Mexico's Hirving Lozano has arrived on the scene - but path to stardom won't be easy
MONTERREY, Mexico -- Hirving Lozano arrived at the Mexico City airport in the early hours of Monday morning with his hood covering his forehead, his sleeping daughter wrapped around his neck and a tired look on his face. With cameras focusing in on the 23-year-old, fans asking for selfies and reporters interrogating him, Lozano paused to make sure his wife had her ride sorted before descending into a car to take him to Mexico's training camp.
It wasn't the snapshot of your average footballer turning up to national team camp, but then Lozano isn't turning out to be your average player.
Winger Lozano has only just experienced his initial taste of Champions League soccer with PSV Eindhoven over recent weeks, but coming into his first games for Mexico since starring at the World Cup, "Chucky" is now the bona fide star of the Mexican national team, even if he doesn't act like one.
It feels almost symbolic that there is no Javier Hernandez, no Guillermo Ochoa and no Giovani dos Santos for games against Costa Rica on Thursday in Estadio Universitario and next Tuesday in Queretaro. All three have been the reference points of El Tri at different points in their careers, but the baton has been passed on in the post-World Cup and post-Juan Carlos Osorio era. And Lozano is carrying it.
The buzz around Lozano isn't about seeing him in Eredivisie best XIs seemingly every week, or the seven goals in eight games so far this season. It revolves around the incremental improvements in his game since moving to the Netherlands in mid-2017. The winger has shown better awareness of teammates around him of late, is more patient than he was in picking the right moment to impact games and has improved defensively. There's even tentative evidence that his one big defect -- his petulance on the field -- is improving, too: he's only received three yellow cards, and zero reds, in 13 games for PSV this season.
And off the field, all indications suggest Lozano is a family man not easily distracted by the trappings of his newfound fame.
The result of all that is the question that entices and teases Mexico fans: Just what is Lozano's ceiling?
Hans Westerhof, a Dutch coach and former player, was a key figure in setting up the Pachuca academy that Lozano came through and uses a phrase to judge a player's development: the challenge has to match the skill. In other words, if the challenge for a player is too great, the player becomes disillusioned; and if the challenge isn't enough, development is stunted.
Lozano is reaching the point now where he is outgrowing the challenge at PSV, especially in the Eredivisie. Surely the recent Champions League clashes against Internazionale and Barcelona have whet his appetite for more regular games against the elite and the player himself has also admitted interest from Barca.
It feels almost natural that Lozano will be on the move at some point in the next 12 months, but his rise and future fate also offers a shining example to the this generation of Mexico players, many of whom were given opportunities in September friendlies or are in this current squad.
The main talking surrounding the Mexican national team right at present is who will become the next head coach, with Atlanta United's Gerardo Martino the most prominent rumor. But equally or even more important will be how many of this generation of players can follow Lozano's trajectory and go from being a Liga MX starlet to establishing themselves in Europe and pushing for a move into the elite.
At present, no Mexican player features for any of the world's top teams, making Lozano's path feel even more important for the upcoming World Cup cycle.
The young group of Gerardo Arteaga, Erick Aguirre, Jesus Angulo, Edson Alvarez, Roberto Alvarado, Jonathan Gonzalez, Gibran Lajud, Raul Gudino and Victor Guzman -- plus Diego Lainez, Orbelin Pineda and others -- will all be looking up at Lozano's example, but will have to make their own decisions.
And it isn't easy. Within this current Mexico squad there are examples of how that path to the top leagues can be truncated, especially by players staying in Mexico too long or not moving abroad at all.
Jesus Gallardo had already signed for Monterrey from Pumas ahead of his fine World Cup; Isaac Brizuela has played for Atlas, Toluca and Chivas; Jurgen Damm went from Estudiantes Tecos to Pachuca to Tigres and Luis "Chaka" Rodriguez from Chiapas to Tigres.
Among the ones that made it to Europe, Diego Reyes has struggled and is now in Turkey; Raul Gudino is back at Chivas from Porto; Raul Jimenez is only now establishing himself as a regular starter, aged 27, at Wolverhampton; Marco Fabian has spent a lot of his time at Eintracht Frankfurt injured, while Jesus "Tecatito" Corona hasn't started a single game for Porto in the league this season.
Not every player can expect to do what Lozano has done and will likely to continue to do, but this meet up is a good opportunity for the younger Liga MX-based group of players to get a close-up look at a player who is currently the example to follow.