There are usually one or two players in every team who can turn a match on its head and pluck victories out of thin air. Mexico striker Alejandro Diaz is one such star asset, and his critically-timed contributions have done much to see his team through to the quarter-finals of the FIFA U-17 World Cup in UAE.
Diaz first made his mark earlier this year, scoring in the 19th minute of Mexico’s opening game at the CONCACAF U-17 Championship against Cuba. His side went on to win the 7 April encounter 5-1 and did not look back, taking on all-comers to lift the title.
Fast forward to UAE 2013 and, following Mexico’s first round drubbing at the hands of Nigeria, it was Diaz who opened the North Americans’ account against Iraq with a tidy header. In the Round of 16 clash with Italy, Diaz was at it again, this time putting his side ahead in the 26th minute, his stunning 25-yard shot thundering past Italy goalkeeper Simone Scuffet into the top corner.
Chatting afterwards with FIFA.com the young forward talked openly about his contribution to his team’s progress and his incredible strike. “As a striker your job is to score, but at the same time you have to provide your team-mates with support at every stage of the match. I always try to work hard and to keep striving," he said. "Of course, being a striker, I want to score in every game I play!”
Coach Raul Gutierrez was full of praise for the young man he calls Alex and for the effort he has put in to the title-holders’ campaign: “He’s a wonderful striker and he’s shown he can score important goals. At the same time he needs his team-mates to create space, so he can operate to the best of his ability and score even more.”
The 16-year-old, who plays for capital side Club America, smiled as he recalled his goal against Italy: “My team-mate Ulises Jaimes had the ball and I was unmarked. I shouted for it and he sent over an excellent pass. I controlled it and worked myself a bit of space, and when I let fly I just knew it was going straight into the back of the net.”
As the shot whistled in, the young Diaz was already rushing over to the reserves bench to celebrate. “It was pure emotion," he said. I was sprinting around screaming to the others to keep working hard and to give everything they had in order to win,” he said
History repeating itself
And his team-mates certainly responded. Mexico’s defence outdid themselves to see off successive Italian attacks before Ivan Ochoa sealed the win three minutes from the end of added time. The victory also marked El Tri’s second successive game without conceding and means they have shipped just one goal since that painful defeat to Nigeria.
Indeed, the sheer number of goals that the African giants put past shot-stopper Raul Gudino in that game seems to have been the wake-up call the champions needed. “It wasn’t the best start we could have had, but we knew we had to go back to basics and learn from the mistakes we’d made,” Diaz admitted, before adding: “We analysed what we’d done in the game and put a lot of work into our attacking and defensive play, and so far it seems to have done the trick.”
Given the progress Gutierrez’s charges have made at UAE 2013, they could well be on course to replicate the success of their first title-winning campaign at Peru 2005. Then, as now, Mexico qualified from their group in second place, before going from strength to strength. In 2005 they defeated none other than Brazil in the final, the same country they will now face in the quarter-final here.
Alejandro Diaz was just nine years-old when Mexico won in Peru, but he knows history could be a factor: “Of course, every game and every tournament is different. We all know Mexico won the title in 2005 after losing one of their games in the group stage. We just hope history can repeat itself and we get to claim the title as well. Why not?” he asked rhetorically.
We'll have to wait until 8 November to see whether a repeat really is on the cards, but if Mexico are to go all the way, then Alejandro Diaz is sure to be a key to that success.