It’s hard not to feel some sympathy for Javier Hernandez. Last weekend, he scored the winning goal for Manchester United in their controversial victory at Chelsea, but such was the drama that accompanied the game – amid two sendings-off, alleged inappropriate language from the referee and that winner being offside – that his 25-minute cameo barely merited a mention.
The previous week, the Mexican made his first Old Trafford start in the Champions League this season, and scored two excellent headers to help United turn a 2-0 deficit against Braga into a 3-2 win. Once again, some of the attention that should have gone to Hernandez was diluted by concerns about United’s leaky defence.
And then, there was the summer. Since he played in the 2010 World Cup and the 2011 Concacaf Gold Cup, he effectively had no break for three years. That’s why coach Sir Alex Ferguson put the block on Hernandez representing Mexico at the London Olympics. It seemed a tough decision, even more so when Mexico actually won the tournament. And after that, United signed Van Persie in the final week of the transfer window. Hernandez’s reward for missing out on Olympic glory looked like a demotion to fourth-place, behind Wayne Rooney, Danny Wellbeck and Van Persie in the United strikers’ pecking-order.
But Hernandez did not complain. He just promised to work harder and show Ferguson he was worthy of a place in the starting line-up. He has only started one league game this season (he scored, and missed a penalty, in a 4-0 win over Wigan); three of his last six goals have come for Mexico; his tally for the season reads five goals in five United starts, with six more appearances from the bench. Against Braga and Chelsea (against whom he has now scored six times in nine appearances), you could see the fruits of his labour. He looked stronger, more bulked up, a bit like Patrice Evra and Ronaldo in their third seasons at the club.
“I have no problems being on the bench,” Hernandez told Mexican paper Esto last season. “I understand that football is a team sport, not like golf or tennis. So you have to help your team when you play from the beginning but also when you come on from the bench. We are like pieces of a jigsaw, and the boss decides how to use us.”
Hernandez is also unlikely to kick up a fuss because he has had it a lot worse. Just after Jose Manuel de la Torre, the coach who gave Hernandez his debut at Chivas de Guadalajara, was fired, his replacement Efrain Flores kept Hernandez out of the team for almost two years. Between 2007-2009, he made 16 substitute appearances totalling only 250 minutes, and did not score. “I was depressed and unhappy when matches came around because I wasn’t playing,” he remembered. He thought about quitting football for good but when Flores left in 2009, a succession of coaches restored Hernandez to the team, and he repaid them by scoring ten goals in the second-half of the season.
That alerted United’s scouts, who moved quickly to strike a deal for an undisclosed fee. It was just as well: at the 2010 World Cup, Hernandez scored for Mexico against France (2-0) and Argentina (1-3), eclipsing his grandfather Thomas Balcazar, who had scored a consolation goal in a 3-2 defeat to France at the 1954 World Cup. Balcazar had also played for Chivas during the most successful period in their history, winning eight league titles in ten years in the 1950s; Hernandez’s father, also called Javier, won a league title with Puebla in 1990 (he was subsequently fired from his job as Guadalajara’s reserve coach for taking time off to watch Hernandez play in the World Cup).
There was still some risk attached to United signing Hernandez. After all, Mexican players have in the past struggled in Europe: Rafael Marquez succeeded, at Monaco and then Barcelona, but before then, none of Cuauhtemoc Blanco (Real Valladolid), Nery Castillo (Olympiakos and Manchester City), and Jared Borgetti (Bolton), had done well in Europe after excelling back home. In Mexico, it became known as El Sindrome del Jamaicon, dating back to 1958 and the homesickness of Guadalajara defender Jose Villegas, nicknamed Jamaicon, during the build-up to the World Cup in Sweden.
Even the current Mexico squad has players—including Carlos Vela, Paolo Barrera and Gio do Santos—who tried and failed in the Premier League. Hernandez has said that bringing his family to Manchester with him has prevented that problem. His sister, Ana Silvia, also known as Chicharita, makes him Mexican food (probably an improvement for her, she used to have to play in goal in the garden when Hernandez came home from school every day) and his parents are around too.
The De la Torre connection is also relevant again. De la Torre played at Guadalajara when Balcazar was a coach there (he has since said Balcazar was his biggest influence), and became friendly with Javier Senior when they were in the same Puebla team. After training, they would hang out together. “He used to take Chicharito, who was only one years old, everywhere with him. We even used to go shopping together,” said De la Torre.
So it’s no surprise that Hernandez is a key man for Mexico these days: he has scored in their last three World Cup 2014 qualifiers, helping Mexico qualify with a perfect 6-0 record to make the Hexagonal on their to Brazil in 2014. “I’m counting on him to help us get to the 2014 World Cup,” said the coach. With 28 goals in 43 matches, it only seems a matter of time before he breaks Jared Borgetti’s all-time record of 46 goals (in 89 matches).
Borgetti, though, struggled in his brief period in the north-west. Hernandez may not be a regular starter at United, but he is proving that El Sindrome del Jamaicon belongs to another era.