With his somewhat stern appearance and economical way with words, Atlante coach Jose Guadalupe Cruz might not be the most outgoing member of the football family. Yet, there are few more knowledgeable scholars of the game than the 42-year-old, who fully deserves his nickname of El Profesor, not least because he used to earn his living in the classroom.
His schooldays now behind him, Cruz is putting his tactical appreciation to effective use as he plots the Iron Colts’ progress at the FIFA Club World Cup UAE 2009. The first examination for the Mexicans comes in today's quarter-final against Auckland City of New Zealand, a test he hopes they will pass with flying colours.
An uncompromising defender in his playing days, Cruz made his first-division debut with Neza but was forced to move on when they went out of existence in 1987. He joined Atlante the following season, and aside from a one-year stint at Queretaro, he would stay there until his retirement in 1997, playing an integral part in the club’s 1992/93 championship triumph.
After moving into coaching, Cruz returned to his spiritual home in the middle of 2004, though it was not until he was into his second spell with the Colts that he tasted success, steering them to the Apertura 2007 title. Did the football academic imagine then that just two years later his side would be in Abu Dhabi contesting the FIFA Club World Cup?
“To be honest, I didn’t,” he told FIFA.com. “But you work hard every day to achieve objectives and develop. And being here is just another of the goals we have reached.”
At this moment in time, Cruz is focusing his energies on the short-term goal of defeating Auckland City. And having watched them beat Al Ahli 2-0 on Wednesday, he has an interesting take on the Kiwi side’s tactics.
“They are just what I expected them to be: a tall and physically-strong team that gives nothing away and plays a counter-attacking game, waiting for their opponents to make a mistake," he explained. "I don’t agree with that approach, but it works for them and I can see why they use it.”
The New Zealanders’ aerial presence is a cause for concern, however. “They are very good in the air and that’s maybe our weak point as we are not a very tall team,” he said. “And though they might be semi-professionals, they do have the added motivation of setting up a game with Barcelona. That in itself makes them tough opponents.”
One step at a time
The possibility of a semi-final with the Catalan giants would be enough to distract most sides, though Cruz believes his players will be keeping their minds firmly on the task in hand. “You only have to look at what happened to Pachuca the last two times they played in the tournament," he said.
"They were just a game away from playing a big team but they went and lost sight of their objective and got knocked out on both occasions. If we start thinking about any team other than Auckland, it would be a lack of respect to them and it would unsettle us. We can’t afford that to happen.”
Even so, El Profe acknowledges the possibility of a showdown with Los Blaugranas, a team he respects but does not fear. “If we do go through, we’ll go out and play with personality, boldness and intelligence. We’re not going to sit back, because if you lack ambition you never come away with anything.
“Team play is vital to the success of any side. We’ve got some big names and stars, but what interests us more than anything is having committed players who understand what it means to be out on the pitch. In that respect, we are a competitive unit.”
Ever the tutor, Cruz is keen for his charges to see the bigger picture. “This is a historic opportunity to get out there and show everyone how this club works and how much Mexican football has come on," he said. "It’s a unique experience and I’m sure it’s going to be very enriching too. We’ll be aiming to do Mexico and Atlante, in particular, proud.”
And to do that, Cruz believes his side have to set their sights high. “Our goal is to go as far as possible. Obviously we know that you have to go step by step, and achieve little goals in order to reach the big ones. There’s no other way of doing it. We know that, but that doesn’t mean to say we haven’t got dreams,” he concluded.