According to El Tricolor captain Patricio Araujo, he is the clown in the Mexican dressing-room - always quick to raise a laugh from his team-mates, always first to raise morale. Short in stature and curly haired, Cesar Villaluz even looks the part, though he was not always so outgoing. Naturally shy, the honour of playing for his country has been a revelatory experience, lifting him out of his shell and giving him the confidence to express himself.

A native of the Colonia Guerrero neighbourhood of Mexico City, Villaluz has been immersed in football longer than he can remember. Right from the very start, his father took him to games every Sunday, equipped with a bag full of nappies and baby's bottles, and the sights and sounds of a stadium on match day clearly worked their magic. "My uncles, my parents, my whole family love football," he explains. "Because of that, I've always played and I've been going to matches since I was born."

At the age of four, he was already playing for a local side, but those first steps in the game proved difficult. "At the start, it was hard because being so young I didn't really fit in with the team," he recalls. "Once, a referee even refused to let me play because I was still wearing nappies! I was extremely upset and decided to give up that very day, thinking football was not for me. But the pull was too strong and I came back. In my first match, I scored, and it all went on from there."

Although clearly not lacking character, the young Villaluz was timid, slightly fearful even. His mother revealed to him how she suffered a physical assault days before she gave birth and how his paternal grandfather passed away the same night; two traumatic episodes that caused O Pambita much anguish, leaving him short on words. On the pitch, however, he was almost a different person.

Youthful reserve
Like many of the Mexico players currently in Canada, he first received the call to represent his country at 13 years of age, and, unsurprisingly after so much time, the squad now get along famously. Villaluz has settled into the role of court jester, but, in a throwback to his youthful reserve, he seems almost apologetic about his antics. "There's a superb atmosphere in the team because we've been together since the U-15s," he says. "That's why I allow myself to make jokes about everyone. I know they'll take it well because they're just jokes. We really love being together and I think that's what makes us different from any normal football team."
Anyone doubting whether his colleagues see the funny side need only spend a few moments listening to the incessant laughter on the training-ground, where coach Jesus Chechu Ramirez makes sure no one loses their focus.

Beyond his duties as joker in the pack, Villaluz is a technically-gifted winger blessed with remarkable pace, and he proved his worth by striking three goals during the FIFA U-17 World Championship Peru 2005. He is yet to open his account in Canada, but he remains a vital cog in Mexico's attacking machinery and perhaps deserves some of the media attention accorded to Giovanni Dos Santos and Carlos Vela in the wake of El Tri's Peruvian exploits. "I'm not frustrated by Carlos and Giovanni's notoriety," counters the man himself. "I do my job and it doesn't really matter whether I'm famous or not. What's important is that the team plays well together, not whether we're known or unknown. And if I play well, the media recognition will follow."

It is a healthy attitude, but of course Gio and Vela are already plying their trade in Europe: at FC Barcelona and on loan at Salamanca respectively. Meanwhile, Villaluz is still registered with Cruz Azul, where he struggles for playing time. "I had some contacts in Europe after the U-17 campaign in 2005 but nothing came of it," he laments. "This tournament is obviously a great opportunity to get noticed by the big European clubs, and the further we go, the more opportunities there'll be. I'll see how things turn out at the end of the tournament, but if I go back to Cruz Azul I hope I get more time on the pitch." Until now, the youngster has found his route to the Celeste first-team blocked by a plethora of experienced forwards, and it is to his credit that he has been prepared to wait patiently for his chance .

"Our aim is to have fun"
A fan of the great Romario, he is nevertheless keenly aware that his immediate future lies in the balance. As a result, his thoughts are concentrated on Canada and his team's upcoming showdown with Congo. "Our goal is to finish as champions and that's what was on our minds when we came here," he states. " Chechu [Ramirez] has told us the match with Congo will be another step closer to the trophy. We have to keep working and not think we've already won. They're a good team; otherwise they wouldn't be in the Round of 16. We have to prepare ourselves and study them so we know what we're getting into when we go out on the pitch."

The Tricolor will start the match as favourites, but Villaluz is not unduly concerned by that tag, confident his side can get the job done. "We're not feeling under any particular pressure. We're working in the same way we always do and we're taking each game as it comes, just like we did in 2005," he says. "Maybe we're considered favourites by the press because we won the U-17 title, but our aim is to do what we know how to do and have fun on the pitch, because that's how we won in Peru."

Having spent eight birthdays away from his family because of football, Villaluz would dearly love to blow out the candles far from home again this year. On 18 July, Mexico could potentially be warming up for a semi-final contest the following day, and Cesar's parents Rodolfo and Mary are contemplating making the trip to help him turn 19, just as they travelled to Peru two years ago. Awaiting them would be an ambitious young footballer already thinking about his 22nd year. "Every player in the world wants to play in a World Cup with their country's senior side," he explains. "Me too. Obviously, 2010 is on my mind, but I have to perform well for the U-20s first. After that, who knows?"