Javier Hernández’s soccer career has been marked by equal parts brilliance and disappointment which, for the Mexican striker, have become opposite sides of the same coin.
Flip it one way and Hernández is among his country’s most precocious young talents in a generation, one of the first Mexicans to become a breakout star in Europe and the second-leading scorer in national team history.
Flip it the other and Hernández has started only one of eight World Cup games, was denied the opportunity to play in the 2012 Olympics – which México won – and was banished to the bench by both Manchester United and Real Madrid.
Thursday the coin landed heads up, with Hernández’s goal in the 18th minute sparking Mexico to a 2-0 Copa América Centenario win over Jamaica before a crowd of 83,263 at the Rose Bowl.
The victory extended Mexico’s unbeaten streak to 21 games, equaling the longest in national team history. More important, it also sends El Tri on to next week’s quarterfinals – although México might not have gotten there this quickly without some help from Brazilian referee Wilton Sampaio.
With a sold-out stadium of Mexican fans looking on, Sampaio failed to award Jamaica penalty kicks on two questionable challenges against Jamaican forward Clayton Donaldson inside the 18-yard box, one in each half.
“I thought it was a penalty. And it looked like a penalty on the replay,” Jamaican midfielder Michael Héctor said of both non-calls. “We had chances. Obviously penalties change games. But we had chances.”
Mexican Coach Juan Carlos Osorio sidestepped the officiating and praised his players.
“We are deeply satisfied with the performance and what we’ve accomplished,” he said in Spanish.
Meanwhile, for Hernández – better known as Chicharito – Thursday’s first-half goal leaves him one score shy of equaling Jared Borgetti’s Mexican record of 46 international goals. The goal also moved him a big step closer to the prize he really wants: a significant tournament title, which would help stamp this team as perhaps the best in Mexican history.
Over the last five years, México won its first Olympic title and its second U-15 World Cup. But those are age-group competitions.
On the senior level it won two CONCACAF Gold Cups. But that’s a regional tournament without much significance outside the region.
The Copa América Centenario, the 100th anniversary edition of the South American championship, is different. It’s a senior tournament with a long history – and with five of the top nine teams in the world in the field, it is arguably deeper than the European Championships, which begin in France on Friday.
And through 14 games, México has been the best team in that field, leaving it three knockout-round wins from becoming the first team from outside South América to win a Copa title.
Hernández gave México the only score it would need Thursday before the twilight had faded to darkness at the Rose Bowl, nodding a cross from Jesus Corona into the far corner of the goal from 12 yards.
Hernández left in the 78th minute, and three minutes later, Oribe Peralta, the man who replaced him, doubled the lead, squeezing a left-footed shot just past diving Jamaican keeper Andre Blake.
México wasn’t dominant against Jamaica, the same team it vanquished in last summer’s Gold Cup final. But it was more than good enough, outshooting, out-possessing and outpassing Jamaica while playing with the sharpness and confidence that has come to define the team under Osorio.
México’s ninth coach in 12 years – and its third in 11 months – Osorio has yet to see México lose under his direction. In eight of those nine wins, México didn’t give up a goal.
On Thursday, goalkeeper Guillermo Ochoa earned the shutout, standing his ground on a blistering shot by Hector from close range in the 39th minute, then withstanding repeated Jamaica assaults in the second half.