Mexico coach Sven-Goran Eriksson seemed genuinely perplexed when he was questioned recently about calling in foreign-born players for Mexico's national team.
The addition of naturalized players such as Guillermo Franco (Argentina) and even Antonio Naelson (Brazil), who has been with the Tricolores since 2005, has been met with resistance by those who prefer a Mexicans-only policy for the team. Eriksson's response: The laws define who can play for Mexico -- I am only following those guidelines.
If it seems Eriksson is redefining the Mexican national team, he is only taking things a step further than his predecessor, Ricardo LaVolpe. Eriksson's eagerness to break with the tradition of a native-born squad, combined with Mexico's struggles on the field during World Cup qualifying, have raised tensions. But, with borders blurring and globalization happening, there will be more and more players with multiple nationalities.
The Federacion Mexicana de Futbol recognized the changing demographics. So Mexico now has a Swedish coach and the national team pool includes players who were born in Argentina, Brazil and the U.S.
Meanwhile, emigration north of the Rio Bravo could be changing the complexion of the U.S. national team. The U.S. has only recently started making a noticeable effort to tap into immigrant communities for talent. And the U.S. had to persuade Michael Orozco and Jose Francisco "El Gringo" Torres to join up after they had been playing for Mexican clubs and were being recruited by the Tricolores.
This trend will also continue, according to U.S. Soccer Federation president Sunil Gulati.
"What I've said is I find it hard to believe that with the size of the Hispanic community, and the great traditions in the game in that community, and the size of the African-American community, we don't find more players there," Gulati said. "That doesn't mean 11 percent of the national team will be from those communities, but there is a growing Hispanic [population]."
These changes could have subtle effects on national teams. Mexico could become more physical, its strikers more purposeful. The U.S. could become more technical, play a quicker passing game. But don't expect radical transformations just yet.
"The world is changing and more people are being born in different countries, moving at young ages, and they are having the opportunity to choose which country they want to play for," said U.S. national team assistant coach Mike Sorber, who played alongside Mexican stars Jorge Campos and Claudio Suarez with Pumas in the early '90s. "Some players from Argentina or Brazil, they don't think they have a chance to play for their country, and if they are doing well in Mexico, they will choose Mexico. But there has always been a discussion about foreign players in Mexico and I'm not exactly sure where that comes from."
CD Guadalajara, Mexico's most popular club, has a native players only policy. But Club America, Cruz Azul and Pumas also have large, passionate followings and no such restrictions.
"One of the interesting things is that Mexico was conquered by Spaniards," Sorber said. "So there is a dynamic of what is a true Mexican and what is a Spanish-Mexican? But there is no question there is a lot of pride in being Mexican and supporting the national team -- they've always rallied around that."
|U.S. men's schedule
|U.S. vs. Mexico
Columbus Crew Stadium; Columbus, Ohio
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The interchange between Major League Soccer and Mexican clubs is also altering perceptions.
Before MLS, Marcelo Balboa, Dominic Kinnear, Cle' Kooiman, Tab Ramos and Sorber were among the top U.S. players going south of the border. Since MLS began, Daniel Hernandez has gone back and forth with teams such as the Galaxy and the Revolution in MLS and Necaxa in Mexico. But most of the movement is northward, though few Mexican stars have made the impact of Cuauhtemoc Blanco in Chicago.
"Blanco is the guy everyone likes to hate," Sorber said. "If you thought he was a diver, or whatever, now you get to see him day in and day out, and how important he is to a team's success. And you get to view him as a player being on your side."
In fact, the concept of taking sides in the rivalry is also being modified as sociocultural biases find common ground. Luis Robert Alves "Zague" and Giovani dos Santo, offspring of Brazilian imports, became strong symbols of Mexican soccer. Who knows which side the sons -- either figurative or literal -- of Blanco and Suarez will be on?
"There are open borders now, so everyone goes back and forth," Sorber said. "Mexico has the same things as the U.S. -- there are malls and movies, Kentucky Fried Chicken, McDonald's, Friday's. If Canada had qualified for the World Cup, we could have a similar rivalry with them."
Frank Dell'Apa is a soccer columnist for The Boston Globe and ESPN.
|U.S. vs. Mexico
|Last five home World Cup qualifiers
Sept. 3, 2005 -- W, 2-0, Columbus, Ohio
Feb. 28, 2001 -- W, 2-0, Columbus, Ohio
April 20, 1997 -- T, 2-2, Foxborough, Mass.
Nov. 23, 1980 -- W, 2-1, Ft. Lauderdale, Fla.
Oct. 3, 1976 -- T, 0-0, Los Angeles