The debate in Mexico around naturalized players on the national team
Funes Mori is the latest naturalized player to wear the shirt of “El Tri,” but time will tell if the move proves to be a successful one.
Rogelio Funes Mori has been a prolific striker in the Mexican league since 2015 with C.F. Monterrey.
He was born in Mendoza, Argentina and made his professional debut with one of South America’s biggest teams, River Plate.
Despite not having Mexican ancestry, he played with “El Tri” in their 4 - 0 thrashing of Nigeria in a friendly match in Nashville on July 3. Funes Mori scored the opening goal in the fourth minute.
Monterrey’s joint all-time top goal scorer shocked many fans when he was seen passionately singing his new national anthem less than a month after obtaining Mexican citizenship.
His performance in his first senior international game made enough of an impression on Argentine coach Gerardo Martino for him to include Funes Mori in Mexico’s CONCACAF Gold Cup squad.
He was also in the starting lineup for the disastrous scoreless draw with Trinidad and Tobago on July 10 at the AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas.
After that shock result, Funes Mori proved doubters wrong again by scoring a brace against Guatemala in their second group stage match that Mexico won 3-0 in Dallas.
The striker’s first goal was a true master class in finishing.
After bringing down a lobbed pass from Hector Herrera inside the box, he stumbled to get past a Guatemalan defender before curling the ball inside the goalie’s left post.
— B/R Football (@brfootball) July 15, 2021
This brings him to three goals in three appearances for “El Tri,” but despite the great start, many are criticizing his involvement in the Mexican National Team for only being a naturalized player.
Legends of the sport in Mexico, like former Real Madrid attacker Hugo Sanchez, have made their opinions clear by publicly denouncing Funes Mori’s inclusion.
“There are many Mexican soccer players who do not have jobs and priority is given to those from abroad,” he said.
Ricardo “El Tuca” Ferretti has coached for over three decades in the Liga MX, where he has won countless titles, mainly with Tigres UANL. He was born in Brazil, but continued living in Mexico after playing for different teams in the domestic league.
“El Tuca” served as interim manager for the Mexican National Team on three occasions, and in his second stint, beat the USMNT to win the 2015 CONCACAF Cup. It gave “El Tri” the chance to represent North America in the 2017 Confederations Cup.
Despite his own foreign roots, even he is against the idea of a national side having naturalized players or foreign managers.
“I still think that the coach of the national team should be a Mexican and that the players of the Mexican national team should be Mexican,” he said.
Ferretti claims he was offered a four-year contract with the intent to take Mexico to the 2018 World Cup, but turned it down because of his belief.
More nationalistic fans were angered by their national team adding a naturalized player to the roster, but the circumstances that led to the invitation need to be considered.
This summer will see El Tri participating in two tournaments with overlapping dates, and therefore, they need to have full squads prepared to compete.
In the Men’s Olympic Football Tournament Tokyo 2020, all 16 participants will play their under-24 teams, with three players above that age category to serve as reinforcements.
Combined with the Gold Cup roster, it means Mexico required 55 players to be available this Summer for international competitions.
On top of this, they had to plan around last-minute injuries and events.
Young talent José Juan Macías was supposed to lead the attack at the Olympic squad, but a tear in his left thigh canceled those plans along with his desire to wrap up a deal to play for Getafe CF in the Spanish top flight next season.
Alan Pulido was Martino’s preferred choice to be Mexico’s goal threat at the Gold Cup, but the Sporting Kansas City forward got hurt in an MLS game two weeks before the start of the tournament.
Mexico’s Argentine strategist still backed him to join his roster for the North American competition, but he was not available for the opening game and saw a few minutes of action in the dying moments of the match against Guatemala.
The national team also did not even consider calling upon Wolverhampton Wanderers talisman Raúl Jiménez, since he has yet to play a game following a skull fracture he endured in November 2020, which ended his season.
Carlos Vela is also a prolific winger in the MLS with LAFC who can be deployed at striker, but the 32 year-old has said that the 2018 World Cup in Russia was his last time appearing for the national side.
Martino has also refused to work with Javier “Chicharito” Hernández, whose résumé includes playing for Manchester United and Real Madrid on top of being Mexico’s all-time top goal scorer.
The Mexican soccer icon has regained form recently with the LA Galaxy by offering 11 goal contributions in 10 games so far this season, but Martino seems to be fed up with journalists questioning his isolation from “El Tri.”
"What was not clear or what did not satisfy you, Javier Hernandez is not here because I used or chose other options for the number nine position... That's the answer,” the Argentine coach said.
If “El Tri” were to have all of their options available, then Funes Mori may have never been called up, since Jiménez is the main striker and Macías is a promising prospect.
However, with his recent performances, it may be hard to drop him from future rosters.
Hirving Lozano is also the latest player to suffer from Mexico’s injury crisis, as he was ruled out for the rest of the Gold Cup after a clash with Trinidad & Tobago’s goalkeeper in the 11th minute of their opening game.
This makes Monterrey’s criticized striker the main figure in Mexico’s frontline for the remainder of the tournament.
His dream of playing for the senior team of a national side in a FIFA tournament did not seem like it would come true in 2019. Funes Mori inquired about the possibility of playing for Mexico then, but his petition was rejected.
Participating in a competition with Argentina’s U-20 side impeded his switch, but after FIFA changed their naturalized players rule last year, he is now able to wear Mexico’s jersey.
The easiest way to be eligible to play for a national team is being born in the country or having a parent or grandparent that was. For Funes Mori, he was deemed eligible after living in Mexico for five years and now holding dual citizenship.
Mexico’s coach during the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, Miguel Herrera, has made the argument that Funes Mori’s call up to play for Mexico by Martino should not be an issue that divides fans because nearly every country has naturalized players.
“He is not the first coach to do it, the last five coaches who have been in the national team have done it... Only two teams in the world do not have naturalized players, Brazil and Argentina,” he said in a press conference as the new manager of Tigres UANL.
Naturalized players are not a new phenomenon in Mexico, since El Tri has taken one player who was not a Mexican citizen at birth to all three World Cups between 2002 and 2010.
Antônio Naelson "Sinhá" has been the most successful of these foreign-born players, as the Brazilian native formed part of Mexico’s 2004 Olympic squad and helped the senior team reach the round of 16 at the 2006 World Cup, where they were eliminated by Argentina in extra time.
Fans believe that a country as populous as Mexico, over 130 million inhabitants and ranked tenth globally, and where football is the primary sport, should be able to field a team of players that were all born in Mexico or have Mexican ancestry.
In reality, many of the top sides in the sport would not be able to achieve the same heights if they could not use naturalized players.
During the 2020 Euro final, England had two players that began their careers in the Irish youth system and arguably Italy’s best midfielder, Jorginho, was born in Brazil.
Mexico’s neighbors to the north are no different since they have recently called up numerous players who were born in Europe or are dual nationals who were eligible to play with “El Tri.”
Foreign managers have also come to deliver memorable moments for Mexico and their millions of fans.
The team’s current gaffer, Martino, was appointed in January 2019 and helped them win that year’s edition of the Gold Cup.
Losing the inaugural issue of the National League competition to the USMNT will leave a bad taste on his stint as Mexico’s head coach, but he can still tout a winning percentage over 80%.
Ricardo La Volpe is an Argentine coach who won the 1978 World Cup with Argentina as a backup goalkeeper, and has also managed in the Mexican league.
When asked to guide the national side to the 2006 World Cup, he qualified in first place with 22 points, which is the record number of points in the CONCACAF Hexagonal stage.
If supporters of CONCACAF’s most successful national team do not want their national team to ever have to depend on naturalized players, then Liga MX has to comply and deliver on structural changes.
The number of foreigners allowed at each league side should be capped at a lower amount and this is something that Martino has repeatedly asked for.
His pleas have been answered since Mexico’s top flight has enacted a policy that will reduce the number of foreign nationals per team from 12 for the Clausura 2020 to nine in the Clausura 2023.
Secondly, Liga MX teams need to make it easier for young Mexican talents to migrate to European leagues so that they can grow as players and so that the national team has a larger depth of professionals with experice aborad.
Funes Mori is being blamed for a problem that did not start with him and he has proven he has something to add to the national team. As the Gold Cup progresses, he might slowly win over more fans with goals.
“It is an honor for me to represent this country, to be one more Mexican... I will defend Mexico with all my heart,” he said after his first training session with his new teammates.