Gabriel Caballero may have played for an impressive eight different clubs during his professional career, but it is at CF Pachuca that he has undoubtedly made the biggest impact. Indeed, his iconic status is such that one of the directors' boxes even bears his name.
Born in Argentina but fiercely proud of his Mexican citizenship, Caballero has been involved in nearly all of Los Tuzos' recent successes: five domestic league titles, one CONCACAF Champions Cup, one Copa Sudamericana and one SuperLiga crown.
Now in the twilight of his glittering career, the 36-year-old midfielder is preparing for what could be his last and greatest challenge: the FIFA Club World Cup Japan 2007. With his second trip to the Far East just around the corner, Caballero spoke exclusively to FIFA.com about December's showpiece, where he is confident Pachuca can cause a stir.
Blueprint for success
Caballero joined the Hidalgo-based outfit back in 1998, shortly after Los Tuzos had celebrated promotion to the top flight for the third time that decade. Having gone straight back down on both previous occasions, Pachuca stunned Mexican football by taking their first league crown just one year later. The country's oldest club now boast five domestic and four international titles.
How does the player himself explain such a drastic turnaround? "It's about ambition," says Gabriel "But it must be well-managed ambition. It's also about hard work, we always aspire to improve, to achieve something more."
A host of players and coaches have come and gone at Pachuca since that first title win, even Caballero himself has parted company with the club on two occasions for brief spells at Atlas and Puebla, but the silverware has continued to accumulate. "The board has always ensured there is a solid core of players who know the club inside out, and each year two or three players are brought in who are then immersed in the club's ideology and heritage," explains the veteran.
For Caballero, his third spell at the club has been the most successful, bringing with it five trophies including last year's historic Copa Sudamericana success - a first ever for a Mexican club. However, all has not run smoothly in recent months. Performances have dipped substantially, the club exited this year's Copa Sudamericana at an early stage and this week must tackle a tricky play-off to ensure their place in the end-of-season Liguilla (mini-league) and, consequently, a chance to defend their title.
"I believe that football is cyclical. The players have been performing at a very high level for the last 18 months to two years," says Caballero. "There came a time when our performances dipped a bit, though it was only a minor slump, and this may even spur us on to start growing stronger once more."
The experienced midfield man's optimistic outlook reflects the never-say-die attitude that pervades the CONCACAF champions' dressing room. "We think positively, at least myself and the vast majority of the players and coaching staff do," he assures FIFA.com. "You must always remember that if you work hard things will go well, that there's no need for drastic measures. We just need to work hard to get back on track. Dips in form like these are quite normal and nothing to worry about."
Back to the Far East
Counting in Pachuca's favour is the fact that Gabriel already has FIFA World Cup™ experience. What is more, the Argentinian-born former Mexico international has insider knowledge of playing at the highest level in the far east, having been an integral part of the Tricolor squad at Korea/Japan 2002. The attacking midfielder played in three matches, all on Japanese soil, Mexico winning two and drawing one.
Though unable to devote much time to exploring the country, Caballero believes those two months spent in Japan five years ago were one of the best experiences of his life. Having reached the last sixteen back in 2002, Caballero dreams of joining the select band of players to have won a FIFA tournament and thus crown a rich and varied footballing career: "Yes, I think that would be my biggest achievement in the game, given that the six best teams in the world are taking part."
Given Latin America's historic relationship with the Intercontinental (Toyota) Cup, the forerunner to the FIFA Club World Cup, Pachuca's No8 knows just how much the competition means. What is the first match that springs to mind from the elite event? "The one that Boca [Juniors] won thanks to two goals from [Martin] Palermo (against Real Madrid in 2000)," he replies. Ironically, Caballero and Co will take on the Xeneizes and their talismanic front-man should they reach the last four at Japan 2007.
As the interview drew to a close, the Santa Fe-born player revealed he is most looking forward to facing "Milan or Boca, who are the strongest sides" and reiterated his desire to take Los Tuzos all the way: "It doesn't matter who we come up against. What matters is reaching the final."