalscorer, he seems more receptive of a move to the USA.
“MLS is something that’s more attractive to me [than China],” he admits.
“If I want to retire in MLS, or China, or Dubai, or Australia, or my hometown team, these are all possibilities! In four or five years time, you never know what kind of situation I’ll be in as a footballer and a person.”
“I never say never, and I never say always.”
With a polite smile and a cordial cry of “Ciao!” Hernandez makes his way to his next warm-weather training session.
Outside the doors of the hotel complex, throngs of youngsters in green jerseys mill around waiting for a glimpse of Mexico’s biggest boy-next-door success story. Perhaps, in a few years, he will be a much more regular fixture on these shores.