By Kevin Baxter
5:57 PM CDT, August 17, 2013
The list of Mexican players who have gone to Europe and distinguished themselves in soccer's most challenging leagues is a short one.
Two decades ago, Hugo Sanchez was in the middle of a run that saw him score 218 goals in 318 matches with Spain's Atletico Madrid and Real Madrid. In seven seasons with Barcelona, Rafael Marquez won 12 titles — among them two UEFA Champions League crowns, making him the only Mexican player to win that honor.
But that's pretty much it. Jared Borgetti, the leading scorer in Mexican national team history, made just 19 appearances in the English Premier League for Bolton. Cuauhtemoc Blanco had an equally brief and undistinguished stay in Spain with Real Valladolid. And though Hector Moreno, Giovani Dos Santos, Carlos Vela and Andres Guardado have each played more than 100 games for various European teams, none have really made a mark with a first-division club.
Javier "Chicharito" Hernandez, who is also on that list, is quite familiar with the history. But it's a history he's doing his best to ignore.
When Manchester United opened defense of its English Premier League title Saturday with a 4-1 win over Swansea, it marked the start of Hernandez's fourth season with Europe's most storied club. And though he started it by watching from the stands, sitting out his second consecutive game with what is being termed a minor upper-leg injury, Hernandez said his EPL experience has been more about bettering his game than proving a point about Mexican soccer.
"Since I was a little boy, my goal has been to get better in all aspects," Hernandez, speaking in Spanish, said from his seat in a small conference room at Man U's sprawling Carrington training ground in suburban Manchester. "I want to keep growing. Every day I want to understand more.
"I don't really look at whether I'm doing better [than other Mexicans] or if I'm doing really well because you have to say we're continuing to develop a lot of good players."
Until recently, few of those players ventured far from home. Because the Mexican league paid well and was stable, the country's top talent chose to stay put. But Hernandez, whose father and grandfather both played for the Mexican national team, was raised with different aspirations.
"The dream, the goal, always was to play in [Mexico's] first division and then, if I did really well there, with the national team. And then after that, Europe," Hernandez said. "Our family's plan has always been for me to realize my dream. It's never been to prepare to come here to England or not."
But Hernandez almost pulled the plug on that plan before it had even begun taking shape. As a 20-year-old, he was spending most of his time on the bench at Chivas of Guadalajara, the Mexican club team for which his grandfather played and where his father had coached. So he met with his family and told them it might be better if he quit soccer and returned to school.
Give it one more year, the family urged him.
"They just told me to patient, to try to enjoy everything, not just whether you played when Saturday or Sunday came around," Hernandez recalled. "You have to enjoy the game starting on Monday when you go to training with your teammates."
Given a chance to play regularly with Chivas later that year, Hernandez proved them right, scoring 21 goals in 28 matches. A little more than a year after threatening to quit the game, Hernandez agreed to a transfer deal to Manchester United reportedly worth more than $10.5 million.
"He's taken advantage of every single opportunity that's come his way," said Herculez Gomez, who played against Hernandez in the Mexican league and with the U.S. national team. "That speaks volumes of how mentally strong he has to be. When benched, when doubted, he's come back."
How much longer Hernandez stays with Man U could be up to new manager David Moyes. After scoring 20 goals in 45 appearances in his first season with the team, Hernandez, one of the top six-yard-box strikers in the world, saw his playing time reduced in each of the last two seasons under legendary Coach Alex Ferguson, at times falling to a fourth choice at forward.
And though he remained productive, with 18 goals in 36 appearances last season — and 114 lifetime goals in 250 games for club and country — Hernandez reportedly considered asking for a transfer. Rumors this summer have linked him to Spanish club Valencia, and with Hernandez not even dressing for Man U's opener Saturday, his disillusion is undoubtedly growing.
Leaving Manchester would be a gamble though. Hernandez says playing with — and behind — the likes of Robin Van Persie, Wayne Rooney and Danny Welbeck has taken his game to a higher level. And in three seasons at Old Trafford, he's won two EPL titles and scored three goals in the UEFA Champions League.
That success already has some predicting it won't be long before Hernandez replaces Sanchez as Mexico's most important soccer export.
"Chicharito is really young. All the stuff he's won at that age Hugo Sanchez never won," said Elmur Souza, a Spanish-language soccer analyst for Time Warner Cable who spent nine years covering the Mexican national team.
"That's the difference. Hugo Sanchez is the best in history. I have to give some time for Chicharito to get to that level."
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