Carlos Vela Is Mexico's Hottest Novela
Mexican national team manager Miguel "El Piojo" Herrera may be giving Carlos Vela his last shot to play with El Tri.
Photo by Ron Scheffler-USA TODAY Sports
Shortly after Mexico announced its roster for the 2014 World Cup, Oscar-nominated director Alejandro Gonzalez Iñarritu—brother of national team director Hector Gonzalez Iñarritu—told manager Miguel Herrera that a movie should be made about Carlos Vela's life.
"He's the only person in the world who doesn't want to play in a World Cup," Herrera recalled the director saying. "He could be famous. And he doesn't even care about fame."
Mexican soccer has endured its share of drama recently—after all, this was the same country that had five players suspended prior to the 2011 Gold Cup because they had allegedly eaten tainted meat, which had supposedly caused them to test positive for performance enhancing drugs—but nothing quite matches the Vela saga. The situation has gotten so preposterous that Mexicans have labeled the whole drama "NoVela," a play on words referencing the country's famous soap operas (aka telenovelas).
Since March 29, 2011—the last time Vela made a national team appearance—numerous national team managers, starting with Jose Manuel de la Torre, and ending with "Piojo" Herrera have tried to convince Vela to play for Mexico. All of them have failed. Nobody could quite figure out why.
Yet no one has taken the bold step Herrera took on Tuesday when he officially had a convocation letter sent to Vela in Spain—where the forward plays for La Liga's Real Sociedad—without having even spoken to Vela. Herrera, in various interviews on Tuesday, said that he had heard Vela would accept the invitation to play in matches on November 12 against the Netherlands and on November 18 against Belarus in Amsterdam and Barysaw, respectively, but he did not know for sure. While it might have been a calculated gamble to send Vela the letter, it was a gamble nonetheless.
So now Mexico, and Herrera, wait for Vela's answer, and the drama lingers on. In essence, Herrera has forced Vela to finally make a public proclamation about his intentions to play for the national team. No more backroom discussions. It's time for Vela—whom Herrera has called Mexico's best player in Europe—to make a decision. Spurn Piojo publicly, and Vela may already be cut from the manager's 2018 squad. Amores Perros indeed.
The assumption all along has been that Vela has been angry at the Mexican federation for having suspended him in 2010 for breaking team rules and partying after a match against Colombia. But Vela has never publicly said this.
So prior to choosing his World Cup squad, Herrera visited with Vela in Spain to find out the real story. Herrera ended up even more confused. The two spoke for about 40 minutes. Herrera described the meeting as amicable. Vela denied being angry at the federation, and even admitted that he deserved his suspension. Herrera even promised Vela that he could avoid certain members of the media so that he wouldn't have to answer difficult questions. Herrera was willing to set different rules for Vela—and possibly risk alienating other players—simply to have him on the team.
And Vela still chose not to play for Mexico.
"He said his head just wasn't in the right mind set and that soccer wasn't his passion," Herrera recalled during a May television interview, the manager's most candid comments about the situation. "He told me he doesn't even watch soccer on TV or even play it on a PlayStation. Honestly, that's what he told me."
This of course confounds Herrera, who had his heart broken in 1994 when he was left off Miguel Mejia Baron's World Cup squad. As a player, Herrera's entire life revolved around soccer. Even now, Herrera is consumed by the sport, and his outbursts during the World Cup made him an international phenomenon.
"To be honest with you, I simply don't understand it," Herrera said in that May interview. "We all die to play in a World Cup."
The 25-year-old Vela has only one goal this season and has not performed as well as he did last year. But he's been nursing a foot injury for most of the year, which may well give him an excuse if he turns down the opportunity to play for Mexico in November. That also may keep him from possibly facing FIFA sanctions for turning down an official invite.
Yet regardless of his struggles this season, Vela continues to be one of Mexico's best players. His inclusion on the team certainly boosts Mexico's chances for a better showing at the 2018 World Cup. After all, last season Vela squeezed out Lionel Messi to be one of three finalists—along with Diego Costa and Cristiano Ronaldo—for the La Liga striker of the year award.
"He's an extraordinary player," Herrera said in May. "But he's no Hugo Sanchez. And everyone says, 'Well if Vela doesn't go the World Cup then [Mexico is doomed].' In his moment when Hugo Sanchez was doing everything he was doing, then yeah if Hugo Sanchez didn't go to the national team then it was a big deal. He was a world-renowned player. And Hugo Sanchez showed up."
While Herrera may try to downplay Vela's importance, Piojo's actions speak more to how vital he sees Vela's inclusion on the squad. He has stopped short of begging, but he's certainly come close. The prideful Herrera might not admit it, but he must know that his own legacy may be tied to Vela's whims. A long run with Vela in 2018 would cement Herrera's folk hero status. Another knockout round loss without Vela leaves Herrera on par with other Mexican managers. He would be just another guy that disappointed Mexican fans.
But even Herrera must know when enough is enough, and we might have reached that moment. Herrera appears to want to know whom he can count on and whom he can discount from the player pool. We may have reached the finale of this drama.
Or Vela may claim injury, sit out the two games, and Herrera—along with Mexican fans—may be left wondering what other plot twists will come next.