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A View From Mexico

Mexico's Javier Hernandez celebrates after scoring a goal during the World Cup group A soccer match between France and Mexico at Peter Mokaba Stadium in Polokwane, South Africa, Thursday, June 17, 2010.  (AP Photo/Hassan Ammar)


The girl was 11, maybe 12, and she and her father had sleuthed out the San Diego-area hotel where the Mexican national soccer team was staying ahead of Tuesday night’s game against Venezuela at Qualcomm Stadium. They found the banquet room where the players were eating a late dinner, and they waited for close to an hour for them to finish.

One after another, Mexico’s stars walked toward the elevators until the object of her desire appeared: a 5-foot-9, 22-year-old forward with a buzz cut, fair skin, piercing eyes and a baby face.

No. 14, Javier Hernandez, “Chicharito.” The Little Pea.

Her father asked if he would pose for a photo with his daughter, and he obliged. The camera on his iPhone malfunctioned, and he asked if they could take another. Hernandez smiled and nodded. It didn’t work again. By the fourth unsuccessful attempt, the girl had started to cry.

Hernandez’s teammates were long gone now, disappeared into the elevator and headed to their rooms. It was late, closing in on 10 o’clock. There was practice the next morning. Fans weren’t supposed to be in the hotel. The team’s omnipresent security detail was growing uneasy.

A fifth try, a sixth try, a seventh. An eighth. Hernandez stood there patiently, smiling, dutifully wrapping his arm around the man’s daughter each time he aimed the camera, without the slightest whiff of irritation.

All of which tells you two things about Hernandez, suddenly Mexico’s most iconic personality and rapidly becoming one of the most popular players for the world’s most popular team (Manchester United). In the world’s most popular sport. It tells you that he’s famous, and why he’s famous.

"A lovely lad," as Manchester United star Wayne Rooney puts it.

Chicharomania — think Justin Bieber in cleats — descends upon San Diego this week, and if you can’t comprehend its magnitude, you need merely look at the anticipated attendance for Tuesday’s match in the midst of a woeful economy. It essentially is a meaningless exhibition, or international friendly in soccer parlance, that in normal years might draw 30,000 at Qualcomm Stadium.

A crowd of 60,000 is expected Tuesday, which — fair warning — also means the mother of all rush-hour traffic jams in Mission Valley.

There are many reasons for the Chicharito phenomenon — his pedigree, his personality, his performance, his potential. But something else has amplified its resonance.

“Perfect timing,” Mexico national coach Jose Manuel de la Torre said.

El Tri, as Mexico’s beloved national team is known, reached the second round of a World Cup for the fourth straight time in South Africa last summer. El Tri lost in the second round for the fourth straight time, an emphatic 3-1 decision against Argentina.

It was a blow to the collective psyche of a country that ties so much of its self-worth to fútbol, and an inexorable four-year wait for the next World Cup to repair it.

Then along came the Little Pea.

It’s a fairy-tale story that nearly wasn’t. Two years earlier, the kid who was bred to be a soccer star — his father and grandfather both were on World Cup rosters for Mexico and played for legendary club Chivas of Guadalajara — was having breakfast with his parents and blurted out that he was quitting soccer. He had grown frustrated sitting on the bench behind the logjam of veteran forwards at Chivas. He would focus on his studies instead.

“I was very close,” Hernandez said of quitting. “Not really, really close. But really close.”

His parents and agent calmed him down, convinced him to stay at Chivas, and by the following season he was blossoming into the player that his lineage predicted. By September 2009 he received his first call-up to the national team; he already has 14 goals in 22 games, including two in a 3-1 win against Paraguay in Oakland last Saturday.

Manchester United’s tentacles of global scouts noticed him and sent Sir Alex Ferguson, the club’s knighted manager, a glowing report about the son of Javier Hernandez Gutierrez, the former Chivas forward who was affectionately known as “Chicharo,” or pea, because of his green eyes.

“Our scouting people get 10 out of 10 for identifying him before the World Cup,” Ferguson said last summer. “If we tried to negotiate after the World Cup, it would have been very difficult. … He probably would have cost us two or three times as much.”

As it was, the negotiations were shrouded in such secrecy that Hernandez told only his parents and sister. He didn’t even tell his grandfather, 1954 World Cup star Tomas Balcazar, saying he was flying to Atlanta for sponsorship obligations instead of Manchester to finalize the $10.5 million transfer that included an agreement to play an exhibition against Chivas in Guadalajara last summer (Hernandez played a half for each team).

“I gave my word to keep quiet,” said Hernandez, who granted the Union-Tribune a rare interview in English. “But it was very different because if Manchester United says they want to sign you, you want to tell everybody, no?”

Hernandez would have a breakout World Cup, scoring two goals, including one against France just as his grandfather had 56 years earlier. He scored in his first three preseason exhibitions with Man U over the summer, then regularly found himself on the field this winter when several Man U veterans got hurt or fell out of favor. With two months remaining in his rookie season, thanks to blinding speed and a serene predatory instinct and an uncanny ability to head the ball despite his diminutive stature, he has 16 goals.

Man U, rated the most valuable sports team in the world by Forbes magazine at nearly $2 billion, has not squandered the Latin American marketing bonanza offered by a wholesome kid who goes to church and signs every last autograph. In the first 24 hours after announcing it had acquired him, the club’s official website received 50,000 new registrations from Mexico.

His No. 14 jersey, which has “Chicharito” across the back instead of the “Hernandez” he wears with Mexico, has become Man U’s hottest-selling item. The concession stands ringing Old Trafford stadium can’t keep enough sombreros in stock. Fans wear Pancho Villa mustaches. There are T-shirts with his face adorning a 20-peso note.

It was exactly what Mexico needed, a dose of pride from a 22-year-old with a buzz cut, fair skin, piercing eyes and a baby face. Consider the national psyche repaired.

“I want to (improve) the name of Mexico,” Hernandez said. “The situation in our country is a little difficult right now. I want to do things very well so all the world can look to our country with good thoughts.”

He had to go. The girl with tears running down her cheeks and a father with a broken camera phone wanted to try again.

For Signonsandiego

SUNDAY, MARCH 27, 2011 AT 10:32 P.M



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