"El Tata" vs. "El Piojo" was the title of one post-game reaction segment on TV following Mexico's 3-0 victory over Guatemala on Wednesday night, as if a boxing bout between the two had just taken place.
The back and forth between Mexico head coach Gerardo "Tata" Martino and Club America manager Miguel "Piojo" Herrera had become the main talking point in the build-up to Mexico's first match in 316 days and perhaps has longer term consequences than the game itself, which El Tri won with absolute ease.
Herrera had lit the fuse following Club America's 0-0 draw against Cruz Azul last Sunday, when he slammed the workload that his players had been subjected to in the national team camp the previous week. Herrera said Club America would consider not allowing his players to be released for Mexico duty outside of FIFA international windows because it was harming his team.
"[Sebastian] Cordova was burned out [on return], Jorge Sanchez was burned out, [Guillermo] Ochoa was hurt before the game when he manage his [workload] well and they return them to us burned out," fumed Herrera.
Martino responded in a measured tone in a video conference Monday evening indicating no player was pushed harder than they are at their clubs, citing a GPS monitoring system used by Liga MX clubs and the Mexican federation that records training workloads.
For the time being, Martino won out. Eight of the 11 Mexico-based players in his squad to travel to Europe for games against the Netherlands (Oct. 7) and Algeria (Oct. 13) will do so today (Thursday) and miss weekend Liga MX games.
It almost goes without saying that players missing club games to travel for international duty and holding midweek camps would be unthinkable in almost any top league, even if the negotiation with the clubs meant only two players per team would be allowed to travel early this time around.
Martino showed his appreciation after Wednesday's win.
"We rely on the good will of the clubs because it isn't easy to ask for players, to play [a game] and for them to miss games in Week 12 of a league that has a playoff [coming up]," stated Martino.
Of course, the club vs. country debate didn't start with Herrera (a former national team boss) and Club America against Martino's Mexico, but for El Tri it is vital that the Argentine gets his way for player releases from here until the 2022 World Cup in Qatar.
The reality is that the calendar between now and then Mexico isn't going to be facing many top quality teams. CONCACAF Nations League play next June is followed swiftly by the Gold Cup in July and most likely World Cup qualifiers in September. It's a schedule packed by games against opposition that are ranked below Mexico.
For a Mexico team aiming to get amongst the European and South American powers and try to reach the quarterfinal at the 2022 World Cup in Qatar, it's an uphill struggle, especially when CONMEBOL and UEFA nations are already back playing official matches.
The competitive advantage Martino has is that Liga MX clubs allow him time to work with the players outside the FIFA windows. Those windows may not constitute tough, character-and-team-building away trips, but the midweek "mini-camps" and, in 2021 if the coronavirus pandemic has eased, perhaps more midweek friendlies in the United States, at least gives Martino real time coaching and getting to know Mexico's upcoming generation of players, which is still largely based in Liga MX.
The 57-year-old is as good a head coach as Mexico could've realistically brought in post-Russia 2018 and he's shown his class so far in a reign disrupted by COVID-19. Martino also has a track record of molding competitive teams at international level, both with Argentina and Paraguay.
Supporting him should be a priority for Mexican soccer, although Herrera's position is also understandable and requires consideration, even if shouting about it in a post-game news conference isn't the best forum to vent his concerns.
Liga MX coaches know that their jobs are more fickle even than in most other leagues and that a couple of bad results can often end in calls for a replacement to be brought in. Club America is also in the midst of an injury crisis and Mexico has no official game until next June. And it's the clubs paying the players, doing the vast majority of the development and who are left with the cleaning up effort when there are injuries.
"We would like to be able to have this type of match [against the Netherlands] and bother the clubs as little as possible," Martino told TUDN on Wednesday night. "Everything that happened in the week was not very pleasant, first because of the training sessions and then because of asking players to travel and not be able to participate in club games."
The issue is that the game against the Netherlands couldn't be arranged any later than next Wednesday, meaning unless Mexico's players traveled early there would be very little time to prepare. Martino said moving the Liga MX games forward to accommodate the national team's schedule was impossible due to the TV rights holders.
"We are aware that we are taking advantage of the benevolence of the clubs and coaches, but it has been a year in which we have not played and given the level of the opponents that we have ahead it seemed an unbeatable opportunity," he added. "So we decided to play it while trying not to be so reckless with the clubs."
Mexico may not have that advantage of being able to play top competition very often over the next couple of years, but what it should be able to count on is Liga MX clubs giving Martino every opportunity to work with the players. It'd be a blow for the men's national team if clubs follow Herrera's lead and resist Martino's efforts.