Mexico central defender Nestor Araujo has had plenty to keep him occupied lately. Days after appearing for his country at the 2011 Copa America in Argentina, where he was one of the youngest members of the Tri squad, he joined up with the U-20 national team as they prepared for Colombia 2011.
One of the most experienced players in Juan Carlos Chavez’s side, the classy centre-half has been in impressive form in Mexico’s run to the quarter-finals, invariably appearing in the right place at the right time, timing his tackles to perfection and, perhaps most notably of all, making himself heard on the pitch.
“It’s true that I talk a lot to my team-mates during games, but I’m not the only one,” Araujo said by way of explanation to FIFA.com. “Our team has a lot of character and there are a few of us who don’t hesitate to urge each other on. It’s that strength of character that has got this far in the competition.”
That belief came to the fore in the last round against Cameroon. After going a goal down with only 11 minutes remaining, El Tri kept their cool and pulled level just two minutes later, eventually going through on penalties.
“We made a mistake at the back and they took advantage to score,” the Cruz Azul youngster recalled. “We hit back straightaway though, which was just as well because if we hadn’t, then we could have been in big trouble. Our mindset is to trust in ourselves in situations like that, and that’s what helped us get through the shootout as well.”
Keeping his head
While the experience Mexico’s players have gained in the national first division undoubtedly stood them in good stead for that experience, Araujo’s carefully chosen words to his team-mates may also have contributed to their success from the spot.
“People often say that penalty shootouts are won with the head and not the feet,” said the cultured defender . “All I did was try to motivate the other players and tell them that the team's objective depended on what they did individually.”
That message was received loud and clear by all five penalty-takers, although only three of them were required in the end, with the Cameroonians managing to convert just one of their spot kicks. And while the 19-year-old Araujo was not among the quintet, he was more than willing to step up: “I raised my hand straightaway when the coach asked who wanted to take a kick.”
Araujo’s strength of character has stood him in good stead since he made his Mexican first division debut last December. The Cruz Azul youth product impressed so much in the months that followed that Barcelona and AC Milan reportedly began taking an interest in him, while national coach Jose Manuel de la Torre had no hesitation in drafting him into his Copa America squad.
The youngster was equal to the task, distinguishing himself against established star acts such as Uruguay’s Diego Forlan and Chile’s Alexis Sanchez, even if he was unable to prevent the young Tri side from exiting the competition in the group phase.
“The experience I got at the Copa America has helped me a lot here,” said Araujo, who lists Carles Puyol, Gerard Pique, John Terry and Rafael Marquez among his role models. “We came up against some seasoned and motivated teams like Chile, Uruguay and Peru, and we went there with a young team to learn. The objective is different here, though: We want to win.”
A leader of men
As objectives change from tournament to tournament, so too does Araujo’s role. A foot soldier in Argentina, where he scored his first international goal in the match against Chile, in Colombia he has become a general.
“I learned things from playing in the national team with players who’ve seen it all,” he explained. “That builds your confidence, and you pass on to others what you’ve learned with the big names. I speak more here than I do with my club or the senior national side, and I try to help the team stay balanced. From my position at the back I can see the whole side and the opposition too.
“This tournament is really important for all of us here,” he continued, pointing to Colombia 2011 as an essential part of their footballing education. “We don’t know if we’ll ever have the chance to play in a competition this big again. We’re talking about a World Cup here, with the future stars of world football. It’s going to have a big impact on the rest of our careers.”
The impact will be all the greater if Mexico can see off tournament hosts Colombia in Saturday’s quarter-final, an outcome Araujo is clearly expecting, vowing: “I’ll be going back to Mexico on 21 August, the day after the final.”