The 21,000 spectators gathered in Conception’s Estadio Municipal Ester Roa briefly gasped in the 59th minute of the FIFA U-17 World Cup 2015 semi-final between Mexico and Nigeria. The breathtaking spectacle they witnessed was a fantastic individual goal from Diego Cortes to earn El Tri an equaliser at 2-2 and allow them to dream of reaching the final.
The midfielder picked up the ball on the right touchline and began an incredible solo run, dodging past five defenders as if they were slalom poles before finishing his move with a low shot. “I collected the pass, set off and just looked out for the gaps all the time,” he later explained to FIFA.com. “All of a sudden I was in front of goal and scored. Obviously I checked to see whether any of my team-mates were free but nobody was,” he said of his moment in the spotlight. “I don’t do that often, but it’s a great feeling.”
His coach Mario Arteaga was also full of praise after the final whistle as he discussed this remarkable strike, but admitted to being somewhat surprised, given that dribbling is not traditionally among the midfielder’s key strengths.
One thing that is certain, however, is that Cortes is among the fastest players in Mexico’s U-17 squad. He proved this against hosts Chile in the Round of 16, beginning an attack on the right before sprinting into the penalty area to meet a cross with a powerful strike and wrap up a 4-1 win with his first goal of the tournament.
I collected the pass, set off and just looked out for the gaps all the time. All of a sudden I was in front of goal.
Unfortunately Cortes was not in the mood to celebrate his latest breakthrough in the maze of tunnels under the stadium a week later, as the North Americans went on to concede another two goals to Nigeria in their semi-final to end their dreams of a third FIFA U-17 World Cup title. “Although I’m obviously disappointed, we can be proud of having given it our all.”
In a rematch of the FIFA U-17 World Cup 2013 final - a game Nigeria won 3-0 - both sides exchanged blows from the outset, with the Mexicans taking the lead only for the Golden Eaglets to strike back twice before half-time. The Africans ultimately proved their superior stamina by finding the target twice more after Cortes’s acclaimed equaliser.
Mexico’s defeat does not change the fact that the young midfielder’s effort has a very good chance of being named the best goal of this FIFA U-17 World Cup. It even evoked memories of Diego Maradona, who began his own solo run against England in 1986 from the halfway line and, like Cortes, danced past five defenders before slotting the ball into the net. Lionel Messi has, of course, managed a couple of similar solo goals in the time since.
Despite his disappointment at the semi-final result, Cortes had to smile when mention is made of these two Argentinian superstars. While he admitted that he thought of El Pibe de Oro’s famous Mexico '86 strike while celebrating his goal, “he isn’t my idol,” he quickly added. “Of course I admire all great footballers and watch videos of them from time to time, but my role model is Messi.”
Nonetheless, this encounter marked the end of the road for El Tri, who were aiming to take at least a silver medal home from South America after lifting the trophy in 2011 and reaching the final two years ago. “Playing at a World Cup is an experience to treasure for life,” Cortes reflected.
“You never know whether you’ll get to play at another one. Unfortunately our title dreams are now over, but we still have a chance to take home a medal. We’ll now give it everything against Belgium so that we can end the tournament on a high note.”