It’s a very good time to be Javier Hernandez.
He’s the biggest name — and soon to be among the richest players — in two soccer-mad countries, Mexico and England. His military-style haircut is all the rage in parts of Mexico and wide swaths of the U.S..
Even Tom Hanks recently danced on national television to a song written in his honor.
“I’m not a rock star. I’m not an idol,” the Mexican national team’s baby-faced star says in an effort to sound humble. “I’m only a human being. I’m one more player, one more person on the national team.”
Well, not really.
With seven goals in five matches heading into the Gold Cup final between Mexico and the U.S. at a sold-out Rose Bowl on Saturday night, Hernandez has become a one-man national squad, scoring more often than all but four teams in the 12-nation tournament.
U.S. midfielder Landon Donovan calls Hernandez “perhaps the hottest striker in the world right now.”
Clint Dempsey, who leads the Americans with three goals in the Gold Cup, calls him “incredible.”
“His movement is world class, and he is a constant threat,” Dempsey says. “We’ll definitely have to be aware of him.”
Yet none of this would have happened had Hernandez followed through on his threat to give up soccer and return to school a couple of winters back. Frustrated by a lack of playing time with his Mexican club team, a disconsolate Hernandez, then 20, called a meeting with his agent and parents over breakfast.
Hernandez has his father’s skills and eyes, which have earned him a version of his father’s nickname. Javier Hernandez Sr., a former Mexican national team star and first-division coach, was called “Chicharo,” pea, as an infant for his pea-green eyes. So his son became “Chicharito,” little pea.
What the son didn’t have, however, was his father’s confidence. So over the restaurant table, the senior Hernandez preached patience and persistence.
Reassured, Chicharito returned to soccer, and between the end of 2009 and the start of 2010, he scored 19 times in 22 matches for Chivas of Guadalajara. That helped win him a spot on Mexico’s World Cup team, where he scored two more goals. And then in his first season with Manchester United, he scored 13 goals in English Premier League matches and four more in Champions League play.
“For such a young player to come in and score so many important goals for a team like Manchester United in his first year is pretty incredible,” Dempsey says. “He’s young, and he has a great future ahead of him. He possesses all the tools to be world-class striker for years to come.”
Now 23, Hernandez shudders when he thinks of what might have happened had his father let him become a full-time student.
“It was a very different” time, he says. “But … the past is the past.”
Fast forward to the present and the once-beaten U.S. figures to have its hands full Saturday against Hernandez and an unbeaten Mexican team that has outscored opponents 18-2. At stake in the match is the region’s berth in the 2013 Confederations Cup, to be held in Brazil a year before the next World Cup.
But while Mexico has stumbled a bit since group play, rallying past Guatemala in the quarterfinals then needing overtime to beat Honduras in the semifinals, the U.S. has played its best soccer in the last week. And goalkeeper Tim Howard — who hasn’t given up a goal since his second match, a streak of 324 scoreless minutes — is ready for the challenge.
“No player is unstoppable,” Howard says in reference to Hernandez. “But they’ve got a good team. They’ve got a lot of big players. So it will take all of us to stop all of them.”