Heading into Brazil 2014, Mexico's soccer team is playing like an unrefined orchestra. They will be looking to midfielder Hector Herrera as the conductor to bring them together.
Herrera just finished his first season in Porto FC with 17 games played in the Portuguese league (scoring 3 goals), four Cup matches and eight games in European tournaments (three in the Champions League and five in the European League).
Herrera has drawn comparisons to his idol from Boca Juniors Juan Román Riquelme, and it's easy to see why. The two have similar styles on and off the field: both are men of few words but both understand that to master the game you need the strategy of a chess champion, the wiliness of a poker player, and the dead-eyed aim of a hunter.
Also like Riquelme, Herrera is limber and spry, and he has the bearing of a complete athlete. His reactions are twice as fast as his imagination and his motions are graceful and decisive. But in power, Herrera surpasses even his idol.
Herrera, 24, is a quiet player who leads by example on the turf, said Andrés Fassi, the Argentinian manager of Pachuca, where Herrera played before making the leap to Europe.
Just like Riquelme, "he says only what he needs to say. He seems very timid, but when he puts on his cleats he knows he has a responsibility to the game. He feels like a soccer player day and night," Fassi said.
"I am a dynamic player," Herrera summarized last year after his transfer to Porto became the first big-money deal negotiated by Tony Blair's son, football agent Nicholas "Nicky" Blair. At $10.5 million it was the most expensive signing of a Mexican player ever. (Manchester United paid $9.5 million for Javier "Chicharito" Hernandez in 2010).
His transfer to Europe is a study in the dramatic contrasts that exist in the world of soccer.
After seeing Mexico win the gold medal at the London Olympics in 2012, the 27-year-old Blair went looking for Herrera in the dusty mining town of Pachuca, an hour outside Mexico City. The multi-million dollar negotiation kick started Blair's career as an international sports agent.
Newspapers at the time pointed out the stark clash of cultures: a poor Mexican kid putting his trust in a posh Englishman who spent his teenage years at 10 Downing Street.
Herrera was born and raised in the rough border city Tijuana at a time when children grew up looking north to San Diego and preferring to play baseball.
At 17 he left his humble family to begin wandering through a series of miserable teams on the periphery of Mexico's professional league where it is not uncommon for hopeful young athletes to pay coaches cash just for the chance to play.
Herrera started out in 2007 in the Second Division playing for a team called the Arroceros de Cuautla, (the Rice Farmers of Cuautla) in the central state of Morelos. After three years there, he was hired by Pachuca. But instead of putting him on the team, management lent him to the port city of Támpico Madero in the Gulf state of Tamaulipas to play for a small club nicknamed "los Jaibos" (the Crabs).
Herrera arrived in 2010, the same year Tamaulipas exploded in a wave of frightening drug violence culminating in the massacre of 72 migrants by the brutal Zetas cartel. Herrera stayed for a year and made it to the play-offs, but the Mexican Soccer Federation kicked his team out of the league for not paying its dues and they lost their chance to play for the title.
Like the rest of the squad, Herrera had no money, and his pregnant wife Shantall begged him to give up soccer and find a real job, he said in a television spot now widely circulating on YouTube.
"I told her to wait for me, that we would make it with my playing if I just got to work," Herrera, who only finished middle school, said.
He had a breakout year in 2011 when Pachuca's top coach Efrain Flores saw him play at pre-season training at the request of the club's scouts.
"They told me that he was a player who came from out of state, that he had been in the lower divisions but got stuck there. That he hadn't progressed. They said he was getting desperate," Flores said.
Flores, himself a disciple of the Argentinian coach Marcelo Bielsa, is a Mexican trainer with experience developing world-class players like Rafael Márquez. He said he immediately recognized Herrera's innate talent. "He is technically skilled and tactically alert," Flores said. Pachuca decided to take him back. On July 23, 2011, he debuted in the first division at 21 with a 5-month-old son.
After just a few months he was called to the national team to play in the Olympic qualifiers and the prestigious youth championship in Toulon 2012 where the team captains voted him Most Valuable Player. Herrera then steered Mexico to the country's first gold medal for a team sport. "The final in London against Brazil was the best thing that ever happened to me. I thought we would win, but not like that, so beautifully," Herrera told reporters recently. "Facing Brazil, with all her stars (Neymar, Marcelo, Hulk, Pato), and winning … that was something extraordinary. Now we hope to do it again where they live."
Raul Vilchis Olalde, a Mexican journalist based in New York, has covered two World Cups, two Olympic games and a couple Americas Cup tournaments. He previously was a correspondent in Mexico for the Chinese news agency Xinhua and as a radio and television commentator. You can follow him on Twitter at @elvilchisolalde
Photo Credit: Getty