It’s a cliché to say that defenders don’t always get their due. But it’s true.

Toiling away in obscurity, their hard work fades into the background while attackers hungrily horde all the glory. Such was the case on Friday when the Mexican team mobbed Ulises Jaimes after his headed goal four minutes from time sealed a 1-0 win over Sweden in Al Ain. All the cameras were aimed at the scorer and he was, by all basic accounting, the hero.

One player lagged conspicuously behind at the back of the pack that swarmed round Jaimes, who blew kisses and sprinted away with the opera-star bravura found only in forwards. Osvaldo Rodriguez limped and hobbled toward the celebrations, trying to catch up. But wincing in pain, the No5 arrived too late for the party.  

He’d injured his knee ten minutes before while quietly saving the game. The left-back’s quick-thinking and courage kept Mexico alive at 0-0. Swedish substitute Carlos Strandberg was off to the races. He’d left his man for dead up the left flank and no one looked like catching him. Mexico were in desperate trouble until Rodriguez, small of stature but lightning fast and clever, clicked into action. He raced across the entire width of the Khalifa Bin Zayed Stadium pitch to tackle the rampaging Swede with a combination of power, precision and fearlessness.

His timing was perfect, as it had to be in the penalty area, and his regard for his own safety, minimal. “You have to know when it’s time to cover your mates in the back,” Rodriguez told about the tackle that kept the scoresheet clean. It also forced him to limp off the pitch, the impact tweaking his knee joint and leaving him with a heavy limp. “When difficult situations arise, you just have to know when and how to help out. Sometimes you have to recognise the danger and get over there.

“The game against Sweden was quite tough physically,” added Rodriguez, who is expected to be fit again for the knockout stages. “We held firm and made sure they weren’t able to get past us. We knew how to shut them down, we were intelligent in the way we went about things.”

There is a maturity in this Mexico team, especially in its defensive third. Humbled 6-1 in their opener against Nigeria, it would have been easy for the players to turn on each other, to start pointing fingers. It didn’t happen. Instead, they banded together to fix the problems. 

“We made mistakes in that game with Nigeria,” said Rodriguez, shaking his head as if pondering something from a previous life, or back in some far-flung chapter of history. “Nothing went right for us. We studied together as a team and now we’ve been getting better with each game, and that’s the most anyone can ask for – to work hard to make sure something like that doesn’t happen again. We’re a better team now.”

Mexico’s defensive makeover
Since that miserable day in the desert when they shipped six, Mexico have revamped their defence. It’s a job that’s been done largely by the players themselves who, to a man, exude a rare unity. A team defending the world title here in UAE, they display a tremendous togetherness. In their two games since the Nigeria debacle, Raul Guitierrez’s youngsters have been water-tight, conceding only once against Iraq and becoming the only team to hold Sweden scoreless, handing them their first loss in 16 games.

There's an additional level of connection making this Mexican team a fighting unit here at the U-17 finals. In every tier of the pitch - from defence to midfield to attack - is a player from Pachuca FC, one of the oldest clubs in Mexico. From the high mountains of Hidalgo, Los Tuzos are famed for producing young talent and acting as a pipeline for the national teams.

Rodriguez’s eyes go wide when talk turns to his club and country teammates in this El Tri side. “It helps so much to have these guys with me here in UAE,” said Rodriguez, one of five Pachuca men in Mexico’s starting XI. “We’ve been together for years and we know how each other move and think.”

Up next in the Round of 16, Mexico meet a country with a reputation for producing the world’s best defenders. When you think of Italy, icons like Franco Baresi, Dino Zoff and Paolo Maldini spring to mind. And in goalkeeper Simone Scuffet, the Azzurrini here in UAE have a genuine star in the making. But none of that frightens Rodriguez, who plans to go about his business as he has up to this point: quietly, humbly and with precision and care. “We look after each other as a team,” he concluded as his teammates filed by to catch the bus. “We just need to keep leaning on each other.”

We made mistakes in that game with Nigeria.

Rodriguez on the 6-0 loss to the Africans