With just three months of top-flight experience under his belt, in a squad brimming with seasoned performers, a young Luis Perez still managed to catch the eye in the Necaxa midfield during the FIFA Club World Cup Brazil 2000.
Eleven years after his debut on that global stage, the Mexico international is on the verge of earning a second crack at the tournament, but with a different team – Monterrey – and in a very different role, that of captain and leader.
FIFA.com spoke to the central midfielder, who has established himself as an icon of Mexican football thanks to his sumptous technique, control and passing.
As the year 1999 drew to a close, while most people across the world were celebrating the arrival of a new millennium, CONCACAF representatives Necaxa could be found in a hotel, preparing to take part in the first edition of the FIFA Club World Cup.
Perez, just 19 at the time, was on the point of attaining an ambition he had held since childhood. “It was an experience that had a real impact on my career, and a dream I’d had since I was little,” he recalled in an exclusive interview with FIFA.com.
The draw paired the Mexicans with the mighty Manchester United in their opening group fixture. Faced with a team of considerable standing in the game, Perez turned to his more mature team-mates – nine years his elder, on average – for information and advice. “The entire side had vast experience and gave me valuable pointers that I still follow to this day,” he explained sincerely.
For Perez, sharing a dressing room with players of the calibre of Alex Aguinaga, Agustin Delgado and Sergio Almaguer was a learning opportunity not to be missed. “The long career that I’ve enjoyed has been built on the solid foundations that they provided me with,” the Mexico City-born player admitted humbly.
Against the odds, Necaxa qualified for the third place play-off with Real Madrid, a match from which the CONCACAF outfit surprisingly emerged victorious by way of a penalty shoot-out. Perez scored his club’s third spot kick that day, an exciting moment he has never forgotten. “It was amazing, an absolute dream. When you’re young, you regard players like those as the cream of the crop,” he added.
From learner to leader
Following his Brazilian adventure, Lucho went on to earn a reputation as one of Mexican football’s top midfielders. He wore Necaxa colours for four years, before signing for current employers Monterrey in 2003.
Fast-forward to the present day, and Perez’s role at Japan 2011 could not be more different from the one he fulfilled at Brazil 2000. One of the club’s most experienced figures, he wears the captain’s armband and leads by example, passing on his knowledge to his younger team-mates.
“Getting the chance to play in the Club World Cup should be one of the highlights of your career,” he said. “I would recommend that you enjoy every minute of it. It’s the ideal time to think about your own development as a player. Opportunities the chance to take on opposition of this quality don’t come along very often, so you should try to learn from the best,” added the Monterrey skipper.
Faced with the possibility of again competing with a Spanish giant in the form of Barcelona, Perez has been looking back on the 2000 clash with Real Madrid for inspiration. “Real had some world-class players in their side at the time, just like Barcelona do now. Nowadays you find that that teams are set up well and difficult to beat, but in the end it’s the one that has the greatest desire, appetite and motive that generally comes out on top,” he said.
If Los Rayados wish to finish on top of the pile in Japan, they will need to negotiate some tricky hurdles along the way, something of which Perez is very much aware. “You’re up against the best in the world, and it’s by no means easy. Every team taking part are champions of their own region,” he pointed out.
The Monterrey No8 is not one to shirk a challenge, however, and concludes on a confident note: “We’re hopeful of succeeding where previous Mexican sides have failed. With a bit of luck, we’ll be the dark horses of the tournament, and manage to reach the final.”