Mexico midfielder Hector Herrera has worn the armband for three years for Portuguese club Porto, a team whose net is minded by one of the best keepers of all time, Spain’s Iker Casillas.
As Herrera told ESPN’s David Faitelson in an in-depth conversation from the club’s practice facilities, that club captaincy isn’t a responsibility to be taken lightly, especially for a European power such as Porto. Still, he remains in awe of sharing the pitch with a World Cup winner, one of his childhood idols with Real Madrid, a goalkeeper he affectionately refers to as el abuelo (“grandpa”).
“Like he tells me, you’ll have something to tell your grandchildren one day,” said Herrera. “[Casillas] jokes, but it’s true.”
Herrera has been able to put his admiration for Casillas aside long enough to absorb the advice and mannerisms of a player he refers to as a “five-star” person. At 28, Herrera is the eldest of three Mexican players at Porto — he took over that role when Miguel Layun was loaned to La Liga side Sevilla — and could use every bit of the guidance a player such as Casillas can provide as the 2018 World Cup looms.
With a foreign language, culture, food and football style evident in Portugal, it’s not always easy for Mexicans to adjust. However, there is strength in numbers.
“While the other Mexican players were arriving, we helped with what little we could,” said Herrera. “That makes it so much easier being with someone who shares your language, tells the same jokes. It makes your day that much easier.”
The former Pachuca player, who won the gold medal with Mexico at the 2012 London Olympics, shared his Porto debut with fellow Mexico hopeful Diego Reyes in 2013, which he said helped in his transition. He has five goals in 64 appearances with Mexico and had an inspiring performance wearing El Tri‘s armband on May 28 in the scoreless tie against Wales in Los Angeles.
Mexico is counting on Herrera as one of the players with European experience to help El Tri compete with soccer superpowers like Germany, the defending champions and Mexico’s first World Cup opponent on June 17. Herrera considers the high level of competition that his teammates experience overseas as a key factor in Mexico’s potential success this summer.
“I think the football in Mexico is good but the reality is that Europe is always a step ahead of the other leagues,” he said.
The business and politics of the Mexican federation can be a hindrance, too. “There are three-and-a-half million Uruguayans and there are many more of them in Europe than there are Mexicans,” said Herrera. Nevertheless, he believes El Tri has a good enough mix of European club talent, youth and exuberance to make noise in Russia and dismiss any notions that the team lacks leadership.
“It’s something that is not a problem with this team right now; there is an open relationship between the player and [Mexico manager Juan Carlos Osorio],” said Herrera. “It’s one of our lesser concerns; there is good communication between the [leaders], coaching staff and us. If there is personality among the players, I think that’s easier when everyone to take a leadership role.
“It’s not just one player that has to talk to us like we’re sheep: ‘Hey everybody, let’s go!’ We all have the same goal in mind.”
Herrera points to Mexico’s record and relative ease in qualifying when defending Osorio, the subject of much criticism in Mexico because of his frequent lineup changes. He also believes everyone who has a stake in how El Tri fares in the World Cup needs to get on the same page when it comes to expectations.
“I feel that the fans, the press is overly influenced by the more recent result or even the past few results,” he said. “That’s fine — it’s their right. But I personally feel that we have a great team. We have players who are peaking, who aren’t the youngest anymore but who are in a more mature phase of their careers.”
David Faitelson is based in Los Angeles and co-hosts “Nacion ESPN,” ESPN Deportes’ version of “SportsNation.” Follow him on Twitter @Faitelson_ESPN.