For Cuauhtemoc Blanco, 2006 has been a bittersweet year. Injured and forced to sit on the sidelines for long periods with club side America, the centre-forward then suffered the disappointment of missing out on the 2006 FIFA World Cup Germany™ after failing to figure in the plans of then coach Ricardo La Volpe.
For many, Blanco is one of the finest players to come out of the Mexican game in the last decade, and his admirers insist his omission from this summer's Germany 2006 squad was the single biggest mistake of La Volpe's tenure at the helm of the Tricolor.
As recently as last weekend, the experienced striker underlined his importance to America, coming off the bench to inspire a dramatic comeback and help fire his side into the last four of the Apertura Championship. 3-0 down to Atlas of Guadalajara in their quarter-final second leg, Blanco roused his team-mates and led by example, scoring the first of three second-half goals that secured a 3-3 draw on the night and a 6-4 win on aggregate.
The 33-year-old striker, who was born in the impoverished Tepito district of Mexico City, has amassed a wealth of international experience in the course of his long career. A member of the Mexico side that participated at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics and at the FIFA World Cup in France two years later, Blanco then enjoyed one of his greatest successes the following year at the FIFA Confederations Cup 1999, when Mexico took the title.
Now, with Japan 2006 just around the corner, Club America have every reason to be confident, with the in-form Blanco set to spearhead their attack. FIFA.com spoke exclusively to the veteran striker as his side went about their final preparations and asked him about his hopes for the upcoming tournament and his rollercoaster year.
FIFA.com: The FIFA Club World Cup is almost upon us. What would winning that title mean to Club America?
Cuauhtemoc Blanco: It would mean a lot as it's undoubtedly a very prestigious tournament. We realise just how important this competition is, so rest assured, we're going to be very well prepared.
For many, America are currently the top side in the region. What would you say is expected of you in Japan?
We'll be expected to try and win the title. We have a great side here and they espouse the club's traditional mentality - which is to play to win in every competition we enter. If we are to win it, then we'll need to take our goalscoring chances, as the other teams taking part will not be passing up any opportunities themselves.
Does playing at an international tournament in the same year as missing out on the FIFA World Cup represent a kind of personal vindication for you?
What's done is done. It's not about personal revenge for me; it's simply about the honour of representing my country, and what better way to do it then with my team. It is a big opportunity for me, but even more so for the club, as this tournament gives you a lot of exposure. Personally, I think it's very important that we lift this trophy, but what's even more important is that we play well and give a good account of ourselves against some of the most powerful teams in the world. It will be difficult, but not impossible. We have a great squad and things could work out well for us.
As a veteran of two FIFA World Cups, you will have vast experience to draw on in Japan. How will you put that to use and what will you be telling your team-mates?
Firstly, we all need to recognise the importance of this tournament. I never tire of telling my team-mates that they should enjoy themselves out on the pitch, but always with responsibility. In competitions of this nature, if anything you need to reinforce that idea even more, as the responsibility on everyone's shoulders is that much greater. Nobody can deny that, in the long run, playing with freedom and joy will vastly improve your game.
With respect to your rivals at Japan 2006, is there any side you would like to steer clear of before the final?
No, we'll take on whoever we come up against. We can't worry about who we might have to confront. Whoever we get, even if it's Barcelona, we have to face with our best game. Everyone knows there are no easy teams in a tournament like this.
Can you picture the FIFA Club World Cup trophy in Club America's trophy room?
Hopefully we can make it happen. Winning it will be tough, but not impossible, and I really believe we can do it. We have a great side, and now we have to prove it. That said, there is no doubt in my mind - we have what it takes to bring home the trophy.
What are your expectations of Japan as competition hosts?
The people there are very upbeat and they enjoy their football, so I believe the Japanese fans will be happy to come out and watch some great games. As for the infrastructure, it goes without saying that we'll have some very impressive facilities waiting for us.
America come into this tournament in top form and will be going all out for victory in Japan. Do you expect all the other teams to give it the same importance?
Yes, I believe they will. Given its importance and the prestige attached to it, they have no choice but to take it very seriously. It's a FIFA tournament, albeit a relatively new one, and it's a great opportunity for the clubs to show they're the best. We certainly want to.
You are known as someone who appreciates fine cuisine. Are you a fan of Japanese food?
It's exquisite, even if it's not always as good here as it is over there (laughs).