Raul Jimenez is the most important player of Mexico's depleted Gold Cup squad
For regular observers of the Mexico national team, the green promotional banners outside of Atlanta's Mercedes-Benz Stadium with meticulously edited portraits of Javier Hernandez, Hirving Lozano and Miguel Layun jumped out for a certain reason: none of those players was there. Nor, for that matter, was any other recognizable star player like Carlos Vela, Hector Herrera, Giovani dos Santos or Jesus "Tecatito" Corona. But given how many of those identical banners there were around the stadium, it would've likely been an expensive task to replace them.
The 50,000-plus fans who saw Mexico beat Venezuela 3-1 may have been wondering the same thing: Why weren't the usual big names on the squad and who will line up for El Tri at the Gold Cup?
The debate over how much (or little) dedication there is to Mexico's national team for those established players, and their varied reasons for missing out on this summer's soccer, has reached nauseating levels. In Layun's case, the news that a cancerous tumor (now removed) had kept him out was a stark warning about the pitfalls of unsubstantiated speculation. Whatever their reasons, the absentees have left a vacuum, especially in attack. Fortunately for head coach Gerardo "Tata" Martino, there's one player primed to fill it: Raul Jimenez, the most important player in the Mexico squad at the Gold Cup.
"Personally, I've never won [the Gold Cup]," said Jimenez in an interview with ESPN in Wolverhampton before the end of the Premier League season. "I've only been once and we finished in the semifinal, so I'm coming in with passion, pride and the drive to win it... it is something that I'm missing."
Speaking after the final warm-up game against Ecuador, Jimenez was even more emphatic about just what the tournament means.
"It's going to be very special for me, it's a very good opportunity to show Mexico and the world who I am," Jimenez said in English after Mexico's 3-2 win at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas.
Such outwardly bold statements, with full respect to the Gold Cup, require context. For a start, the Wolves striker isn't a kid. He debuted for Mexico in 2013, he's scored one of Estadio Azteca's greatest goals, has an Olympic gold medal from London 2012 and is now Mexico's most expensive player. But he was bitterly disappointed he didn't get more playing time at the World Cup last summer when, not for the first time, he was in the shadow of Mexico's highest-ever goal-scorer Hernandez and played only 54 minutes.
"Honestly, yes [I expected to play more]," Jimenez told ESPN. "With [former Mexico manager] Juan Carlos Osorio's process and the rotations I thought, 'I probably won't play against [group stage opponents] Germany, but against South Korea or Sweden, I could start a game.' They are simply the coach's decisions and you have to accept them."
How things have changed since then, to the extent that even if Hernandez and the rest were available, Jimenez would still almost certainly be the focal point of Mexico's attack this summer. A loan move, since made permanent, to Wolves after the World Cup in Russia was received with a degree of skepticism in the Mexican media. After periods mainly on the bench at Atletico Madrid and Benfica, along with his sparse participation at Russia 2018 with Mexico, how would he step up to find success in England's very different footballing culture and in arguably the toughest league of all?
"Much depends not only on style of the country, but the coach's playing style so that your skills can fit the system and that's what's helped Raul a lot," former Bolton Wanderers striker and Mexico legend Jared Borgetti told ESPN. "I'm sure that Raul and the coach [Nuno Espirito Santo] thought they'd do well, but not as well as they did."
Jimenez's season at Wolves has been better than most expected, making Premier League watchers the world over sit up and take notice of a Mexican striker with a very different skill set than West Ham United's Hernandez, who had previously been the principal reference point.
Jimenez was one of 29 players to feature in all of his team's 38 Premier League games, scoring 13 goals -- only Callum Wilson (Bournemouth) and Jamie Vardy (Leicester City) of clubs outside the "big six" got more -- as well as creating 42 chances and making seven assists.
"He's not a traditional No. 9 that is static and waiting. He likes to drift outside [the penalty area], he likes to participate in the offensive transition," said Borgetti, second on Mexico's all-time scoring list behind Hernandez. "He's not someone who is obsessed with the goal, he's a player that helps the team play better and others to score as well. Defensively, he cooperates and that's why the coach and the people in the team praise him; he's not only there in the good times, he also works."
It's not only on the field that Jimenez has made an impact at Wolves. As the rain bucketed down intermittently outside of Molineux Stadium ahead of an April 24 showdown against Arsenal, the way that Wolves fans have taken to the Mexican was very evident. One young local fan, wearing a Mexico shirt, said he'd love to watch Jimenez play for El Tri in the Estadio Azteca and now prefers them over his native England, because of Jimenez.
In the stands, there was a smattering of lucha libre masks, inspired by Jimenez's FA Cup semifinal celebration -- which ultimately proved premature, after Watford came back from two goals down to beat Wolves -- and a smattering of Mexican flags.
"Let's be honest: none of Wolverhampton was exactly an expert on lucha libre," Wolves fan Manny Singh King told ESPN. "We were googling it like mad afterwards... we tried to become experts on Mexican culture."
Jimenez and girlfriend Daniela Basso are local celebrities in the West Midlands given their fondness of exploring the sights and sounds of their new home.
"[Jimenez has] been to West Park, he's been to [West Midland's] Safari Park, he's been to Drayton Manor, Warwick castle," said Singh Kang. "He loves this place.
"He's embraced what England is and obviously somebody coming in from a foreign place has you thinking, 'Will they integrate? Will they interact?' Raul has fully interacted with all the fans. He interacts, he signs things, he replies back to fans and most importantly he bangs [the goals] in."
In that April match against Arsenal, Jimenez led the Wolves press with the same panache he has all season, as if all those wasted afternoons and evenings stuck on benches in Spain and Portugal have been bottled and unleashed on the Premier League this season. The fans on the South Bank responded.
"There's something that the Wolves want you to know, best in the world, he comes from Mexico; our No. 9, play the ball and he'll score every time," came the chant. "Si Señor, pass the ball to Raul and he will score ..."
Back in Mexico, Jimenez's profile has risen. In Mexico City, hundreds turned up for a sponsored autograph session on May 17 in a shopping center to the south of the city, with at least a few in Wolves shirts present. Jimenez has always been a popular figure, especially among Club America fans, but succeeding in Europe has propelled him into that elite level of Mexican national team player, the type that gets to appear on green advertising banners outside billion-dollar stadiums like Hernandez, Lozano and Layun.
Jimenez's family, middle class by Mexican standards, moved to Mexico City when the young player was age 7 as his father took a new job. Born in 1991, he'd previously attended the Cruz Azul soccer school in Jasso, close to the family's home town of Tepeji del Rio in the state of Hidalgo. But the youngster had to transfer to Club America when his family moved to the big city, due to Cruz Azul's training center being so far. It would turn out to be a profitable decision for Las Aguilas, who reportedly ended up selling him to Atletico Madrid for over $13 million in 2014 and got a percentage of the transfer when he moved on to Benfica.
Club America's Under-20s head coach Guillermo Huerta first met Jimenez when the player was 13 and says he was small for his age, which is difficult to believe given Jimenez is Mexico's second-tallest player in the 23-player Gold Cup squad at 6-foot-2.
"He always played as a center-forward but Raul was also short, he was very small, very fast and afterwards, he shot up," Huerta said.
Huerta also highlights Jimenez's mentality even as a youngster, believing it helped him when regular starts weren't coming at Atletico Madrid and Benfica.
"Raul has always been very stable mentally, he's very level-headed," stated Huerta. "He was a player who knew what he wanted and was always working for it."
But while Mexico City is where Jimenez developed into a professional at Club America and eventually became a club icon, his roots are in the town of Tepeji del Rio. There, the 19th-century La Josefina textile factory still dominates the center of the town. It may only be a 90-minute drive from the heart of Mexico City, but it feels very different from Mexico's capital, with the birds singing, the small colonial church and mom-and-pop stalls selling barbacoa de borrego, the state of Hidalgo's signature dish.
In the sports shop close to the central plaza, there surprisingly aren't any Jimenez shirts for sale, with the assistant slightly embarrassed about that and offering to order one online. But Jimenez's presence in the town runs deep even if he didn't spend much of his youth there. The player owns a ranch nearby and spent time there during his break ahead of the Gold Cup. While back in the area, Jimenez sent a video message congratulating a local Tepeji girls' team, which had won the state championship and advanced to the national finals in Veracruz.
"Raul Jimenez means a lot to Tepeji. He's one of the standard bearers and it brings pride to hear Tepeji del Rio being talked about because of him," said Carlos Narvaez, president of the local soccer league.
When Jimenez, the oldest of four siblings, was at Atletico Madrid, he signed 30 soccer balls and sent them to the local league as a sign of support. His extended family still live in a town that has a thriving soccer culture and boasts a number of players playing professionally in Mexico.
"What does he mean to the youngsters?" said Narvaez. "They see him as an inspiration and they know that if they work and have talent then some day they can reach his heights."
Walking around Tepeji del Rio's central plaza, which has a cozy town hall flanked by a library and a primary school, brings home just how far this is from the bright lights, intensity and magnitude of the Premier League. For Jimenez, his time to take center stage has finally arrived.