Mexico’s Javier Aguirre has changed national team’s outlook

Javier Aguirre wasn’t interested in talking about soccer.

Sure, the World Cup is fast approaching. And as coach of the Mexican national team he’s made it clear El Tri is primed for a superlative effort this summer in South Africa.

But as he slid into an easy chair recently in a plush hotel suite in Pasadena, the subject that brought the widest smile to Aguirre’s face is baseball. “All kinds of baseball,” he confided in Spanish. “But especially the Oakland A’s.”

It’s not hard to understand the affinity. The A’s, after all, are made up primarily of young grinders, not veteran superstars. It’s a blue-collar, lunch-bucket type of team.

And that’s the same kind of mentality Aguirre has brought to his Mexican national squad.

“The most important thing,” Mexican midfielder Israel Castro insisted, “is the team.”

That may sound obvious, but it wasn’t a mentality Aguirre inherited when he was named Mexico’s coach a year ago. What he found instead was a dysfunctional, underperforming team in danger of missing the World Cup.

Mexico had won only six of its 13 matches under Sven-Goran Eriksson, the country’s fourth national coach since 2006, and was coming off a humiliating loss to Honduras in World Cup qualifying when Aguirre took over last April. El Tri has lost just twice in 18 matches since then.

But the results on the field aren’t the only thing that’s changed. Gone, too, are the personality conflicts that had long plagued the national team.

“We’re not going to fight amongst ourselves,” Aguirre said. “We have to fight against El Salvador, against the United States, against Costa Rica.

“Those were the rivals. Not the Mexicans.”

Aguirre also sought to rebuild the team by reconstructing its tradition, reaching out to players such as Cuauhtemoc Blanco, a legend in Mexico who had been cut from the 2006 World Cup team then retired two years later rather than play for Eriksson.

The temperamental Blanco, coaxed back to the national team by Aguirre, has since become the new coach’s captain on the field and his biggest booster off it.

“He’s a great coach. He has character,” Blanco said. “He turned all of us into a good group.”

Aguirre’s soccer career began in 1979, when he debuted as a 20-year-old midfielder with Club America of Mexico City. He spent the next year with the Los Angeles Aztecs of the North American Soccer League before returning to Mexico’s Primera Division, first with America, later with Atlante of Cancun and Chivas of Guadalajara as well as the Mexican national team.

Two years after retiring as a player he was named coach of Atlante, eventually jumping to Club Pachuca, which he took to a championship in his second year.

That helped earn Aguirre his first shot as head coach with Mexico’s national team, replacing Enrique Meza Enriquez and quickly leading Mexico to the 2001 Copa America final — equaling the country’s best-ever finish. And Aguirre led Mexico into the 2002 World Cup, where they won their first-round group before falling to the U.S. in the second round.

Later came rebuilding coaching jobs in Spain, the first with Osasuna, which he took into the UEFA Cup, and the second with Atletico Madrid, which he managed into the Champions League.

Back again in Mexico the 51-year-old Aguirre has made it clear he’s chasing a bigger prize now. So when he welcomed his players to their World Cup training camp this month, he did so with a challenge.

“I asked the players directly, ‘Guys, do you want to make history? It’s in your hands,’ ” Aguirre said.

The history Aguirre has in mind is at least a place in the World Cup semifinals, a stage no Mexican team has ever reached. The last time the country made the quarterfinals was 24 years ago, when it was led by a young midfielder named Javier Aguirre.

“I want to drill in their head[s] that the World Cup is the pinnacle in terms of aspiring to represent your country,” he said. “We are not scared of anything.”

Given his personal history, hearing Aguirre talk about national pride can be a delicate thing for some Mexicans. Although Aguirre is frequently warm, engaging and unfailingly polite, he also has a hard edge — just ask Panama’s Ricardo Phillips, whom Aguirre kicked in the groin during a Gold Cup game in Houston last July, earning a suspension.

And in February, Aguirre was forced to apologize over vulgar and disparaging remarks he made about Mexico and its high crime rate during an interview with a Spanish radio station. Aguirre used the same interview to say he would not remain in Mexico after the World Cup, regardless of the outcome, preferring to coach again in Europe, where his family lives.

But if the claims of patriotism fell on deaf ears, Aguirre’s prediction of a historic World Cup did not. In a recent poll, nine in 10 Mexicans predicted the national team will reach the quarterfinals, with 18% saying El Tri will play in the title game.

For much of the winter Aguirre had whispered privately that this team was special.

“We have the best Mexican team ever,” he said flatly. “We’re prepared for this challenge. Our intention is to have an historic World Cup.”