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Do the U.S. and Mexico care about the Gold Cup anymore?

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 By Tom Marshall

Chicharito's unlikely Mexico record is only the beginning as World Cup looms

MEXICO CITY -- Javier "Chicharito" Hernandez's goal on Friday against Costa Rica in World Cup qualifying wasn't the be-all and end-all when it comes to his status as a Mexico legend. The 28-year-old Guadalajara native could've hung up his boots a year ago and still been revered as one of Mexico's greats.

But the goal -- which brings him temporarily level with Jared Borgetti on 46 goals -- means that Hernandez's place as Mexico's top scorer is consolidated. And considering "Chicharito" is still only 28 and likely has two more World Cups in him, it will be a long time before anyone overtakes his eventual haul at the top of the list.

As much as the Bayer Leverkusen star may deflect praise for his goal-scoring attributes and stress that soccer is a team sport, deep down he will enjoy Friday's goal and cherish what the historic moment means to both him and his family, particularly his grandfather Tomas Balcazar, who featured for El Tri at the 1954 World Cup in Switzerland.

"One of my best friends (Keylor Navas) was in goal ... My grandparents and parents were in the box and then, on top of it all, it was in the Azteca that I scored the goal to become the top goal scorer," Hernandez said.

Hernandez is in some ways an unlikely figure to take the mantle of Mexico's highest scorer. A late bloomer with Chivas, he was left out of Mexico's under-17 squad that won the World Cup in Peru in 2005. But almost 12 years on, his career has surpassed those of the "golden generation" stars of that tournament: Giovani dos Santos and Carlos Vela.

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Speak to people who have known Hernandez from the beginning of his career and the characteristic that is highlighted is his mental strength. "Chicharito" has been able to ride the ups and downs of his career and consistently score goals, adapting to life in three different European leagues along the way.

As career templates go, Hernandez is already one of the best Mexican players in history, even if the bar set by No. 1 Hugo Sanchez is high. No Mexico fan can ask for more from "Chicharito" than what he's given. He's checked many of the boxes young players dream of when embarking on a career. There's been a Liga MX scoring title -- only one Mexican has managed it since -- a move to European super club Manchester United, two Premier League titles, a Champions League final, a stint at Real Madrid and a move to the Bundesliga, where he's won five player-of-the-month awards. Now, he's at the top of the tree when it comes to goals scored for his national team.

When we discuss the next batch of Mexican talent and what they hope to achieve, Hernandez is the example to follow. He's the standard bearer for Mexican football, the first name that people throw at you when you are outside of Mexico discussing the country. Hernandez is the embodiment of that "si se puede" chant, despite being far from El Tri's most technically doted center-forward.

But Hernandez's distinguishing feature -- his mental strength -- means he won't be satisfied with just being Mexico's top scorer. His achievements speak for themselves, but there are also pending issues that will be irking him, most notably with the national team.

That Hernandez has never been considered a starter going into either of the two World Cups he's featured in so far will hurt. It looks like he's in line to do so under Juan Carlos Osorio at Russia 2018, and "Chicharito" will want to play his part in propelling the team to new heights.

The center-forward now has his individual place in Mexican football's Hall of Fame, but the next objective for Hernandez has to be to helping El Tri into Russia 2018 and beyond the round of 16 once it gets there.

Tom Marshall covers Liga MX and the Mexican national team for ESPN FC. Twitter: @MexicoWorldCup.


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