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Herrera’s Atletico move puts Mexico international in European prominence

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El Zorillo achieved perpetuity in Portugal, but can he find success in Spain?

FBL-EUR-C1-PORTO-ROMA Photo credit should read MIGUEL RIOPA/AFP/Getty Images

A little more than six years after the Rosarito, Baja California native left the comforting shores of Liga MX and Pachuca for the competition and lore of European football with FC Porto in Portugal, Hector Miguel Herrera is on the move again.

This time, it’s a big one.

Over 200 games, 35 goals and 35 assists later at the Estádio do Dragão, where Herrera lifted a league title, supercups, played Champions League football and enjoyed a myriad of success and stability simoutaneously representing the Mexican national team, Herrera leaves as one of the most respected and established Porto players as he heads to Madrid to join the 10x La Liga and 3x Europa League champs, Atletico.

El Zorillo, who made just over 50 appearances in Liga MX with Los Tuzos, will forever be regarded as being a part of one of the most successful youth national team cycles Mexico has ever seen. In 2012, Herrera joined up with current Mexico regulars Raul Jimenez, Diego Reyes and Nestor Araujo to win the men’s Olympic qualifying tournament, the Toulon tournament—where he would be named the competition’s best player—and capped it off with a gold medal win at the 2012 Summer Olympics in London.

London Olympic Games - Day 15
Herrera (left) helped Mexico defeat Brazil in the final to become an Olympic gold medalist
Photo by Adam Davy/PA Images via Getty Images

The gold medal is one of Mexico’s two biggest world achievements along with the 1999 Confederations Cup. It was in that tournament that the world got a first look at many Mexico players, Herrera included. He made his mark in those games, as well as giving soccer fanatics one of the best dance celebration gifs of all time.

He made his €8 million move to FC Porto the next summer.

Herrera has done what most modern Mexican players can’t do in the competitive glamour of Europe: create a connection with his fanbase, his team and leave a club where all will forever remember him.

He’s also managed something more difficult still, captain a top European side.

Rafael Marquez (Monaco), Pavel Pardo (Stuttgart), Andres Guardado (PSV, Real Betis) and Carlos Vela (Real Sociedad) have been known to captain their sides on occassion, but not on a permanent basis like Herrera did for two full seasons.

Herrera was granted the Dragons’ armband in the 2017-18 season after the arrival of manager Sérgio Conceição.

A controversial decision, as the Portugese gaffer would tell you himself, but it paid dividends when FC Porto was crowned Liga NOS champions at the end of that season after a five-year wait. The goal that catapulted the Dragons’ chances at the title? The one below, scored by, who else, the captain himself.

FC Porto quite literally wouldn’t have been crowned champs without Herrera. His goal against then-leaders (and hated rivals) Benfica swung the title race from Lisbon to Porto and, with just four matches remaining, the Dragons got the job done and won Herrera’s only league title in his Porto tenure.

FBL-POR-LIGA-PORTO-FEIRENSE
Hector Herrera (L) and Portuguese defender Ricardo Pereira celebrate after winning the league title following the Portuguese league football match between FC Porto and CD Feirense at the Dragao stadium in Porto on May 6, 2018.
Photo credit should read MIGUEL RIOPA/AFP/Getty Images

That league title culminated a club career at Porto for Herrera that was filled with growth. Herrera left Mexico as an emerging 23-year-old ‘No. 8’ and it was at Porto where he blossomed into a hard-working, dynamic and tough-tackling box-to-box midfielder that we’ve all seen show up with great performances at Mexico’s past two World Cups and its 2017 Confederations Cup campaign. Herrera would be named Porto’s Player of the Year in just his second season and be named a part of the Liga NOS Best XI at the conclusion of the 2017-18 season.

After that accolade, coupled with a good showing in Russia that summer (particularly against Germany), the writing was already on the wall. Herrera leaving Porto was already mulling around in transfer talks. Linked heavily to Serie A and La Liga, Herrera would wait out the rest of his contract at Porto until this summer, a farewell tour of sorts for the beloved captain.

Herrera scored nine goals and completed over 86 percent of his passes in 2018-19. He’s become a sort of an ironman as well, not having a significant injury in years and playing at least 29 league games (out of 34) since his second season with Porto.

He moves on to Atletico Madrid, a giant of European football, on a three-year deal. Diego Simeone, another Bielsista like Mexico coach Tata Martino, has created a culture of winning at Atleti that it had been missing for years before his arrival. The club would have at least one Champions League title by now had it not been for Real Madrid’s superteam standing in its way on two occasions. Herrera will be fighting for European titles every year now, in contrast to only making it as far as the UCL quarterfinals twice (‘15, ‘19) with Porto.

He becomes the fourth male Mexican player to join Los Colchoneros, coming in behind Hugo Sanchez, Luis García Postigo and Raul Jimenez, the former two of which enjoyed great spells with the club.

With the departure of Spanish international Rodri to Manchester City, Herrera will join Koke, Saul, Thomas Partey and new addition Marcos Llorente in the Atleti midfield, hopefully contributing more long balls and overall attack to Cholo Simeone’s lineups.

Atletico is known worldwide as a physical team, a side with a lot of deployment, one that creates an annoyance for its rivals due to its intensity within the field of play. These traits fit Herrera well, who is branded as a footballer who presses, runs and is tireless in recovery. Both with Porto and the Mexican national team he held a sense of importance with the ball and in the construction of the game, with quality in the pass and a good shot from long distance.

In its current form, Herrera is now the lone member of the Mexicans abroad club at a European giant. Mexico hasn’t seen one of its sons at this big a club since Javier Chicharito Hernandez’s short loan spell with Real Madrid and, to a lesser extent, Hector Moreno’s six-month tenure at AS Roma two seasons ago.

Germany v Mexico: Group F - 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia
Herrera was one the difference makers in Mexico’s historic win over Germany at the 2018 World Cup.
Photo by Etsuo Hara/Getty Images

Some people may have criticized Herrera’s choice to not participate in the 2019 Concacaf Gold Cup, the start of Martino’s new cycle as national team manager, but the decision never looked too bad to begin with.

Unlike his compatriot Carlos Vela, Herrera did not rule out future Mexico caps altogether, and unlike his former teammate Jesus Corona, he did not avoid call ups through less-than-transparent means. He was up front and direct that he wanted to focus on negotiating his club future. At a club like Atleti, Herrera won’t get any breaks or walk into the lineup. A starting spot must be won, trust must be earned and it seems like ‘HH’ understands this.

He officially received his EU passport in early June of this year, which opened the doors to countless opportunities in European football. He was gifted his first opportunity yesterday, and potentially missing out on lifting a Gold Cup on Sunday over Mexico’s biggest rival might indeed be worth it if Herrera can succeed. El Zorillo achieved perpetuity in Portugal, but can he find success in Spain? Time will tell. All eyes will be on him this season.

You can follow Antonio on Twitter @antonio1998__