Coaching Mexico’s national soccer team is one of the most unforgiving jobs in sports, one that requires you to be perfect from the start, then get better as you go along.
It’s more demanding two months before a World Cup, which is where Tata Martino is now. So even Saturday’s 1-0 win over Peru before 62,729 mostly green-clad fans at the Rose Bowl is unlikely to placate his critics.
The game’s only goal came from Hirving Lozano in the 85th minute, and it bounced in off the goalkeeper. But Martino will take his bright spots wherever he can find them.
“I feel happy, I feel excited, eager to face the challenge of the World Cup,” the coach said after entering the postgame news conference wearing a wide smile. “I have a positive feeling with the team in every way.”
The hot seat he’s sitting on, meanwhile, is getting only warmer. And he’s not the first Mexican to hear the fans call for his firing.
“Perhaps we have very short memories,” said midfielder Andres Guardado, who remembers the demands for Juan Carlos Osorio’s sacking four years ago. “They yelled at Osorio to leave. They criticized him for whatever it was.”
Before that it was Chepo de la Torre and Javier Aguirre. The only recent coach to escape the vocal wrath of Mexico’s fans and media members was Miguel Herrera, whose playful enthusiasm and demonstrative behavior won over his critics. But even he was pushed out after a Mexican reporter accused the coach of assaulting him in the security line at the Philadelphia Airport.
“At this level, you as a manager are three defeats away from crisis,” Osorio said in the run-up to his only World Cup as Mexico’s manager in 2018. “If I was in another country, maybe they would allow me three defeats. In Mexico, no. Probably one and that’s it.”
Martino started well, going unbeaten in first 11 games and winning the CONCACAF Gold Cup. But he hasn’t won a trophy since, losing to the U.S. in both the Gold Cup and Nations League finals last year.
Mexico matched Canada with a tournament-high eight wins and 28 points in World Cup qualifying, but it has struggled to score lately, getting shut out three times in its last six games. The win over Peru was just the second in that span and Mexico hasn’t beaten a World Cup team in more than a year.
Martino, who took Paraguay to the World Cup quarterfinals and Atlanta United to an MLS Cup, has hardened and his tone has changed in response to the criticism. He now pushes back against media members he thinks have been unfair and in July, when the Mexico soccer federation forced sporting director Gerardo Torrado to resign after its U-20 team failed to qualify for the 2024 Olympics, Martino reportedly tendered his own resignation in protest.
It wasn’t accepted and Martino was told to coach through the World Cup, where he’ll celebrate his 60th birthday two days before Mexico’s tournament opener with Poland.
The turmoil has come at the worst time for Martino who, rather than facing fans who paid to attend an open training session at the Rose Bowl on Friday, stayed away.
“I don’t have to tell them anything,” Martino said when asked if he had a message for the fans. “We speak with the game on the pitch. It is not me in a press conference or a player in a press conference that will be able to feed the hopes, the dreams of the people. This has to be shown with the play of the team.”
That didn’t happen Saturday, when injuries sidelined five players Martino expected would fuel his attack in Qatar. The absence of a true No. 9 has hurt Mexico, which again lacked for creativity in the final third Saturday.
Peru’s World Cup hopes ended with a penalty-kick loss to Australia in an inter-continental playoff in June, but its well-organized defense frustrated El Tri in a ragged first half. Things didn’t get much better after the intermission; although Mexico’s press forced Peru into numerous turnovers, Martino’s team was unable to take advantage.
Lozano finally broke the spell, getting his left boot on a César Montes header following a corner kick and banging a shot off the gloved right hand of Peruvian goalkeeper Pedro Gallese and it into the roof of the net from just outside the left post.
It was the only shot on target for either team. Meanwhile, 350 miles north, Javier “Chicharito” Hernández, Mexico’s all-time leader scorer but a player Martino has stubbornly ruled out of his World Cup squad, got his 16th and 17th goals of the season in the Galaxy’s 3-2 win over San Jose.
Martino, who used 15 players Saturday, will get one more look at his Chicharito-less team when it plays Colombia on Tuesday in Santa Clara. After that, he’ll have less than two months to trim his roster to the 26 players he’ll take to Qatar.
“I haven’t talked to any of them, particularly about their guaranteed presence at the World Cup,” he said. “There are many certainties and fewer questions. The logical thing is to have more certainties than doubts.”
He could say the same thing about his job security.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.