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What does the Zendejas situation reveal about deeper problems with El Tri?

Alejandro Zendejas won't play for El Tri against Paraguay because he refused to pledge loyalty to Mexico. Can El Tri afford that months before Qatar?

With Tecatito Corona out for the upcoming World Cup, the Mexican national team needs to fill an open starting spot in the midfield. Playing a role in Club América’s resurgence up the Liga MX standings, Alejandro Zendejas seems like an easy fit for the position. And with Mexico playing two upcoming friendlies in California, this seems like a perfect time to get him some game action with the first team.

Except not only will Zendejas not be joining El Tri in California, but he may have no shot to join them at all for the upcoming World Cup. According to Rubén Rodríguez (so, you know, big grain of salt here) El Tri coach Tata Martino refuses to call up the midfielder because Zendejas won’t sign an agreement firmly choosing Mexico over the United States, another country for which he has eligibility. 

FIFA’s complicated eligibility rules and the constant El Tri chisme makes this story difficult to pin down exactly. But whether or not Zendajas refused to pledge his loyalty (and whether or not he could play for the USMNT at all) doesn’t matter here, because the result is all the same: Mexico doesn’t want him. And this points to a bigger problem with Mexico’s soccer federation, perhaps one that will keep them from ever achieving beyond what they’ve already achieved on the international stage. 

The best soccer countries value loyalty

Tata has defined his management strategy on loyalty, which is not new in Mexican soccer. Chivas famously only rosters Mexican players and is perceived to make concessions when signing dual nationals, even for players born in Mexico. Even when dual nationals like Richy Ledezma choose the United States over Mexico, many Mexican fans will still treat it like a thankless prospect choosing a weaker side. And for the longest time, that was indeed the case. 

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, either. Historically successful soccer nations often reject players who don’t commit fully to their country, like the case of Brazil and Diego Costa in 2013. It makes sense for large soccer countries like Brazil, Argentina, France, and Italy to demand the loyalty of their players because there is such a large pool of talent to choose from in case a talented dual national chooses to play for another country. 

It also makes sense for historically weak soccer nations like the United States to lean heavily on dual nationals to make up their roster. Close to half the players on the most recent USMNT to make the World Cup once had eligibility for other nations but chose to play for the United States for various reasons. When the talent pool is weak, it makes sense to find mercenaries to field a competitive team on the world’s biggest stage. 

Mexico has never felt the need to follow this path. But when it comes to dual nationals, El Tri still behaves like Brazil with a talent pool that looks a lot more American every year. 

Mexico can’t afford to lose players like Zendejas

There is value to loyalty, but not necessarily at the expense of winning. And when it comes to El Tri, missing out on players like Zendejas, Ledezma, or even Chicharito might not make the difference between winning the World Cup and bowing out in the knockout stage. But it sets a precedent that Mexico might not be able to afford if it cares about winning. 

Mexican soccer looks bad across the board right now. The domestic league is losing interest, the country relies on The Netherlands to develop its players, and there’s a fear that the next wave of dual nationals will overwhelmingly choose the United States and the upward trajectory of its national team. It’s hard to think of a worse time in the recent history of El Tri, and it’s hard to see how things will improve without some changes. 

El Tri can’t afford to limit its options. Loyalty is a fine value to embody, but if Mexico chooses players based on loyalty over skill they’ll soon see mercenary-friendly countries like the United States and Canada pass them in international prestige. If El Tri wants to win, it needs to roster the best players it can. Mexico can’t afford to be picky.