When Mexico qualified for Russia 2018 last September after defeating Panama at the Estadio Azteca, there was naturally a celebration, but El Tri manager Juan Carlos Osorio's mindset was already shifting to how to best prepare his team for the main event.
The manager of every nation that qualified for Russia 2018 would have had similar thoughts and begun his own preparations, but Osorio, his coaching staff and the Mexican federation collaborated to put together a particularly innovative plan that the Colombian believes is crucial to El Tri's World Cup chances.
The original idea was to present players with USB sticks containing personalized information, but Osorio's ambitions grew and the federation ended up creating its own online platform that each player in a pool of 40 Mexico World Cup hopefuls can access.
"I can assure you that it is one of the most complete programs in world football," Osorio told ESPN FC in a recent interview in Los Angeles. "There are four factors: mental growth, nutrition and diet, analysis of opposition and the strengthening program."
The mention of a "complementary plan" provoked an immediate media backlash after Porto coach Sergio Conceicao criticized what he thought was the extra workload being put on his Mexican players, Hector Herrera, Diego Reyes, Jesus "Tecatito" Corona and Miguel Layun (now at Sevilla). Speaking in October, Conceicao called it "ridiculous."
However, Osorio claims he presented the plan in full to the players only during the November international break and has been at pains to stress that the strengthening side of the plan doesn't interfere with what the players are doing at their clubs.
"It's not extra," explained Osorio. "It's to prevent. They can do it at home."
Mexico's mental coach, Imanol Ibarrondo, constructed the mental growth part of the plan. There are short texts designed so the players enter the summer focused and in the right frame of mind. Even before the plan, the work on the mental side from a team that wilted in the 2016 Copa America quarterfinal and lost 7-0 to Chile has been noticeable. Captain Andres Guardado now asserts without a hint of self-doubt that the team's goal is to win the World Cup.
In the strengthening part, there are a total of around 60 exercises on the platform with the program individualized for every player. Each exercise carries the names of Mexico internationals so the players don't have to learn complicated names of exercises and can talk easily between themselves about their progress. For example, one exercise is called the "Raul Jimenez," another the "Javier Hernandez." The players themselves recorded videos doing the exercises in Mexico uniform for the rest to view online.
"They go in with their names and passwords and go into the platform and look for their specific programs because it is tailored to each individual," said Osorio.
Osorio studied exercise science and human performance at Southern Connecticut State University (graduating in 1990) and did a masters in science and football at John Moores University in Liverpool. His first job in football was as conditioning coach for New York MetroStars, and in his time living in the United States before becoming a manager, he used to go to functional training seminars around the country and got to know key thinkers in the field like Mike Boyle, Vern Gambetta and Juan Carlos Santana. Osorio clearly feels it is very important for his teams to be on top form physically and athletically and he is keen to make the distinction between the two.
"Physically is the ability to run," said Osorio. "Nowadays, I think that if there is any player who can't run 10 kilometers or more he doesn't deserve to be on the field, never mind the national team.
"But athletically, which means going to the gym, doing prevention programs and stuff like that, now seven years later it's the big thing in the world of football."
While other managers perhaps see such details as peripheral at best, Osorio believes the athletic aspect of the Mexican national team is absolutely central to their chances of success in Russia.
"It's key to the World Cup because if we want to play high intensity like we did against Portugal [in the Confederations Cup] and take the game to them and mirror their system ... If we want to play that way against Germany and take the game to them, we need our players to be on top athletically because those guys are machines: Leon Goretzka, Jonas Hector, Andre Schurrle, Jerome Boateng, Timo Werner," said Osorio.
"Those guys are big, are strong and mentally very, very powerful. So if we want to compete against them, we need our players to be strong and athletically in top form. That's why I put so much emphasis on this."
The plan and online platform has already had a success story in terms of preventing serious injuries, according to Osorio. Mexico and Santos Laguna center-back Nestor Araujo left the field in El Tri's friendly with Croatia last month with what looked to be a very serious injury to his knee, while Carlos Salcedo was also carted off. But both are likely to be able to play at Russia 2018.
"In the last game, unfortunately for us, we had two bad injuries [Salcedo and Araujo]," explained Osorio. "Well, at first it was believed that the injuries would take them out of the World Cup.
"Two days later they got surgery and it was so gratifying to receive messages from the players. Nestor [Araujo] was openly expressing and telling us how grateful he was that there was a program in place because by him following the program and him having strength in the areas around the knee, the injury was not as bad as he thought it was.
"That just made me so calm, rested and happy because I think we have done something [good] and we're not leaving anything for the last minute."
Osorio's belief in the importance of the complementary plan was reinforced in a meeting he had with Guus Hiddink back in early March in Eindhoven. The South Korea manager at the 2002 World Cup spent almost a full day with Osorio and discussed how the Asian nation was able to reach the semifinals of the tournament and get past Italy and Spain in the process.
Osorio quizzed Hiddink about South Korea's preparation for that tournament, the leeway the coach was given in terms of getting genuine time with the players on the training pitch and, crucially, how conditioning coach Raymond Verheijen worked with the players so they could maintain a high-intensity game to get past nations that were superior on paper.
"When I told [Hiddink] about our plan, he was quite surprised that a 'Latino' coach would be looking to improve [conditioning] because we have this tendency to think we can resolve any game situation with talent alone and that's not true. Absolutely not true."
Osorio's other big takeaway from his meeting with Hiddink was that if South Korea could reach the semifinals in 2002 with such a fit squad, El Tri shouldn't be shy in aiming for something similar.
"That is what I showed my players in the last presentation," said Osorio. "If South Korea can achieve this with fitness, athletic form ... with all the respect for Mr. Hiddink and the Koreans, Mexico has some very talented players and if we can add all of that together then we are going to have a great chance.
"Now, whether we are successful or not only time will tell, but we are getting ready and we'll definitely be ready for those big matches."
When it comes to Mexico's preparation for Russia 2018, as little as possible is being left to chance.