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'Don't call up any foreigners!' - Funes Mori under the Mexico microscope after Chicharito's Gold Cup snub

15:00 BST 14/07/2021
Rogelio Funes Mori Javier Hernandez Mexico LA Galaxy GFX
Tata Martino turned to a new face to lead El Tri's attack this summer in a move that has proven controversial for sporting and non-sporting reasons

Strikers are always under a microscope, but those on the Mexican national team are scrutinized to a particularly intense degree.

Fortunately for El Tri, there have been some very good strikers to lead the way over the last decade or so. Javier 'Chicharito' Hernandez might just be their best ever, a legitimate legend that has reached levels matched by few in the country's history.

And, as the LA Galaxy star began to fall out of the picture, he was replaced by Raul Jimenez, a Premier League star that has been a go-to goalscorer in recent years. It was a transition that many national teams would envy.

But with Jimenez still recovering from a gruesome head injury and Chicharito being kept out of the picture, El Tri went into this summer's Gold Cup with questions at striker. 

The answer to those questions, in the eyes of manager Gerardo 'Tata Martino, is 30-year-old Rogelio Funes Mori.

But Funes Mori's recent rise to the starting role has divided Mexican soccer for reasons largely out of his control; the fact he was born in Argentina before becoming a naturalized Mexican citizen has prompted criticism from some leading voices connected with the team.

His inclusion on Martino's roster was the story heading into the Gold Cup, and his performances in the coming weeks could define not just Mexico's tournament, but perhaps even Martino's future.

So far, results have been mixed – after scoring in his first friendly with El Tri, Funes Mori, like many of his teammates, struggled in a 0-0 tournament-opening draw with Trinidad & Tobago.

In a match that saw star winger Hirving 'Chucky' Lozano suffer a horrible head injury of his own, Mexico's attack sputtered, putting both the team as a whole and Funes Mori under that omnipresent microscope.

Born in Argentina, the 30-year-old Funes Mori represented the nation of his birth as a youth international before earning his first, and only, senior cap in a 2012 friendly.

Funes Mori, whose career began at FC Dallas after he was discovered by the Sueño MLS reality show, carved out a club career at River Plate before heading to Benfica, where he struggled to break into the first team.

By 2015, he landed in Mexico, signing with Monterrey. And he's been there ever since. Having scored 121 goals in 244 appearances, Funes Mori has, in many ways, thrived in Mexico, growing into one of the top strikers in Liga MX.

In 2019, he began the process of becoming a naturalized citizen, paving the way for him to join Mexico's national team. Because he never represented Argentina in an official competition, he was eligible to switch, and that's exactly what he did leading up to this summer.

Despite his positive reputation at club level in Mexico, Funes Mori did not receive a warm welcome from some of El Tri's most important historical figures.

By receiving his call-up, Funes Mori became the first naturalized player to be called in by El Tri for an international competition since Matias Vuoso in the 2015 Copa America, and that very idea still remains a point of contention in Mexico.

Earlier this summer, legendary striker Luis Hernandez, the country's fourth-leading scorer of all time, urged forward Henry Martin to seize a spot under Martino, tweeting: "Let’s go @HenryMartinM f***ing get in!! So that they don’t call up any foreigners!!!” Martin ended up being named to the Olympic squad as an over-age player.

Former Mexico boss Ricardo 'Tuca' Ferretti was also critical of the decision, saying he would not have turned to Funes Mori if he were still in charge.

“There will always be opinions. I personally do not agree and everyone knows my mentality: that the selection of a country must be for people born in that country. I do not agree,” said Ferretti, who himself is Brazilian-Mexican, in an interview with ESPN.

Ferretti also voiced his opinion on Martino's own status, with Funes Mori's selection serving as a lightning rod for the coach.

Martino, who, like Funes Mori, was born in Argentina, has always faced a different type of pressure as a foreign-born coach. Of the 16 coaches that have taken charge of Mexico since 1993, only three haven't had Mexican citizenship: Sven-Goran Eriksson, Juan Carlos Osorio and, now, Martino.

Since being named manager in 2019, Martino has made very few missteps. The team is 25-3-3 under his watch, having won the last edition of the Gold Cup in 2019.

But, when you're in charge of El Tri, you're only as good as your last result, and the one that still lingers is a Nations League final defeat to the rival USMNT. Martino was sent off in that game for touching a referee during a VAR review, leaving him in the stands to watch El Tri's 0-0 draw to start the Gold Cup.

During his time in charge of Paraguay, Martino notably turned to several Argentinian dual-citizens to join the national team. It's something Ferretti, personally, doesn't believe in, as took aim at Martino prior to this summer's tournament.

“The coach of the National Team must be a Mexican and the players of the Mexican National Team must be Mexican," he said. "I have nothing against anyone, but a  foreign coach in the national team speaks of the instability of those from that country."

And then there's the problem presented by Chicharito, who finds himself playing his best soccer in years.

The 33-year-old striker has 10 goals in 10 games this season for the Galaxy after struggling during his first season in MLS. In a recent interview with Goal, the Mexican star opened up about his struggles, discussing how his struggles with his mental health impacted him on and off the field.

Chicharito hasn't been called up to the national team since 2019 and has not joined the team since Martino took over. No one from the national team side has officially stated why Hernandez has been excluded, with reports saying it stems from an off-field incident in 2019. At least this time around, though, there are no on-field concerns to justify his absence.

“I am one more fan of the Mexican team,” Chicharito said recently. “I hope they can win the Gold Cup, win the gold medal [at the Olympics], that they can qualify for the World Cup.”

Mexican fans were given hope that Hernandez could be called in after he was included on Mexico's preliminary squad but the Galaxy forward was inevitably left off Martino's 23-man roster with Funes Mori and Alan Pulido chosen as strikers.

“I chose other players over Javier Hernandez," Martino reiterated on Tuesday. "I did not consult the leaders, I informed them. They never suggest any player names.

“We understood that Rogelio Funes Mori was the best option because he was new and at some point we had to see him. This Gold Cup was the moment.!

You can count Luis Hernandez among those that wanted to see Chicharito back involved, for several reasons.

"If they give me a choice, obviously I'd take Chicharito a thousand times," Hernandez told ESPN. "First, because he is Mexican by birth, but also because of sporting reasons. Javier must go back to doing his thing, which is scoring goals, playing and being present in the area.

"I think Chicharito has a better rhythm right now and there they don't have to debate anything about whether he is better than Funes Mori. The one with the best rhythm at the moment is Chicharito."

Also excluded is another MLS star, LAFC winger Carlos Vela, although that decision is almost exclusively his. Vela, who has had his issues with the national team program in the past, has opted to step away from the team to focus on his club career and his family, depriving the team of another potential goalscorer out wide.

"I just want to see Mexican players being successful, whether that’s them coming to MLS or going to Europe, every individual has a different path, but I just want to see them win," Vela told Goal earlier this year. "That’s my country, so I love to see anyone from there succeed."

And so Mexico heads into its second match, a meeting with Guatemala, thin in the attack. Lozano is a huge loss, with Martino, at least against T&T, turning to LA Galaxy youngster Efrain Alvarez in his place.

Even so, Martino's squad is still likely the strongest in the tournament with Mexico still having many of its top stars in the squad. El Tri are the favorites and will be expected to cruise through most of the tournament on talent alone.

But, if they don't, a much-criticized decision could turn into something much, much bigger for Martino and Mexico, whose hopes are resting on Funes Mori's shoulders.