As one of the few older players at Bayer 04 Leverkusen, Chicharito is expected to lead by example. As a forward, that means scoring goals. It’s what 28-year-old Mexico international Javier Hernández does best.
Half an hour into last Saturday’s match at the Opel Arena, 1. FSV Mainz and Bayer Leverkusen were scoreless. A minute later, the Werkself were losing, but just a minute after that, Chicharito had brought it back to level pegging. In the 36th minute, they conceded yet again.
Just over 20 minutes from time Chicharito scored with a deflected shot for his second equalizer of the day. Then, in the dying embers of the match, two minutes into stoppage time, Chicharito did it. Again. Jonathan Tah pumped a ball forward from midfield, and Herández timed his run perfectly, evading two Mainz defenders beating the onrushing keeper to the ball. Chicharito cushioned the winner into the bottom-right corner with his forehead, and sprinted away to celebrate his hat trick.
Now the focal point of Leverkusen’s attack when he’s fit, Hernández is the first name on manager Roger Schmidt’s teamsheet. But he hasn’t always enjoyed this much playing time. He played more minutes last year (3134) than in the two previous seasons (2014-15 Real Madrid: 1492; 2013-14 Manchester United: 1418) combined. Chicharito was prolific at United, scoring 37 times in 103 English Premier League appearances.
“In the Premier League I have the fourth-best goals per minute in history,” he tells me. “In Real Madrid I didn’t play a lot. I did the best I can in both countries,” Hernández says.
The figure he mentions is incredible. Yet even when scoring every 130 minutes, it was hard for him to get into the team. He did even better in LaLiga, scoring every 122 minutes. But despite making 23 league appearances for Real, he was only on the pitch for an average of 37 minutes each time.
Last season, Hernández enjoyed his most successful season, scoring 26 times for Leverkusen. When reminded that it was his most prolific – in terms of goals – he adds: “Yeah, but as well as minutes!”
Playing time and Champions League football are the two main reasons he joined Leverkusen.
“That was the most important thing for me to have a lot of minutes, and then the goals were going to come sooner rather than later. I think every footballer in the world wants to be on the pitch as much as possible,” Hernández says.
After the success in his debut campaign, Chicharito won’t be taking his foot off the gas any time soon.
“I’m never going to be in a comfort zone, I always want to be a better player, person. I want to help my team get the goals that we are aiming for. The only expectations I have are the ones of my manager and that I have. Those are the same,” Hernández says.
Because he holds himself to a high standard, Hernández doesn’t feel pressure at Leverkusen, or with the Mexican national team, despite his stardom.
“No, not really. How does it feel? Really I don’t know because I never try to feel more or less than any player in Leverkusen or Mexico. I don’t feel like I’m more famous than other players; I’m just one more footballer who wants to achieve their dreams and to try to help their team as much as they can to do that,” Chicharito says.
Like many of their European counterparts, Leverkusen have been aggressive in marketing efforts to fans across the world. Michael Schade, CEO of Bayer 04, says that markets in the Americas are important, and Chicharito has helped grow interest there.
“We learned that he’s an icon, a PR icon, and that’s what we’re doing now,” Schade says. “And that’s what we are using because Mexico is an important market for us. We have launched our new jersey on the first of July, and in the first four weeks we sold more than 12 thousand jerseys only in Mexico. That was exactly the number that we had in Germany the year before, so this is extraordinary.”
Millions of fans in Mexico now cheer for Chicharito when he suits up for the Werkself, and not even the striker himself can believe the impact he’s had.
“Sometimes I don’t realize how much a football player can help a club. Coming here, playing football is the thing I like to do most in my life. That’s the only thing in my mind and if I can help the club be more recognised around the world, Latin America and USA, I am very glad, and hopefully more people can follow this amazing club,” Hernández says.
The success in reaching new fans has been driven by Chicharito, a bonus to the club that bought him on transfer deadline day – August 31, 2015 – because he is a world-class striker who came at a bargain: just €12 million.
Jonas Boldt, who oversees scouting and player recruitment at Leverkusen, says they first targeted Chicharito at the end of the 2014-15 season.
“After the first year with Roger Schmidt, we sat together and recognized that we needed a striker, a finisher with experience. We have our database and put in all the names, and the decision was we need a striker like Chicharito,” Boldt says.
“We didn’t, to be very, very honest, buy him because he’s an image player. We bought him, and we hired him because he’s a good striker,” Schade says.
‘We said: ‘We need somebody with experience,’ so you can put in an age between 25 and older, and also the main important stat with Chicharito is goals per minute. In the last years in Manchester and in the year in Real Madrid he wasn’t starting 11. But you can see that he’s playing in a good team, the team creates chances and he’s a finisher. He likes to score goals, is hungry to score goals and you can see he has success wherever he plays,” Boldt says.
Leverkusen found a vein of fantastic form to end the 2015-16 Bundelisga season, winning eight of the final nine matches to jump from 8th to 3rd place. So far however, this season has been up-and-down, but an unbeaten run could take them back to the top four.
“We are aiming to do that, to get that flow of games, that good confidence,” Chicharito adds. “We have a better squad than last season, a lot of players. I think the team is good but the results are not coming. We have been a bit unlucky as well but I think if we get that flow, that rhythm of good performances, we can make 10, 11, 12 victories in a row. That would be perfect. We always aim as high as we can dream.”
Fixtures start to build up at this point in the campaign, and last week was the Englische Woche in the Bundesliga, with teams playing three times within eight days. Being involved in European competition means the matches keep coming.
“I think playing a lot, every three or four days is the best thing. The best training is the games; there is no training in the week that you can compare the intensity, fatigue and everything that you have in a match,” Hernández says.
Maybe more matches was the medicine that Chicharito and Bayer needed. That Hernández hat trick propelled Leverkusen into 10th in the top flight.
They were back in action Tuesday in Monaco, playing their second Group E game in the Champions League. Chicharito scored again, but his 100th goal in European football was cancelled out by a Monaco score on the final kick of the match, leaving Bayer in third in Group E, with two points after two matches.
While Chicharito is happy to help the team in other ways even if he doesn’t score, the Werkself will be counting on him to chip in.
“The important thing is the team. It doesn’t matter if I keep scoring goals and the team don’t get what we want, which is three points. Obviously it’s my seventh season in a row in the CL so that means we are doing a very good job in any team that I’m involved in,” Hernández says.
He may not end up winning any awards at the end of the season thanks to Bayern Munich rival Robert Lewandowski playing in a superclub, but Hernández should have another spectacular season filled with goals. With a little bit of luck, they could even go deep into the Champions League. They’ve hit the woodwork five times, and missed two penalties already. That should turn around but, then again, Leverkusen’s history is filled with second-place finishes, hence the nickname ‘Neverkusen’. They’re been runners-up in the Bundesliga five times, and lost the 2002 Champions League Final to Real Madrid.
But the competition won’t be letting up. Bayer 04 face free-scoring Borussia Dortmund on Saturday, who have bagged 25 goals already (Leverkusen have 11, which includes two hat tricks) in seven games this season. It’s the Bundesliga Topspiel this weekend, meaning it’s a late kickoff at the BayArena. There may even be a little USA-Mexico rivalry on display, if 18-year-old Christian Pulisic features for the Schwarzgelben. New markets will be reached, but more importantly, goals will be scored.
As for how far they will go, hard work will be the deciding factor.