Eight years ago, I had the privilege of watching Mexico play Costa Rica in the CONCACAF U-20 Qualifying Tournament, with world-renowned soccer coach Bora Milutinovic. When the game kicked off, Bora said “Watch Chicharito.”
I remember him telling me, “He can shoot for the goal from everywhere, he is smart moving in small spaces inside the box.”
It surprised me to hear Bora focus his attention on Chicharito, when that year the two most promising stars on the young Mexican team were Giovanni Dos Santos – thought of as a Mexican Ronaldinho for his long, curly hair – and Carlos Vela, who everybody thought of as the next great striker, like Hugo Sanchez. But we were all looking the wrong way then. Only Bora saw the future.
Bora – who has coached five World Cup teams – saw immediately that Chicharito was a unique player, even when his coach, Jesus Ramirez, sidelined him at the last minute and the team went on to win the 2005 FIFA U-17 World Championship against Brazil without him.
That was Mexico’s first world-class title.
I have known Bora for a decade and he is among soccer’s sharpest thinkers. He has a long history of sniffing out Mexico’s best talent. When he coached Mexico in 1997, he pulled Rafael Márquez from Atlas’ academy to debut on the National team. He made the decision to move Luis Hernández from a winger position in Necaxa to a striker in El Tri, where he became one of the country’s top scorers. Twenty years earlier, he made the same decision at Pumas with Hugo Sánchez, who played on the side before Bora put him closer to box.
Bora knew that it was no coincidence that Chicharito had an innate knowledge of soccer tactics. His grandfather Tomás Balcazar was a exceptional striker for Chivas in the 1950s, and Bora coached his father “Chicharo” Hernández in the 1986 World Cup. He grew up immersed in a soccer atmosphere. He chose the number 14 for his jersey not for Johan Cruyff or Thierry Henry, but to wear the same number as his father.
The stats tell the story of his talents in the box. Of the 50 goals Chicharito has scored with Manchester United, all were made in the goal area, 39 with just one touch (14 headers) and the rest, were in just two touches.
At Real Madrid, where he’s been since last summer, he improved his middle distance shooting and was able to make three of his eight goals from farther away.
Licensed Mexican soccer coach Leonardo Weissman, a good friend of mine, explained Chicharito’s skills this way: “He has a great capacity to react to stimulus. He is better at shooting than he is at dribbling and touching the ball.”
But what may make Chicharito Mexico’s smartest player, according to Bora, is that he knows what he is – and isn’t – capable of. He doesn’t dribble or make too many passes. He knows his limitations and he is one step ahead. He has an advantage when he is shooting.
So he shoots.