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Who will be the next Rafa Marquez?

Mexico
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Enjoy Marquez while you still can

Mexico
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 By Tom Marshall

Mexico's problems run much deeper than Carlos Vela & Co. moving to MLS

Carlos Vela joins the FC crew to talk about leaving Europe to join MLS expansion team LAFC, the brewing rivalry with LA Galaxy and Mexico's World Cup outlook.
Watch as ESPN FC's Herculez Gomez fools LA Galaxy and Mexico star Giovani dos Santos into thinking they are doing an interview in English live on SportsCenter.

There was one quote from LAFC's Carlos Vela in the MLS media blitz in recent days that made more of a splash in the Mexican press than any other.

The focus wasn't on Vela talking about the fledgling rivalry between the Dos Santos brothers' L.A. Galaxy and the debutant franchise LAFC. Vela's argument that Mexico's MLS-based players will be fresh and in peak condition at the World Cup was neglected and his statement that "I feel like this is the World Cup, Mexico wants to celebrate something," was left ignored.

Instead, Vela's comments about the constant criticism in Mexico were everywhere.

"In Mexico everything is criticized," complained Vela. "If you stay, if you don't play, if you are bad, because you could go to a better team, there is always criticism and if you come here (to MLS) they criticize as well."

"In the end, the important thing is that you decide where you want to be happy and where you can do well, to demonstrate that as well as being footballers we are people."

The counter-argument is that Vela, and the Dos Santos brothers were all lured to MLS in their prime and at a stage in their careers in which they still had much to give in Europe. They could've gone into Russia 2018 mixing it up week-in, week-out in a league like the Spanish first division that would stretch them more than MLS.

It's a valid criticism on the sporting side and one they should take on the chin, although they are probably having the last laugh given their wages and life in Los Angeles. As Mexico coach Osorio says, the national team's quality will naturally improve when it has more players playing at elite level. El Tri's top players moving down leagues doesn't help that.

The context of Vela's complaints about the intensity of criticism in Mexico, however, is regularly missing.

Vela and his good friend Giovani dos Santos became household names in Mexico as far back as the 2005 Under-17 World Cup in Peru, which El Tri won. Vela moved to Arsenal after the tournament, while Dos Santos was already at Barcelona. Both were named in World Soccer Magazine's top 50 teenagers in world football in 2007, with Dos Santos picked fifth and above the likes of Gareth Bale, Sergio Aguero and Toni Kroos. Naturally, Mexico was excited.

With that excitement came expectation for the "golden generation." Vela and Dos Santos had their highs and lows in Europe, without consistently living up to the extensive hype in the intervening years before moving to MLS. Vela rejecting El Tri calls ahead of the 2014 World Cup when he was flying in La Liga didn't help his public image in Mexico, especially with him never really explaining why.

Carlos Vela has always had a love-hate relationship with Mexican fans.
Carlos Vela has long had a love-hate relationship with Mexican fans and his MLS move has turned it sour again.

But sometimes the debate around Vela, the Dos Santos brothers and MLS covers up other, perhaps more important, issues for the Mexican national team. The problem Mexico has and has had is not that Vela and the Dos Santos brothers decided to play in the United States, it's that there isn't enough competition to think that them playing there would make it more difficult to get called up for and be involved at Russia 2018.

Vela remains an important player for El Tri heading into the World Cup, perhaps Mexico's most talented individual game-changer. And Dos Santos may not have had a good last year for club or country, but it's not an easy decision to disregard a 28-year-old who has over 100 caps and the experience of playing in Europe's top leagues, as well as two World Cups, especially when a lot of Mexico's younger talents failed to shine even at the 2017 Gold Cup.

From the Under-17 World Cup winning team in 2011, the Under-20s that finished third in the World Cup of the same year and the London Olympic champions in 2014, more players were expected to emerge.

Bar Hirving Lozano -- and there is a debate to be had about just how much better the Eredivisie currently is than MLS -- not many forwards in Europe or in Liga MX look to be stepping up to be in a position to genuinely challenge Vela. Perhaps the nearest in terms of style is Porto's Jesus "Tecatito" Corona, who has the potential, but had a terrible 2017 marred by off-field tragedy, with him missing the Confederations Cup and the November friendlies for the national team.

The perception of 25-year-old Corona in Mexico is very different from that of 28-year-old Vela. Yet the former Monterrey forward has a record of five goals scored in his last 45 games in the Portuguese first division over the last two seasons. You'd back Vela to have a better scoring rate than that if he was playing for Porto at present.

There has always been that extra intensity of focus on Vela, helping to explain his perception of ungrounded criticism in Mexico, but what El Tri actually needs is a greater volume of younger players graduating to top leagues, snapping at the heels of the Dos Santos brothers and Vela and then leap-frogging them on the depth chart.

After all, for all the criticism of the three friends, they took the leap of faith and moved to Europe as minors, while other current Mexican national team players have been happy to accept the substantial paychecks on offer in Liga MX in return for a career in their comfort zone, close to home and in a league they are accustomed to.

If Vela's complaint is based on the hypocrisy contained within that context, then it is entirely valid.

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

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