Of all the received wisdom in the sporting world, the advice to never underestimate a champion is perhaps the most pertinent for the teams still at the FIFA U-17 World Cup United Arab Emirates 2013. They would do well to adhere to it, because although this young Mexican side may not be the same one that lifted the trophy at the previous edition in 2011, its current members are playing as if they were.
“Things change a bit, we’re a different group of players,” said goalkeeper Raul Gudino, who saved two penalties against Brazil in an enthralling quarter-final tie, in an interview with FIFA.com. “We were very motivated when we arrived here. We didn’t necessarily feel that responsibility [of being defending champions], it was more a sense of pride that our country had won the title and that we would have to give our all to defend it. We’re a new side and we’re going to try and write our own story.”
This squad appears to be well on course to emulate the achievements of Julio Gomez, Jorge Espericueta, Carlos Fierro and co who triumphed at the last U-17 World Cup on Mexican soil. That much was evident in their latest outing when they overcame Brazil, and coach Raul Gutierrez was understandably delighted with his charges: “I’m very proud because they showed their character and what they’re made of. They’ve demonstrated their strength as players.”
Highlighting his players’ character is a mantra Gutierrez has repeated throughout the tournament. A glance at Mexico’s progress to the semi-finals reveals why the tactician has placed such importance on the virtue, alongside ability, intelligence, speed and physical strength, in constructing a winning team.
How else could the side have recovered so well from the disastrous 6-1 opening defeat against Nigeria? “Please, please don’t remind me of that match,” Gutierrez said, in English, causing ripples of laughter among the journalists present at his press conference.
That result would have destroyed the confidence of most other sides, especially in this age category. Yet Mexico rallied and have not lost since on their route into the last four. “We just had to make the players see the mistakes we made and make them realise that we hadn’t played the way we normally do,” said Gutierrez. “When the team recovered its essence, everything went back to normal.”
El Tri’s recovery has been astonishing. Mexico did not stop running in their encounter against a Brazil team that ranked among the tournament's best in attack. They swarmed over the entire pitch, unsettling the tournament’s hitherto best outfit with their high pressing. “We have to fight for each ball and make sure it falls to us,” captain Ulises Rivas told FIFA.com. “When things get rough, our character helps us to overcome it on the pitch and to do our job.”
Rivas suffered more than most last Friday after being the first player to miss from the penalty spot in an agonising shootout. His blushes were eventually spared by Gudino, who saved Brazil’s fifth penalty, from Gabriel, which would have secured the South Americans a ticket into the last four. “I missed, but the first thing I did was to go and talk to my goalkeeper to give him confidence,” the midfielder recalled, laughing. “Luckily for me, he got us out of a tight spot.”
Asked as to whether it was the most exciting match of their lives so far, the youngsters were in no doubt whatsoever: “You could say that, considering what it means to reach the semi-finals of a World Cup,” said Rivas. Gudino agreed: “Being here and playing against Brazil is like a dream, isn’t it? Thank God we were able to win.”
Such experiences may have added steel to an already resilient side, but Gutierrez is nevertheless keen to exercise caution: “There are two games to go and we still have to play them and win them. I believe any team in the semi-finals will be a tough opponent. We set ourselves the objective of reaching the last four at any official tournament we play at, as that will give us the chance of winning it.”
History is on Mexico’s side as they pursue that aim, because on the previous two occasions they arrived at this stage of the competition, in 2005 and 2011, they ended up as champions. Given the strength of character the country’s present crop of youngsters have shown, it appears they are indeed ready to follow in their predecessors’ footsteps.