Nostalgia creeps in as I recall, much to the detriment of my high school exams, the hours spent playing Championship Manager on my PC. Such fond memories of leading the likes of Rushden and Diamonds into the Champions League group stages. I recall how I dealt with my big name exotic signings by buying other players from their respective countries to stiffen any inkling of homesickness that may affect their performance.
Homesickness, that mental beast the grabs hold of those far from their natural climes, and something rarely spoken about in football circles. Something especially important today more than ever, with teams scouting and sourcing players from different continents and cultures the norm. The reason why, perhaps, David de Gea, Juan Mata and Ander Herrera live on the same street, and the reason why Jesus Navas missed out on playing for his country in the Netherlands at the 2005 Fifa World Youth Championship, while also missing out on various pre-season tours with his then Sevilla teammates.
And with this we turn to Mexico, land of footballing passion that has lit up many a World Cup, be it as host or participant. For Mexicans to express the concept we regard as homesickness, to denote the feeling of missing one’s country, or even cuisine, they call it the ‘Jamaicón’ syndrome, which, almost poetically, is named after one of their true footballing greats, José Gerardo ‘Jamaicón’ Villegas Tavare.
This is his story.
A defender known for his velocity and strength as a marksman, his Achilles heel wasn’t on the park, it was on his plate, so to speak. Born in 1934 and raised in the small town of La Experiencia in the state of Jalisco – famous for being the birthplace of Tequila and the Mariachi, Villegas played for Mexico a total of 28 times, representing Los Aztecas in both the 1958 and 1962 World Cups.
As an infant, his liking for Hibiscus tea – or as Mexicans call it ‘Agua de Jamaica’ – gave him his unusual nickname, as, on finishing school, he became an embroiderer, before Club Deportivo Guadalajara came calling in the early 1950s. And with Villegas slotting into a defensive role alongside the likes of Chaires and Sepulveda, alongside Tubo Gonzalez in goal, they formed a team of almost mythical status in Mexico.
Chivas were almost impenetrable, winning eight national league titles between 1956 and 1970, a feat which saw Villegas become the only player, alongside team mate Sabas Ponce, to win eight league medals – a feat which still stands today.
Villegas was famous for creating self-built walls that were almost impassable for opponents, none more renowned as that of a certain Francisco Dos Santos - or ‘Garrincha’ – then considered the best right winger in the world when he played for Botafogo. When Chivas crossed paths with Botafogo, the story goes that Villegas snuffed out the Brazilian for the full 90 minutes, something at that time deemed nigh-on impossible, in a match still considered a day of glory for the team.
The team gained plaudits across the continent, elevating them to a level hitherto unheard of for a Mexican team, which saw them play friendlies against such teams as Pelé’s Santos and the aforementioned Botafogo, to River Plate and San Lorenzo de Almagro in Argentina, before later embarking on a European tour as a result of their glory period of success.
From a tour of Europe in 1958, when Chivas visited Belgium amongst other countries, there’s a little known story which harks back to Villegas’s humble upbringing, and one that was to set the tone for later, more costly, situations.
The story goes that Villegas asked a fellow player, Chava Reyes, to help him send a letter back home to his family. With Villegas confused about whether to write the address on the envelope, he was told that everything in Europe was more advanced, and that he only needed to seal the envelope, put it through the post box and tell the post-box where it should go, and Villegas, with all the pride in the world, did exactly that, asking the post-box that his letter ‘arrives promptly to La Experiencia, Jalisco, with his dad, Saturnino Villegas.’
1958 was to be the year not to forget for Villegas, as, with Mexico qualifying for that year’s World Cup in Sweden, it meant a long period away from his beloved country, one which would ultimately taint his stature within Mexico and Central and South America as a player of supreme quality – one which ultimately saw him enter into the lips of linguistic expression for his actions.
While in Portugal as part of Mexico’s final preparations for Sweden, the story goes that he disappeared from his table at a gala dinner for the team and staff in Lisbon. The team’s then manager, Nacho Trelles, became concerned for his star defender, and went about scouring the hotel to find him. After a few nervous moments, he found Villegas sitting down outside the hotel under a tree, his knees tucked in close to his chest, with a melancholic look on his face.
Trelles asked Villegas if he’d had dinner, to which his reply, the stuff of legend in his home nation, was “How am I going to have dinner when they have prepared a dinner for posh people. Me, what I want are my chalupas (type of taco), a few goodsopes (savoury Mexican corn cakes) or a tasty rozole (a soupy stew) and not this crap that isn’t even from Mexico.”
Mexico’s subsequent performances in Sweden, losing to the hosts 3-0 in their opening game. A last minute goal saw them salvage a 1-1 draw with Wales in their second game to keep their hopes of proceeding alive, before Hungary thrashed them 4-0 to send them out of the tournament. The winning mentality of Chivas and their famous backline never did bear fruit with the national side.
Three years later in 1961, Mexico flew over to England for a glamour friendly at Wembley, to face a team that had, in their previous encounter, thumped Scotland 9-3. The omens weren’t good. Mexico’s manager felt it necessary to blood the second keeper for the game, Piolin Mota, and to calm his nerves, he told the keeper in the dressing room, “It’s alright, ‘Jamaicón’ will be there to protect the defence”.
In front of 77,000 in attendance, England put on a show to remember, sticking 8 goals past the Mexican keeper, with Bobby Charlton helping himself to a hat-trick, England 8 Mexico 0.
After the defeat, Villegas complained to the Mexican press that he has blamed his poor performance on having “missed his mum and having to go days without eating a birria – a meat dish”, before saying that he hated being away from home. “Life isn’t life if I’m not in my country” he said.
Villegas served his club for twenty years, pulling on the jersey up until his retirement in 1972, and to this day remains a legend amongst not only Chivas supporters, but Mexican football fans and non-fans alike, for nothing else than the love he had for his country, and its cuisine.