Home looms large for Mexico here at the U-17 world finals in UAE. And Ulises Rivas, a long way from his, speaks of it often. “We’re fighting for you,” he told FIFA.com, a message he wants passed on to the fans back home, all those miles away in Mexico. “We’re trying our hardest and giving our best and we’ll defend our title and our country with everything we have inside.”
With such fervor, such a passion for home, one wonders if there’s a special significance to Rivas’s given name, Ulises (Spanish for Ulysses). He’s far away, fighting for his colours, hoping only to return home a hero. Is he Homer’s Ulysses? Is this his Odyssey? Well, not exactly, but home certainly weighs heavily on Ulises and the band of young warriors he captains.
Mexico have an extra weight on their shoulders here in UAE. The fans back home are watching and demanding success. El Tri won the U-17 World Cup last time it was played, in 2011 as hosts, and the entire nation took notice. Nearly 100,000 fans attended the final against Uruguay at the fabled Azteca, Mexican football’s hulking spiritual home. The national anthem was sung at full volume by virtually every one of them, and showers of beer and fizzy drink rained down from the stands after both of Mexico’s goals on that hot summer day.
There is extreme passion for football in Mexico, and especially for the country’s national teams. With Javier Chicharito Hernandez and his senior side currently suffering one of the worst crises in their history, failing to qualify directly for next year’s FIFA World Cup™ in Brazil, the fortunes of these bright-eyed teenagers in UAE have become even more important. The country needs something to smile about, something on a football pitch.
“We had our problems in our first game against Nigeria,” said Rivas, a deep-lying midfielder who loves to burst into attack, about Mexico’s humbling 6-1 loss to Nigeria. “But we looked at what we did wrong. We focused on what we did right, and we prepared ourselves again.”
The 3-1 win over Iraq in their second game on Tuesday showed the fighting spirit of a team that, even when they were being hammered by Nigeria, never started pointing fingers, never turned on each other. “We are a totally united team,” said Rivas, who plays his club football for Santos Laguna in the northern Mexican city of Torreon. “We want to move the ball forward like a unit, not like a bunch of individuals. This is our main strength and we always fight for each other.”
This unity was a hallmark of the Mexico side that won the tournament two years ago. Coach Raul Gutierrez is still the man in charge and he’s clearly got the team back on track after their shock loss on opening day. Rivas, like any good captain, doesn't trumpet his own role in helping rescue the cause. “I wear the armband, but in our team we have many leaders,” he said, phone buzzing in his pocket with texts of congratulations and affection from back home. “All of us are encouraging each other so that we can perform well and get results.”
Twice U-17 champions, with the weight of a whole nation on their shoulders, Mexico now need a victory in their last game against impressive Sweden to be sure of a place in the knockout stages. Moving in the right direction, Rivas knows what needs to be done. “ We need to focus all of our power and thoughts on the Sweden game, to really come together as a unit,” he said, staring off into the distance in his green tracksuit, flag sewn over his heart. “After that, if we do our job right, we can look ahead.”
Whatever happens here in UAE, whether they finish champions or further down the trough, Rivas and co can return to Mexico with their heads held high. They are fighting hard for something big, and they know full-well just what that means back home.