Chicharito has been loved, hated and loved again
This story will also be posted in Spanish. It originally appeared in ESPN The Magazine's June 6 World Football Issue. Subscribe today!
HE'S THE FIRST player out of the clubhouse. The Mexican reporters are unprepared, chatting with each other behind the metal barricade. They turn their heads when the door scrapes open, lunging for their microphones. A camera stand nearly topples.
Javier Hernandez is small and slight. At 28, his body seems barely removed from boyhood. Yet even in an unadorned black tracksuit, charisma flies off him like sweat off a boxer. As he strides through the mixed zone underneath Vancouver's BC Place, someone calls his nickname: "Chicharito! Hey, Chicharito!"
Hernandez is the best-known Mexican footballer in the world, perhaps the best-known Mexican. Now, half an hour after his goal and assist led to a 3-0 rout in a World Cup qualifier against Canada, his entire country waits to hear what Chicharito, the Little Green Pea, has to say. But just as he was one step ahead of the Canadian defensemen tonight, he's much too quick for the journalists now. "No hablo," he tells them. Before they can switch on their recorders, he's gone into the March night.
Not long ago, many of these same reporters pronounced him washed up, irrelevant. Hernandez had abandoned Chivas, Mexico's most famous club team, to play for Manchester United. And when the club requested that he sit out the 2012 Olympics, Mexican national team fans felt abandoned too. In 2014, after he didn't start a single World Cup match -- "He'll come in handy when we need him," sniffed coach Miguel Herrera, whose team had barely qualified for Brazil -- the media implied that Chicharito was only getting what he deserved.
Now, though, he's scoring goals in clusters -- and Mexico has fallen for him all over again. He's accomplished this while playing for a club based in a small industrial suburb in the Rhine Valley. If that seems an improbable place for such a famous player to resurrect his career, understand that it didn't happen by accident. To find himself, Chicharito knew, he had to get lost.
AS A SOCCER player, Chicharito does only one thing. "But," says Jorge Campos, the former Mexico and MLS goalkeeper who is now a television commentator, "it is the most important thing."
Every time the striker touches the ball, he looks to score. That's not to say that Chicharito won't pass if that emerges as a better option; his passes can be exquisite. But they are always a second choice. When he says "I love the game," he means that he loves scoring goals. He has the scorer's natural arrogance, the certitude that if you get him the ball, he'll find a way to get it past the keeper. "He's not shy to look for opportunities," says Doneil Henry, who plays defense for West Ham and the Canadian national team. "If he misses 1,000 times, he'll take the 1,001st and score. And feel good about it."
And he does score: 28 times for Chivas, 59 for Manchester United and now 26 times in Germany. "He can create a goal out of nothing," says Juan Mata, his former Manchester United teammate. "He has that quality. His movement is brilliant." Once the ball is in the net, Hernandez races around the field, legs churning, arms extended. He looks like a child imitating an airplane. "He lives for it," Campos says.
Forty-three of his goals have been scored on behalf of Mexico, many of them dramatic -- one described by The New York Times as "Jordanesque" and three coming during a World Cup. Yet his relationship with the team, and country, has been complicated.
Mexico's sporting heroes are cast from a mold. Like Hugo Sanchez and Campos, probably the most popular Mexican players ever, they're underdogs, rising from the anonymity of extreme poverty to grab fortune and fame. That's the national archetype, the Mexican equivalent of the all-American boy. That's not Hernandez.
Born in Guadalajara, he has football bloodlines. His grandfather, Tomas Balcazar, scored against France in the 1954 World Cup. His father, Chicharo, was dubbed the Green Pea for his piercing eyes. Chicharo played for three Mexican clubs, most notably Tecos, and 28 times for the national team. The nickname and the expectations that accompanied it were passed down to the son as if in a family of bullfighters.
For a long time after his career began, Chicharito languished among the Chivas reserves. Rather than persevering, he pouted. At one point, he almost quit. In 2009, just after his 21st birthday, he finally became a starter. And once he started scoring goals, he didn't stop.
That's where Marco Garces found him. A Mexican football administrator, Garces had earned a sports science degree in Liverpool and made contacts in the English football community. When he returned home in 2009, he discovered an unknown striker who was making Mexico's top defenders look foolish. He contacted Jim Lawlor, Man United's chief scout, and urged him to come see a star in the making. Lawlor flew to Mexico and stayed nearly two months.
The contract Chivas negotiated included the stipulation that Manchester United play a match in Guadalajara to inaugurate a new stadium. So later that summer, after scoring two goals for Mexico in his first World Cup, Chicharito played the first half of the exhibition for Chivas -- and the second half against it, wearing a new United jersey. It was hardly surprising that many Chivas fans felt betrayed. Before he'd even left, he was already gone.
Manchester United won the Premier League in two of Chicharito's first three years in England. He helped with 20 goals in 2010-11 and 18 more in 2012-13. "Very important goals," Mata says. But when the club requested that he skip the 2012 Olympics to stay fresh for the coming season, Hernandez asked Manchester to let him miss Mexico's two World Cup qualifiers instead. He believed that if he played for his country in the Olympics, it could win gold. "I thought he was joking," United manager Alex Ferguson later wrote. Ferguson denied permission. Mexico won the gold without him.
In retrospect, that's where the real trouble started.
AT THE TIME Hernandez left for England, he had started only one year for Chivas. Despite his bloodlines, he was an outsider in his own country. "From the time he left for Man U," says Garces, now the sporting director of the Mexican club Pachuca, "there has been a lot of discussion in Mexico about whether he is good enough. During that discussion, he has scored almost 100 goals in Europe."
But after Ferguson retired in 2013, his successors favored other strikers. Chicharito started just six league games in 2013-14. By the summer of 2014, critics said he'd forgotten how to score. When Herrera decided not to start him in World Cup matches, the coach was applauded for being prudent. In all, Chicharito played less than 90 minutes in the entire tournament. After he entered in the 74th minute against Croatia, he headed home a goal, then immediately started crying on the field. "This year ... not many have trusted in me," he said later.
That summer, Manchester United sent Hernandez to Real Madrid to get playing time, which is like moving to Beverly Hills when you find you can't afford Palm Beach. Predictably, he languished behind Cristiano Ronaldo, Karim Benzema and Gareth Bale and then called the season "massively frustrating." When the loan ended, new United manager Louis van Gaal politely informed him that he had a "1 percent chance" of starting over Wayne Rooney. "They didn't want me," Hernandez later said. "Simple as that. They didn't want my services."
Determined to prove both van Gaal and Herrera wrong, Hernandez set out to find a team that would give him a chance.
It wasn't hard. West Ham, Tottenham Hotspur, Juventus and AC Milan, among many others, expressed interest. But one club pushed harder than the rest.
BOTH SYMBOLICALLY AND literally (in the form of the world's largest illuminated sign), Bayer AG, the $90 billion pharmaceutical firm, towers over Leverkusen. "A company town" is how Michael Schade, the former Bayer marketer who now runs the club, describes it.
Bayer invented aspirin and heroin, achievements that probably cancel each other out. More than a century ago, it created teams in various sports so that its factory workers could stay fit. As an employer, it was ahead of its time. Yet despite its reputation as a company team, Bayer today provides to its soccer club a supplemental income of just 25 million euros. "The rumor that we have an open checkbook? I can dispel it," Schade says without a smile. The team keeps a steady stream of young players coming, then sells them to bigger clubs and finds new ones. "When they leave us," Schade says, "I get so much money back that we can start the circle again."
A veteran striker who'd played for the biggest clubs hardly fit that mold. "Normally, it isn't possible for Leverkusen to get a player like that," admits Jonas Boldt, the club's sporting manager. But after last season, the club's brain trust -- Schade, Boldt, former World Cup star Rudi Voller and coach Roger Schmidt -- met to discuss finding someone who could capitalize on missed scoring opportunities. "We needed a finisher," Boldt says. And as the youngest team in both the Bundesliga and Champions League, Leverkusen lacked maturity.
Boldt fed criteria into a database, including age and experience, percentage of shots resulting in goals, shots per minute and a dozen other relevant statistics, in a quest to find the ultimate scorer by the sum of his parts. The computer spit out a single name.
"We decided to go after him," Boldt says.
All summer, Chicharito listened to Leverkusen's pitch. The club told no one else because it didn't want to set itself up for disappointment. "Roger Schmidt and I had it in our minds, but as something super special, like a dream," Boldt says. "We signed other players, but each time Roger would tell me, 'Don't forget to bring the Pea.'"
Hernandez wanted to be wanted. "Since the minute the loan finished, they were asking for me," he says. And Leverkusen needed a striker, which mattered to him after two seasons on the bench. Last August Leverkusen beat Lazio 3-0 to qualify for the Champions League group stage for the third consecutive season. Chicharito was aching to prove he could handle the biggest stage, and this was the news he'd been waiting to hear.
Leverkusen was an unlikely destination. Located in an industrial suburb of Cologne, it's known as a "plastic club," lacking authenticity -- a club, someone once said, made from a 3-D printer. It's difficult to imagine a football culture further removed from what Hernandez knew at Chivas, Manchester United and Madrid.
But to Hernandez, that was part of its allure. From boyhood, he had worn only the uniforms of teams whole countries obsess about. He'd been surrounded by fans who picked apart every overrun cross and missed header. Here was a chance to play in the Champions League without the weight of a national audience on his narrow shoulders.
ON A GORGEOUS May afternoon in the Rhine Valley, the grass on the practice fields outside BayArena glitters in the sun. Shortly after lunchtime, Chicharito emerges in full uniform from the vast clubhouse-with its hypobaric chamber and an ultra-low-temperature ice room so state-of-the-art that Kobe Bryant flew in to experience it-and heads to a photo shoot. In less than a full season in Germany, without even speaking the language, he has become the face of the club. Leverkusen is surely the only team in the Bundesliga to sell souvenir sombreros.
Hernandez has been called the most popular player in German football. The reason is simple. "He gets the ball to the net," Schmidt says. He was the Bundesliga's player of the month in November, and then in December, and again in January. His 17 league goals nearly doubled the output of any teammate.
Whether he'll stay for next season is anyone's guess. The bigger clubs are circling again. He has been linked with Liverpool, Bayern Munich and Juventus, among others. But crucially, Leverkusen again qualified for the Champions League with a third-place finish (while van Gaal and Manchester United won't, which is a nice turn of the knife). He tells teammates that he's happier than he has ever been. "When I heard he was coming, I thought he would hold himself like a star," German international and Leverkusen teammate Christoph Kramer says. "But he isn't like that. He is like we are. He fits here."
His success in Germany hasn't gone unnoticed in Mexico. Juan Carlos Osorio, the national team's new coach -- its 12th in the past decade -- not only starts Chicharito but built the national club around him. Mexico's roster is as talented as it's ever been, and its many options at midfield will feed Hernandez, who scored three times in five games for the national team last year.
This is another Olympic summer. Mexican fans would have loved for Hernandez to help defend El Tri's Olympic gold, but Osorio needs him to lead the club in the Copa America Centenario, in which the top national teams from the Americas will gather in various venues around the U.S. next month. Leverkusen asked Hernandez to choose between the two. He chose the Copa.
He knows he'll be criticized for missing another Olympics, especially if Mexico doesn't defend its gold. And the Copa is equally perilous. Mexico's fan base, as usual, is stronger than the team it follows. It considers the U.S. practically home soil, so expectations are high. An early exit might flip sentiment on Chicharito yet again.
Lead his country to victory, on the other hand, and he'll be heralded as a savior. That flip-of-a-coin inconsistency has bothered Hernandez as far back as Chivas. But no more. For the first time this season, he reveled in the affection of a team and its followers that felt unconditional. It makes the chatter in Mexico's bars and on its airwaves seem far less important. "We have him," Kramer says simply. "He has us."
When Leverkusen travels to Borussia Monchengladbach for a mid-May match, its fans are herded into a small wedge of the stadium. "Chi-cha-HHHHHWREEE-to," they chant, swallowing their r's. Most have his uniform on. They watch him thread a pass between two defenders for an assist.
Hernandez always shows passion, but it's remarkable how he plays with unencumbered grace in a Leverkusen shirt. Playing for Mexico always seems a mission, but in Germany the game is just a game. And the fans cheer him even after Leverkusen loses.
He emerges from the locker room alongside several teammates. Someone calls out in English, requesting an autograph for a special cause-a charity or an ailing youth, it isn't clear. He immediately stops and signs. "See you, hey?" he chirps over his shoulder. For a moment, he pauses at the top of the ramp that leads to the field, where he's framed by a sliver of sunlight. Down a corridor and out a door, a bus is waiting, but he seems in no hurry to leave.