Two years ago Mexico’s young players tasted glory as a string of great performances and wonder goals, such as the Julio Gomez bicycle-kick that took them into the final, was rewarded with the FIFA U-17 World Cup crown, all on home soil.
Mexico’s current situation at the FIFA U-20 World Cup Turkey 2013 is a good deal different, however. Pointless after two games and bottom of Group D, El Tri no longer have their fate in their own hands. As well as requiring a win in their final group match against Mali on Friday, they need results elsewhere to go their way in order to progress to the last 16 as one of the best third-placed sides.
“Yes, things were rosy two years ago, but there are times in football when you have to touch rock bottom too,” said Jorge Espericueta, the adidas Silver Ball winner at Mexico 2011 and El Tri’s midfield general at Turkey 2013. “Obviously it hurts, but you also learn when things don’t go your way. And sometimes when you fall you learn to get up stronger.”
The midfielder is one of the leaders of a team that went into the tournament as favourites. In a chat with FIFA.com just a few weeks ago, Espericueta said Mexico were going to give it everything they had in Turkey. Sadly for him and his team-mates, however, things have not gone to plan.
“Results have not gone our way,” he explained. “We played really well in our first game against Greece, but they scored twice from the three attacks they had. Then against Paraguay we didn’t play our usual game."
“Our nerves got the better of us in that match,” said team captain Antonio Briseno, who, as a national team colleague of Espericueta’s since the age of 15, knows very well what he is talking about.
Anxious to put that game behind him and the back-pass to his keeper that almost led to an early goal for the Paraguayans, the skipper has his sights firmly set on the meeting with Mali, one his side have to win.
“We all know we haven’t performed well and that there’s no going back,” said Briseno. “It’s a case of kill or be killed. As simple as that. We need to be positive now and go for the win.”
To help him get that message across to his team-mates, the inspirational and much-respected captain has even been using his mobile phone: “We’re a very tight-knit team and we know we have to stick together to turn things around. Trying to do it on our own is not the way. We’ve even got a Whatsapp group so we can chat together.”
Briseno is known to his team-mates and loved ones as Pollo (Chicken), a nickname given to him by his father: “He said to me that I had a long neck and big head when I was born. Or was it a big nose? That’s why they called me Pollo or Pollito when I was born, and it stuck.”
As well as motivating each other, the Mexicans are also drawing inspiration from the presence of family members in Turkey. “That’s crucial,” said Espericueta. “We spend virtually all our free-time with them to keep our spirits up. The defeats we’ve had have hit us really hard.”
The midfield man scored direct from a free-kick against the Greeks and was only prevented from repeating the feat against the Paraguayans by the bar: “Unfortunately it didn’t go in, but maybe we didn’t deserve the draw anyway.”
Against the Malians he will have a fresh opportunity to imitate his two favourite dead-ball specialists: Brazil’s Ronaldinho and his fellow Mexican Walter Gaitan, whom he described as his “all-time hero”. Another strike from Espericueta, the only Mexican player to score so far at Turkey 2013, would not go amiss for the CONCACAF giants, who are expecting a tough assignment on Friday.
“Mali have got some great players and they play good football,” said Briseno, sizing up Mexico’s next rivals. “They look good and they’ve got plenty of quality in the team. If we maintain possession and play as a unit, I think we can beat them though. As long as we want it badly enough, we’ll win. But we have to want it. We have to convince ourselves that we can do it and put everything into it.”
Even though points have yet to come Mexico’s way, the belief is still there. That much will be apparent when Briseno conducts his team in their communal war cry of “Un, dos, tres … Vamos México!” They will be hoping it is not the last time it is heard at Turkey 2013.