MEXICO CITY – Héctor Herrera’s dream became reality when the forward for the Mexican club Pachuca was named to the 18-man soccer team that will compete for its first Olympic gold at the London Games.
“It’s something I’ve been working for the whole time,” Herrera, 22, said. “I’m delighted to receive the recognition to know that all the effort I’ve made all these years is paying off.”
Herrera, who was named the best player at the Toulon Tournament in France in June, will be counted on to fill major voids left by three premier players. Javier “Chicharito” Hernández didn’t receive permission from his club team, England’s Manchester United, to play in the Olympics. Jonathan dos Santos chose to attend preseason practice with his club team – Spanish power FC Barcelona – rather than head to London. Carlos Vela removed himself from consideration because of “personal reasons.”
“It’s too bad that neither ‘Chicharito’ nor [Carlos] Vela is going to the Olympics, but with all due respect, we’re not thinking about them anymore,” Mexican coach Luis Fernando Tena said. “We’re focused on the players who are going to be there and we have more than enough to cover our bases.”
That’s because Herrera will be complemented by Carlos Salcido, a midfielder for the Monterrey Tigres; Oribe Peralta, a striker for Torreón Santos; and Giovani dos Santos, a midfielder for England’s Tottenham Hotpsur.
“Those who are not here are not being missed,” said Juan Mijares, a 32-year-old welder who resides in Mexico City. “I have faith in El Tri.”
El Tri will prepare to compete in its first Olympics since 2004 by playing exhibitions against England in Marbella, Spain, on July 15; against Spain in Cádiz, Spain, on July 18; and versus Japan in Nottingham, England, on July 21.
“These matches will help us to fine-tune the strategy we’ll use against our opponents and see what’s going well and what needs more work,” Tena said.
It’s then time for the team to head to London and the Games of the XXX Olympiad.
As one of 16 teams competing in the tournament, Mexico is in Group B along with South Korea, Gabon and Switzerland. El Tri opens play against South Korea on July 26 in Newcastle, England, before facing Gabon in Coventry, England, on July 29 and Switzerland on Aug. 1 in Cardiff, Wales.
The top two teams from each of the four pools advance to the quarterfinals on Aug. 4. The semifinals are set for Aug. 7, with the bronze medal game scheduled for Aug. 10 and the championship game a day later at iconic Wembley Stadium.
Brazil (Group C), Honduras (Group D) and Uruguay (Group A) are the other Western Hemisphere teams competing in the field in London. Argentina and Nigeria, which won the gold and the silver medals respectively in Beijing, did not qualify for the London Games. Brazil, which won bronze in 2008, is seeking its first gold medal in the sport.
Mexico had no problem qualifying for their 10th Olympics.
The team went 5-0 at the Confederation of North, Central American and Caribbean Association Football (CONCACAF) Olympic Qualifying Tournament in the United States in April, winning its games by a combined score of 16-3.
El Tri replicated its dominating performance in Toulon, France, where it defeated Morocco 4-3, France 3-1, Belarus 2-1 and, in the final, Turkey 3-0, to win the tournament. In addition to Herrera being named the tournament’s top player, midfielder Marcos Fabían was the event’s top scorer.
El Tri has traditionally struggled at the Olympics. In its nine previous appearances – Amsterdam in 1928, London 1948, Tokyo 1964, Mexico City 1968, Munich 1972, Montreal 1976, Barcelona 1992, Atlanta 1996 and Athens 2004 – the team has advanced out of pool play three times, reaching the semifinals in 1968 and the quarterfinals in 1972 and 1996.
But fans are confident El Tri will be golden in London.
“I am ready to paint my face, wear the jersey and wave my flag at the statue of the Angel of Independence on Reforma Avenue,” said Héctor Ocaña, a 32-year-old dentist who resides in Mexico City, referring to the square where Mexicans celebrate major sporting victories. “It was about time for us to return to the Olympic soccer tournament. It was a pity that we didn’t make it to [the Beijing Games in 2008].”
Physical education student Fabián Rendón and his schoolmates from Mexico’s National Autonomous University (UNAM) will be watching El Tri but also their idol, defender Javier Cortés, the only member of the university’s Las Pumas team to make the Olympic roster.
“The Pumas are known for their great defense,” Rendón said. “I think we’ll put on a good show in London.”
Meantime, Herrera continues training for the London Games, dividing his time between improving his conditioning and watching videos of South Korea – El Tri’s first opponent at the Olympics.
“My concentration now lies in winning the Olympics,” he said. “Beside, I’m happy at Pachuca. My family is here and the only thing I’m interested in when practice is over is getting home to see my wife and my son.”