“Having her in goal, with all the experience that she has, gives us a lot of confidence.” The words belonged to Mexico’s Fabiola Ibarra, and they were spoken in praise of the team’s goalkeeper Cecilia Santiago.
Both players had a vital hand in El Tri’s valuable 1-1 draw against Nigeria in their first game at the FIFA U-20 Women’s World Cup Canada 2014. While Ibarra scoring her side’s goal, Santiago kept the Nigerians at bay with a performance that recalled compatriot Guillermo Ochoa’s stunning one-man show against Brazil in the recent FIFA World Cup™.
Just as Ochoa thwarted Neymar and Co in a memorable goalless draw, Santiago stymied the Nigerians with a string of superlative stops. Though powerless to prevent Osarenoma Igbinovia’s thunderous first-half strike from hitting the back of the net, she stopped everything else thrown at her by the Super Falconets’ voracious strikers.
As the only player to have been at U-20 Women’s World Cups, Santiago has plenty of experience to call on, as she explained in an interview with FIFA.com: “I was 13 when I went to my first World Cup in Chile. I’ve always played with older girls, so it wasn’t something that fazed me, although being away with the team for so long was not easy. I spent the time talking to my parents.”
Ceci, as she is known to her team-mates, sat on the bench at Chile 2008 but has been a first-choice ever since, and even kept goal for the Mexicans at the FIFA Women’s World Cup Germany 2011™.
A world finals veteran
“Playing in a World Cup with the full national team at the age of only 16 was a really big thing,” said the happy-go-lucky Santiago. “The year before my coach told me to prepare myself for playing there, and it was an amazing feeling when I actually did. I got a lot of support from my team-mates.”
She added: “Obviously I had a lot of responsibility on my shoulders, but I’ve never thought about my age. For me what counts is if I’m good enough, and if I am, then I give it all I’ve got.”
Santiago has enjoyed a meteoric career since taking up the game at the age of six, though she has had to overcome her father’s opposition to her becoming a goalkeeper.
“I started playing in defence but I liked watching the keepers train, how they threw themselves around and held on to the ball,” she explained. “So I decided to give it a go and my coach thought I had potential, though my father didn’t like the idea of me being a keeper. He said it was a really tough position – any mistake you make is a goal.”
Breaking into a smile again, she said: “In the end, he saw that I was good at it and told me to give it all I had and try to make a name for myself. He suffers but he’s happy for me.”
Her father was no doubt very proud of her display against Nigeria, though Santiago herself would prefer to keep a lower profile: “The less I’m seen on TV, the better. If I’ve got nothing to do, then that means that the team is doing well. If the cameras are on me, then there’s something that we’re not getting right.”
Ceci is more than just Mexico’s guardian angel. The team’s leader off the pitch, she is aware of just how tough it can be for new faces to cope with the experience of playing in the world finals for the first time.
“We’ve got two U-17 players who were at Costa Rica 2014 and a couple of other girls who are at their first World Cup, and it’s our job to support them,” she said. “I tell them stories from other tournaments, talk about other players and how we can beat one team or another. It’s great to see the look on their faces when I’m talking.”
After reaching the last eight at Japan 2012, the Tri custodian is looking to go further in what will be her U-20 world finals swansong: “We’ve got some unfinished business from Japan, where we failed to take that little step further. The objective this time will be to reach the semis.”
Santiago is hoping to stay out of the limelight when Mexico take on England on Saturday, though her team-mates have the luxury of knowing that if she is called upon, the seasoned shotstopper will not let them down.