Nearly two years on from their glorious victory at the FIFA U-17 World Championship Peru 2005, Mexico's golden generation of talented youngsters have their sights set on an even greater challenge: the FIFA U-20 World Cup Canada 2007 .
However, before they are able to prove their international mettle on Canadian soil, the young Tricolores must overcome a host of obstacles along the way. The first of these comes in the form of a qualifying group fraught with potential pitfalls. Perhaps the biggest threat is offered by Costa Rica, who pushed El Tri all the way in Peru two years ago. Nor must we forget a Jamaica side packed with power and pace, or the unknown quantity that is St. Kitts and Nevis.
Spreading their wings
An awful lot has changed for those gifted young Mexicans who wrote a glorious chapter in their nation's footballing history back in 2005. Prior to their exploits in Peru, they were virtual unknowns to the public at large, with the resulting lack of pressure on their young shoulders. Two years on and all that has changed. An entire country now hangs on their every move, and their opening qualifier against St. Kitts and Nevis is set to be the focus of frenzied attention.
Fortunately for Mexico, dealing with pressure is now second nature to the stars of Peru 2005. As a result of their FIFA U-17 World Championship win, Carlos Vela (Arsenal, England), Efrain Juarez and Jorge Hernandez (Barcelona, Spain), joined Barça starlet Giovani dos Santos in forming part of Mexico's ever-increasing legion of foreign-based internationals. Patricio Araujo and Omar Esparza, two more members of that all-conquering U-17 side, preferred to prove their worth closer to home, helping Chivas to victory in the Apertura 2006 tournament.
Given the quality running through their squad, Mexico set out as overwhelming favourites to take one of the two available berths for Canada 2007. That billing looks more than justified when you consider that the qualifying tournament is to be held in Culiacan, in Mexico's northwest, where the U-17s took their first steps towards world domination back in 2005. It is a coincidence that is not lost on diminutive striker Carlos Vela: "I'm really pleased to be playing there again, to be starting our campaign off in the same place. I hope that we're able to perform equally well this time around."
Fellow star Giovani dos Santos, meanwhile, chose to express his utter confidence in the team's chances of qualifying for Canada 2007. "We've got a very strong side, and we've set our sights on winning," said the fleet-footed Azulgrana. Singing from the same hymn sheet was another of the leading lights from Peru 2005, Cesar Villaluz: "The title that we won there has given me the self-belief to play anywhere and at any level."
Costa Rica out for revenge
Seemingly content to let their Mexican rivals hog the limelight, the group's other favourites Costa Rica are quietly preparing their own bid for qualifying success. The Ticos came within three minutes of eliminating the eventual winners at the quarter-final stage of Peru 2005, and are determined to take this opportunity to rain on Mexico's parade.
Names to watch out for in the Costa Rica line-up are Celso Borges, son of former national team coach Alexandre Guimaraes, as well as Cesar Elizondo and Jean Carlo Solorzano, the stars of the U-17 team that performed so admirably in Peru. The young Ticos travel to Culiacan having prepared extensively for the challenge ahead, preparations which included a very encouraging display in a 3-1 defeat against their country's senior side.
Key to Costa Rica's hopes will be their first game against Jamaica, whose rugged and fast-paced approach has often proved troublesome in the past. Leading the Reggae Boyz' charge will be powerhouse forward Dwayne Richards, already capped at full national team level.
Nor should anybody write off St. Kitts and Nevis , after the team from the tiny Caribbean nation worked wonders in reaching the final qualifying round. One last giant effort from the islanders could see them become the smallest nation ever to take part in a FIFA tournament. Boasting a population of just 40,000, the country has united behind its footballing heroes, even contributing funds towards the team's travel costs. The odds may be against them, but 22 of St. Kitts and Nevis' finest have just one aim in mind: to be on a plane heading towards Canada this summer.