Just prior to the announcement of Mexico's 1994 World Cup squad, Miguel Herrera received an early morning phone call from then-national team coach Miguel Mejia Baron, who informed the impish defender he would not be on the list of players traveling to the United States. Herrera did not plead his case, nor ask for explanations. He was not one to beg.
Herrera had grown up not having a relationship with his father and had been raised mostly by his mother and grandmother. He didn't have much of a paternal figure because his mother had also divorced his stepfather, who had helped cultivate his love of soccer. But Herrera never used his life's circumstances as an excuse. On the contrary. His life's travails simply made him work harder.
It would not be easy becoming a professional soccer player while being short and stout, but Herrera had done so anyway. He was not just a marginal professional soccer player, either. He had managed to get himself on the fringes of the national team, and he had done it without asking any favors. Herrera had earned it.
So after the phone call, Herrera simply accepted Baron's decision and hung up the phone even though he had believed then, and still believes, that Baron had previously suggested he would be on the team. For most of that day, Herrera, 26 years old at the time, was stunned. That night, an angered Herrera, a self-described teetotaler, went out with friends and did not return home until the early morning.
Most likely, Herrera knew 1994 was his last chance at playing in a World Cup. Not the most athletically blessed or the most skilled player, Herrera had built a reputation as a blue-collar defender who would not be afraid to deliver an elbow or a kick to an attacker if necessary. By the 1998 World Cup though, Herrera would be 30, and would have likely lost a step, a curse for a player who was not exactly swift to begin with.
Sure enough, Herrera would never play for the Mexican national team again after 1994.
The infamous phone call would have a profound effect on him. It would later shape how he would treat players as a manager. It taught him the most simple thing a manager can do is be open and honest. So, while he believed players didn't have a right to question a manager's decision -- and Herrera didn't necessarily question Baron's decision to leave him off the team, he mostly questioned the uncertainty about his status -- Herrera was determined to be fair to all his players, a strategy that would later endear him to all those who played for him, and one that would make him a successful manager.
To this day, Herrera has said he's never received an explanation from Baron, who in later interviews has said he based his decision to leave Herrera off the team due the former defender's fiery temperament. Baron believed, and many others did, too, that Herrera was simply too emotional on the field. Herrera was always on the verge of committing a foul or getting a yellow or red card, regardless of whether it was during an exhibition match, a league contest or a World Cup qualifier. He would kick players, or shout obscenities at opponents or officials. Herrera was too much of a liability to take to the United States. He simply could not handle his emotions.
There is a delicious irony that the same demeanor which clouded his playing career has now made Herrera, who leads Mexico into a knockout round matchup with the Netherlands on Sunday, a star of the 2014 World Cup. Observers and pundits from around the world rejoice in how Herrera celebrates goals, often leaping into the arms of his players, and how he yells at referees or gesticulates toward fans in the stands. Screen shots of his delirious facial expressions have gone viral.
People chuckle at his nickname "Piojo" -- meaning louse -- that was given to him by Atlante supporters because of his tendency to jump up and down. Herrera, who frequently tweets, is also a social media darling.
Twenty years after his hopes were dashed, Herrera's featured moment at a World Cup has finally arrived.
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The most, or perhaps only, unfortunate aspect of Herrera's sudden popularity as a result of his comical antics is his behavior has completely overshadowed his admirable abilities as a manager. Herrera has completely rebuilt the Mexican national team, in a span of less than nine months, into a team in his image: hard-working, confident and determined.
Captain Rafael Marquez, a veteran of four World Cups, said earlier this week he's never played on a more unified national team.
Prior to his appointment, the Mexican national team was embarrassingly on the verge of being left out of the World Cup after finishing a disappointing fourth in the final CONCACAF qualifying round, which sent the team to a playoff against New Zealand.
Mexico played with fear and with caution, a direct reflection of the personality of the manager Jose Manuel "Chepo" de la Torre, whose stagnant possession-minded style often resulted in few scoring chances. The Mexican federation appointed two other coaches after de la Torre's firing in September. But neither Luis Fernando Tena, who had coached Mexico to a gold medal in the 2012 Olympics, nor Manuel Vucetich, a respected longtime Mexican league manager, impressed in short stints.
Fans and the media clamored for the wildly popular "Piojo," who in 2013 had guided Club American to its first league championship since 2005. Herrera was appointed Mexico's interim manager in October. In November, Mexico defeated New Zealand in the two-legged playoff by a 9-3 aggregate score to earn a World Cup spot.
Herrera was given the job full time in December and has proved to be unlike any manager in Mexican national team history.
Herrera is not like the polished European Sven-Goran Eriksson, who managed Mexico from 2008-09, nor is he like the 2010 World Cup coach Javier Aguirre, nicknamed "El Vasco," whose Spanish heritage had given him the aura of a European.
Herrera is stodgy, unkempt and frequently uses colloquialisms during interviews. He regularly cusses publicly. Unlike the former superstar Hugo Sanchez, who managed Mexico from '06-'08, Herrera is an every man, which is part of his mystique.
Herrera quickly changed everything about the national team. He developed a more friendly relationship with the Mexican media, who he saw as a possible ally rather than as an adversary like many of his predecessors. Herrera, unlike de la Torre who abhorred speaking to the media, granted many interviews upon his appointment.
Almost immediately, Herrera also sought to repair what had been the Mexican federation's complicated relationship with several of its star players. One of his first phone calls was to goalkeeper Guillermo Ochoa who had turned down an opportunity to play for the team last year because he did not feel he was treated properly. Herrera reassured Ochoa he would get a fair chance at the starting keeper spot. Subsequently, Ochoa has been Mexico's best player at the World Cup.
Although it was an unpopular decision at the time, Herrera also welcomed back the captain, Marquez, to the squad. Thought to be past his prime, Marquez, 35, has helped stabilize Mexico's back line and has provided leadership for a squad that, at times, last year appeared rudderless.
Every one of Herrera's decisions seemed to be focused on repairing player morale, which had been wrecked during the difficult qualification. Even after the World Cup bid had been secured, and with most controversies in the past, Herrera continues to work on improving his team's chemistry.
For 30 to 45 minutes each day during meals at the World Cup, Herrera bans cell phones so players can interact with each other and bond. Herrera had players' friends and family stay at hotels two hours away from the team hotel to avoid distractions and so the team could spend more time together.
Otherwise, Herrera has treated his players as adults. There are no archaic team rules. He does not ban players from using social media during the tournament. Two days prior to the match against Brazil, thousands of Mexican fans gathered outside of the team's hotel and chanted in support. Herrera encouraged his players to go to their balconies to join along in the celebration. Players chanted along with the fans. A few even threw their jerseys into the crowd. Several tweeted photos. It was a stark difference from the stodgy atmosphere of previous Mexican squads at World Cups that were often asked to behave as if they were in the military.
Herrera wanted his players to enjoy the experience. As Herrera could attest, playing in a World Cup is a unique experience not every player gets to enjoy.
But Herrera's contributions go beyond his treatment of players.
Herrera is truly a student of the game. In his early 20s, Herrera was coaxed into taking classes to acquire his coaching license by a veteran teammate, who saw the defender as a young player with a remarkable understanding of the game. Most young players would have dismissed taking such classes, but Herrera knew even then that he wanted to manage.
By age 32, Herrera was a player-coach for Atlante. At age 34 he was named the manager. After stops at Monterrey, Veracruz, Estudiantes Tecos and a second term at Atlante, in 2011 Herrera was named the manager of Club America, which had been in disarray. He led them to their 11th title in team history in less than two years.
Herrera is a disciple of the bombastic Argentinian Ricardo La Volpe, the former Mexican national team and club team coach who helped revolutionize the Mexican league with his use of the 3-5-2 counter attacking formation (a defensive line of three centerbacks and two wingbacks with three midfielders and two strikers).
Aside from La Volpe, Herrera learned man management skills from the former Cruz Azul and current Pachuca manager Enrique Meza. Herrera further developed his defensive-first minded approach from the former Mexico coach Alberto Guerra, who believed a team started its attack from the back line.
In the mid 2000s, Herrera went to Spain and visited his friend Aguirre, then the coach at Atletico Madrid, to get an understanding of the European way of doing things. What Herrera learned was that, at the highest levels of football, players were treated as professionals and adults. In Mexico, players were not trusted to behave properly. Teams regularly set curfews and had players stay together at a hotel prior to a match. Such things did not happen in Europe. As a result, Herrera began giving his players more freedom.
After being appointed Mexican manager, many critics did not believe Herrera had the appropriate players in the national team pool for his 3-5-2 system. But instead of adapting to the players who had previously been used by de la Torre, Herrera relied upon a group of players from his Club America team, who were tactically adept at the style he wanted to play to get Mexico through the playoff against New Zealand. Boldly, for that match, Herrera did not call upon Mexico's European-based players, a decision that would have gotten him skewered in the press had Mexico not qualified for the World Cup. But Herrera isn't afraid to make difficult choices.
Prior to his announcement of Mexico's squad for this year's World Cup, many assumed Herrera would select the goalkeeper Moises Munoz for the team. Munoz had been one of Herrera's players at Atlante and at Club America and was Mexico's keeper against New Zealand.
For days leading up to the announcement, Herrera agonized over the decision. In his heart he wanted to include Munoz, who had been so loyal. But in his head, Herrera knew Ochoa, Jesus Corona and Alfredo Talavera were better choices. Friends and family pestered him for inside information, but Herrera kept quiet. Nobody outside of the coaching staff and the director of national teams, Hector Gonzalez Inarritu, knew the final list of players until the official announcement.
Herrera also decided against calling each player individually to tell them whether they had made the team or not regardless of whether they were stars or players just on the fringes of the national team. Everyone would be treated equally. He would not repeat Baron's methods.
The night before the announcement, Herrera could hardly sleep knowing the difficult decision he had to make. When the list was revealed, Munoz's name was not on it. Not long after the announcement, Munoz went on social media to express his disappointment, but to also offer the team support. In particular, he his wished his old coach Herrera good luck.
El Piojo had deftly kept his relationship with Munoz intact.