Mexico pins its best gold-medal hopes on famed soccer team facing familiar pressure

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NASHVILLE, TN - JUNE 30: Cesar Montes Castro #3 of Mexico celebrates.
Mexico's Cesar Montes Castro celebrates with teammate Diego Lainez, right, and others after scoring against Panama on June 30 in Nashville. Mexico's quest for Olympic gold begins Thursday. (Brett Carlsen / Getty Images)

When Mexico stumbled home from the 2010 World Cup, its national team program wasn’t exactly in crisis. But it was close.

El Tri had fielded an aging team in South Africa, one led by a 37-year-old goalkeeper, two 31-year-old captains and a 37-year-old striker. It made the London Olympics two years later an audition of sorts, with Mexico needing to get younger fast with another World Cup on the horizon.

And it worked. Mexico’s U-23 team beat Brazil and Neymar in the gold-medal match, and 10 of the 18 players on that roster made the next World Cup team.

Mexico opens Olympic play on Thursday facing the same kind of pressure. The team it fielded at the 2018 World Cup in Russia was the second oldest in the tournament and it has just 16 months to fix that before the next World Cup begins in Qatar.

“This is not about just the Olympic Games, it’s about the whole project,” said Gerardo Torrado, a veteran of three World Cups and now sporting director for the Mexican program. “[This] is going to be really important for us.”

Mexico will have one of the larger delegations in Tokyo, with more than 160 athletes competing in two dozen disciplines. But the country’s best hope for a gold medal may be its soccer team, which kicks off against France on Thursday.

Mexico was eliminated in group play at the 2016 Games but returns with a completely new roster.

The men’s tournament is limited to players 23 and younger, with three overage exemptions. But because of the year delay caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, the age limit has been extended to 24. Either way, the France-Mexico matchup is among the most compelling of the competition since Mexico, in addition to its recent Olympic title, has made the final in two of the last four U-17 World Cups while France is the reigning world champion.

“They could be the two best youth programs in the world,” said Galaxy general manager Dennis te Kloese, one of the architects of Mexico’s Olympic team in 2012.

“The French market is one of the biggest, hottest,” agreed Jovan Kirovski, the Galaxy’s technical director who this spring helped Te Kloese sign four young French players. “Some of the best talent in world soccer is developed in France nowadays."

France, which won Olympic gold in 1984, is enjoying a renaissance, having exported 946 players to foreign leagues this year, according to a May report. Only Brazil exported more.

In fact, two of the three overage players France took to Japan, captain André-Pierre Gignac and forward Florian Thauvin, play in Mexico’s Liga MX.

Mexico tends to keep its talent at home with just one man on its Olympic team, midfielder Diego Lainez of Spain’s Betis, who plays abroad.

Lainez is one of six U-24 players with at least 14 caps for the senior national team, a list that includes former Galaxy midfielder Uriel Antuna and Cruz Azul midfielder Roberto Alvarado. All three are already on coach Tata Martino’s radar for the start of World Cup qualifying this fall.

“I’m excited to see everyone because they are all players who potentially could be called up for the senior team,” Martino said in Spanish. “We always want to see their evolution.”

Martino called the Olympics “the second-most important” international tournament after the World Cup and said it will be “very important” in influencing his roster selections this fall and beyond.

“We’re trying to give them the best preparation to let them feel confident,” he said. “They’re going to compete in a really difficult group stage with three really competitive national teams.”

In addition to France, Mexico will face host Japan and South Africa in pool play.

Mexico also has medal contenders in diving, taekwondo and racewalking, all sports in which the country traditionally has done well. Mexico captured five medals in 2016, three silvers and two bronze. And while none of those athletes are in Tokyo, diver Iván García and archer Aída Román, who won silver medals in London, are here.

Others with podium potential include divers Kevin Berlín, a two-event champion at the 2019 Pan American Games; Carlos Sansores, the heavyweight gold medalist in taekwondo at the 2018 Pan American Games; and Alegna González, who is ranked 13th in the world in the women’s 20-kilometer racewalk.

Mexico, which has competed in every Olympics since 1924, has won 69 medals in the Summer Olympics, 14 of them in diving. The country’s biggest haul came in 1968, when it won nine as the host country. Mexico’s only gold in the last 13 years was the soccer championship in London.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.

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