As Mexico prepare for their eleventh appearance at a FIFA U-20 World Cup, the eyes of a whole nation are fixed firmly on one of the most promising generations in the country's long footballing history. The sense of expectation is entirely understandable, as the nucleus of the squad that will run out at Canada is the same as the one that stormed to success at the FIFA U-17 World Championship Peru 2005 - rightly considered one of Mexican football's finest hours.
Two years on from that startling triumph, the team headed by Giovani dos Santos, Carlos Vela and Cesar Villaluz has its sights firmly set on another world crown and on fulfilling the expectations of a country that has dubbed them the "Ninos Heroes" (Boy Heroes).
Group B of the Canada 2007 qualifying tournament was played out in front of vociferous crowds at the Estadio Carlos Gonzalez in the northern Mexican city of Culiacan. Jesus Ramirez's boys rewarded their adoring fans as they clinched a ticket to the finals in style by winning their opening two games by identical 2-0 scorelines. First to succumb were a surprisingly tough St Kitts and Nevis before Jamaica were put to the sword. Ramirez then rested virtually his entire first eleven for the clash with Costa Rica, which ended in a 1-1 draw that secured them top spot in the group.
Since guiding the U-17s to glory in Peru, Jesus Ramirez has become something of a folk hero in Mexico. Over the years he has acquired a broad tactical appreciation of the game and a reputation as a supreme motivator. He is also known for his exhaustive monitoring of up-and-coming players and his ability to elevate them to the standards demanded at international level. The national technical director at all age categories, Ramirez was tipped as a possible successor to Ricardo La Volpe in the senior Mexico hotseat. In the end it was his lifelong friend Hugo Sanchez who got the nod, and Ramirez has already set up detailed four-year plan with the new man at the helm.
Giovani dos Santos is the latest star product to roll off the seemingly endless Barcelona youth conveyor belt. Down at the Camp Nou the young Mexican is widely regarded as the heir to Ronaldinho, with whom he shares both physical and footballing similarities. The Brazilian magician, an unconditional admirer of dos Santos's, has been unstinting in his praise of the outrageously gifted Mexican.
The winner of the adidas Silver Ball at the FIFA U-17 World Championship Peru 2005, dos Santos was one of the main factors in Mexico's thrilling success at the tournament. Two years on, he remains the standard bearer of a "golden generation" that also includes Arsenal striker Carlos Vela, his Barcelona team-mates Efrain Juarez and Jorge Hernandez, and team captain Patricio Araujo, the leader of the pack at Mexican champions Chivas Guadalajara.
|13||Julio Cesar DOMINGUEZ|
|15||Juan Carlos SILVA|
|10||Giovani DOS SANTOS|