By Andrew Downie
SAO PAULO (Reuters) – He is little known outside Latin America, but Antonio Mohamed, who hopes to coach Monterrey to the Mexican league title on Sunday, is one of the best-known faces in his adopted homeland and an outsize example of Argentine influence on Mexican soccer.
Mohamed’s Monterrey beat America 2-1 in the first leg of the Apertura final on Dec. 26 and only need a draw at the Aztec Stadium to end the year as both Mexican champions and CONCACAF Champions League winners.
Mohamed’s presence on the sidelines is one of the clearest examples of how Argentine imports have become key players in the rise of Mexican soccer.
Six of the 22 players who started Thursday’s first leg are Argentine and this season every one of the league’s 19 teams, bar Guadalajara, which has a long history of selecting only Mexicans, featured at least one Argentine-born player.
In addition, Mexico’s national team coach is Argentina’s Gerardo Martino.
Mexico has long been a destination for South American footballers, with Brazilians migrating there in the 1970s and 80s and players from across the continent heading north to play at a higher level on better salaries than they could find at home.
The Argentine influence is not new but has gathered strength in recent years as the domestic game in Argentina declined.
Mohamed is a classic example of someone who came as a player and built a career in Mexico.
After catching the eye as a teenager at Huracan, he was signed by Fiorentina but never made the grade in Italy and left in 1996 to join Toros Neza, a little-known team from one of Mexico City’s biggest and most working-class suburbs.
Mohamed led a mercurial band of players there — including his opposite number in Sunday’s final, America’s Miguel Herrera — who brought an unprecedented splash of colour to both their dusty barrio and Mexican football.
They all shaved their heads for one match, dyed them different colors for another and took to the field for playoff games wearing outlandish Halloween masks.
That charisma endeared Mohamed to Mexicans and the 49-year old has rarely been away. He played for seven clubs and has now coached eight.
“I know Mexico’s idiosyncrasies very well,” he told Clarin newspaper earlier this year. “It was a place where I always felt wanted. I need to be loved if I am to win. I don’t need to win to be loved. And that has generated a lovely commitment.”
Having lost two previous league finals with Monterrey, Sunday’s second leg is a chance to cement that commitment with club and country even further.
(Reporting by Andrew Downie; Editing by Ian Chadband)