Any football team with designs on success needs a strong backbone, the base of which is invariably formed by the goalkeeper. Currently battling to win the FIFA U-17 World Cup title on home soil, Mexico are no exception. Yet, while the pundits have been praising Raul Gutierrez’s charges for their style, character and effectiveness in front of goal, few have been heaping praise on their custodian Richard Sanchez.
“It doesn’t bother me,” the FC Dallas man told FIFA.com with barely a trace of doubt in his voice. “This is all about teamwork and everyone is doing their bit for the cause. I know what I have to do, and what the coach and my team-mates expect of me. That’s all I’m concentrating on.”
Sanchez has certainly done his bit so far, most notably in the group match against the Netherlands when he saved a penalty to protect a 2-1 lead for his side. The California-born shot-stopper has already come a long way since being spotted in a U-10 tournament in Mexico, making his first appearance for the Mexico U-15s at the tender age of 13.
Two years later, at a youth tournament in Barcelona, Atletico Madrid came knocking on his door: Sanchez explained: “Yes, that’s right. I was there for eight months but decided to come back because my schoolwork wasn’t going well. It wasn’t an easy decision and now I’m trying to finish my high school studies online, because I want to carry on studying. God forbid things don’t work out [in football], but you never know what might happen and you have to be ready.”
If we lose to Panama, then our performance in the group phase will have counted for nothing. We want to be world champions. That’s what we’re focused on.
On leaving Spain, Sanchez found a place in the youth set-up at FC Dallas, signing his first professional contract with the MLS club this February, though he has yet to make his debut. So what did the Texans see in the tall custodian? “I’m agile and secure,” he said, venturing an answer. “I need to improve in the air though, and read the game better.”
A keen student of video clips of his fellow net-minders in action, Sanchez offered a list of role models when asked to name his favourite goalkeeper: “I have quite a few actually. The German keeper [Manuel] Neuer is composed and makes good decisions when he comes off his line. I like the way [Maarten] Stekelenburg of the Netherlands makes light of his height to get down to low shots, while [Guillermo] Ochoa has great reflexes and Jorge Campos is a real character.”
Panama test, trophy target
Having negotiated the group phase with flying colours, Sanchez and his team-mates face Panama on Thursday with a place in the last eight at stake. “They’re strong and confident on the ball,” he said. “I think we’ll both be giving as good as we get. I know we’re the favourites, but we can’t underestimate anyone because every team is strong at this stage of a World Cup.”
Sanchez has been impressed so far by Germany, Brazil and Côte d’Ivoire, and has been keeping a close eye on his potential opponents. “It’s always good to take a look at the forwards you might come up against,” he explained, “and see who likes to do drag-backs and who likes to shoot, especially from distance. It all helps.”
Turning back to the Panamanians, do the Mexicans need to make any special preparations for tomorrow's showdown? Sanchez’s answer left no room for doubt: “Absolutely not! We’ve won our three previous games so why would we need to change anything?
“The team’s looking good. We’re set on making the [final in the] Azteca on 10 July and we’re preparing with that in mind, although we know we have to take this one game at a time. If we lose to Panama, then our performance in the group phase will have counted for nothing. We want to be world champions. That’s what we’re focused on.”