The 2018 FIFA World Cup is only a few weeks away, and if all goes as expected, Los Angeles Football Club striker Carlos Vela will be on the plane to Russia alongside his Mexican National Team teammates.
Vela, though, isn't counting his chickens before they've hatched. Following Wednesday's win against Minnesota United, the striker reminded the media that while he hopes to make the World Cup squad, that decision is fully up to national team coach Juan Carlos Osorio.
"It's not about whether I see myself at the World Cup or not; I work to be there and after that it's not in my hands to say, 'I'm going or I'm not going,'" Vela said.
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Yet for all his hard work and fine displays for LAFC, a strange shadow still looms over Vela's World Cup chances, one that has followed him for years and has only been exacerbated by his switch from Spain's top flight to Major League Soccer.
Vela has never really quite shaken the ire of many Mexican national team fans after his self-imposed exile from the national team, one in which he went so far as to rule himself out of the 2014 World Cup.
Out of the Picture
The reasons for Vela's exile from national team duties have always remained a mystery, but if you know Mexican soccer, you know that politics and grudges are a constant in the revolving door of managers and directors of the Mexican national team.
One of the prevailing theories is that it all goes back to an infamous party thrown at the Mexican National Team hotel in 2010 following a friendly against Colombia. In total, 13 players attended the party and all were fined 50,000 pesos, but only Vela and Efraín Juárez were suspended from the national team for six months.
At the time, Néstor de la Torre was the Director of National Teams and the one who handed down the punishment before resigning following the controversy. In a strange stroke of fate, José Manuel de la Torre, Néstor's brother, would take over the Mexican National Team reigns in 2011.
That disastrous tenure would last through 2013, a period in which the rift between player and manager - and player and national team - were on full display, Vela refusing to suit up for "El Tri."
A Chance to Come Home
When Miguel Herrera replaced "Chepo" de la Torre as manager, it was seen as the perfect chance for Vela, arguably one of Mexico's best players at the time, to return from the cold.
Instead, after playing his first minutes in years with the national team, Vela ruled himself out of World Cup contention.
"In each meeting I have had with all the different parties, who have been directly responsible for the national team, I have emphasized that my country is Mexico and alway will be," Vela said in a February 2014 statement.
"Yet," Vela continued, "In this World Cup cycle I have not been mentally at 100 percent to represent or form part of this team, which deserves my maximum respect."
The Expected Reaction
For most players, representing their country at the World Cup isn't just a dream, it's the dream, so for many a Mexican national team fan, Vela's statement was seen as a slap in the face by a petulant player.
The fan reaction, while perhaps cruel, was fully expected. Just ask Landon Donovan, arguably the United State Men's National Team's greatest-ever player, how much football fans care about the well-being of a player.
In both instances a player decided to take a leave for mental health reasons, and in both instances the fan reaction was swift and, yes, a little cruel.
Break a leg or tear a tendon, and be showered with well-wishes. Commit the transgression of taking a mental health break, and be castigated by the fans who one cheered you - simply for being human.
A Move to Los Angeles
Vela's move to the MLS drew further criticism. Despite its growth, the MLS has not quite been able to shake its "retirement league" label.
Vela followed in the footsteps fellow Mexican National Team members, the Dos Santos brothers, in joining the league, all three coming to the United States in arguably their prime footballing years. But Vela, a player long known to be unafraid of doing things his way, has been unfazed by the critics.
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"I've always said the decision is mine. The person who has to be happy and the person who has to decide where to be is me," Vela said after Wednesday's game against Minnesota. "I decided to come to Los Angeles and every passing day I'm happier and I feel more strongly that I came to the right place where I can enjoy myself and keep growing as a player."
It's with that positive attitude that Vela continues to eye a return to a World Cup after eight years away.
"It would be great [to represent Mexico at the World Cup] and a big responsibility," Vela said. "Not being at the last World Cup I think makes me have a lot of eagerness and a great desire to help the team, and if I'm there I'll give it my all to make Mexico and my teammates better."
What the Future Holds
While some questions remain, Vela has featured for Osorio's Mexico in recent times, which should signal a return to a World Cup after eight years away.
Osorio is set to release his preliminary 35-man squad on Sunday. After that, he'll have until June 4 to whittle his roster down to the 23 players going to Russia.
Vela will know by then whether his desire to return to the fold, coupled with his impressive displays for LAFC, have paid off.
While discussing his own World Cup chances, Vela also mentioned the simultaneously strange and real possibility of Mexican National Team legend Rafael Marquez suiting up one more time to become only the fourth player to play in five World Cups.
"I think he has been, is and will continue to be an example to everyone, and if we have to we'll carry him there. If I have to give him my spot I'll give it to him," Vela said. "I think he deserves everything to close his great career on a high note. "
Stranger still, though, is the fact that Marquez is now officially retired from club football after having played his final match with Liga MX side Atlas.
A regular under Osorio, the 39-year-old Marquez would be making his fifth World Cup appearance. Despite his age, he has continued to bring leadership and composure to the Mexican side.
"He's someone who always contributes, even if it's not on the pitch it's important for him to be with us, and he gives the leadership that's missing in Mexican soccer because he's lived and played with the biggest and best players in the world," Vela said.
Yet Marquez's chances of competing in Russia have become murky since the former Barcelona and Monaco man was sanctioned by the U.S. Treasury Department for alleged ties to drug traffickers.
Marquez has maintained his innocence, and a World Cup call-up is still not out of the picture, but if he makes it, he will certainly have traveled a strange road to get there.