Jeremy Menez arrival whets Club America's appetite for more imports
MEXICO CITY -- The crowd waiting for French forward Jeremy Menez at Mexico City International Airport was probably unlike any other he'd experienced as a pro.
Throngs of fans showed up Tuesday for Menez's arrival, chanting, encroaching on already tight spaces and hoisting their phones high, hoping to capture a glimpse of the man tabbed as a potential game-changer at one of the continent's biggest teams.
The 30-year-old had played for massive clubs before, such as AC Milan and Paris Saint-Germain, but the level of anticipation surrounding his signing for Liga MX's most successful squad at both the local and international levels was beyond measure.
Menez's new team, Club America, has a long and storied history of signing big-name players directly from Europe; Ivan Zamorano, Claudio Lopez, Hugo Sanchez, Djalminha and Ilie Dumitrescu are only a few of the names the team has courted over the past quarter-century.
The custom had fallen out of use in recent times, and America fans had grown weary of watching other teams bring in stars. But the former France international represents a return to form for his new team, and it in turn hopes Menez can return to his best playing form after a year and a half of underwhelming numbers in Ligue 1 and the Turkish league.
Unhappy in Turkey with Antalayaspor, Menez began engineering a move away via his representation. In recent seasons, his countrymen Timothee Kolodziejczak, Andy Delort and Andre-Pierre Gignac have come to Liga MX, opening a new market for players from the Western European nation.
Gignac's productive stay in Mexico has yielded a secondary effect: the desire for other teams to find their own breakout star on the other side of the Atlantic, and pay handsomely to do it. Menez, on the other hand, could break away from a less than satisfactory situation at the club level while maintaining a top salary.
Late last year, a player agent with knowledge of Club America's desire to regain the limelight and with ties to Menez brokered the first contact. "We were notified by someone we know and who is close to the player," Santiago Banos, America's president, told ESPN Mexico.
Knowing full well the opportunity was a positive one, Menez was instructed to research the Mexican club prior to meeting with its top brass.
"I went online and saw America is the biggest team in Mexico," Menez told TDN. "I asked whether [America] played in the biggest stadium in Mexico, if it was where Maradona scored the 'Hand of God.' I'm excited about playing in stadiums like that."
Upon first contact, America executives were pleasantly surprised with Menez's newly acquired knowledge.
"We were surprised how much he knew about the history of this club and of our country," Banos said. "It made us very happy and upon the first contact we moved to negotiate."
Financially, the deal was a welcome surprise for Menez, who walked into the negotiation knowing his countryman Gignac was among the top-paid players in Liga MX.
"He's not a bargain," Banos said. "He has his cachet, but what's important is what he can offer on the pitch, to share what he knows."
By striking the blow for Menez, America also opened pathways to negotiation with other clubs and players in Europe. Dutch forward Luuk de Jong was widely courted from PSV Eindhoven, but the 27-year-old striker was deemed too important by his current club to be sold off.
"It might be a possibility next summer," PSV sporting director Marcel Brands told ESPN Mexico. "We had a call from Club America about two weeks ago and we said no because we have some injured players in his position."
De Jong has started in just nine of his 15 Eredivisie appearances this season, in part due to how well Mexico forward Hirving Lozano is doing since his arrival last summer. Lozano and Jurgen Locadia have combined to score 20 league goals this season; De Jong has four.
"In the future, we'll see more players come to Mexico from Europe," said Banos, remarking that many Mexican teams can offer better salaries than most mid-table teams even in top leagues.
In the end, whether Menez is joined by other players from European leagues seems almost moot. The Frenchman went from unhappy benchwarmer in Turkey to conquering hero in Mexico, with a seven-figure salary to boot.
At the airport, he beamed through the overwhelming welcome, clad in team jacket and scarf. Even after he clutched onto his security detail to hustle through the terminal, he was all smiles, ready for the challenge ahead.
Eric Gomez is an editor for ESPN's One Nación. You can follow him on Twitter: @EricGomez86.