Mexico had not qualified for a FIFA Women’s World Cup™ since the 1999 edition, when they progressed for the first time as runners-up in the North, Central America and Caribbean region to Canada, with northern neighbours USA already through as hosts. But since being installed as coach in 1998, Leonardo Cuellar has gradually raised the profile of women’s football in Mexico, and specifically in 2009 had his sights set on strengthening his side with Mexican-American forward Veronica Perez.
Making little impact on the global stage in nearly a decade, it was certainly a gamble for Perez to switch international affiliations after having been included in the U-23 player pool for the United States, where she made one appearance. However, Perez was well aware the chance to break into the senior USA squad was minimal, feeling the opportunity to play with Mexico’s first-team could mean the fulfillment of such dreams as playing in a FIFA Women’s World Cup sooner rather than later.
Despite being born in Hayward, California, an eastern suburb of San Francisco, Perez’s Mexican roots run deep, and in an interview with FIFA.com the 23-year-old expressed her tremendous sense of pride in playing for Las Aztecas as they now seek a place at the Women’s Olympic Football Tournament London 2012, and described the poetic twist of fate when she single-handedly helped Mexico qualify for the 2011 FIFA Women’s World Cup.
Fitting right in
The diminutive striker, spurred on by Cuellar’s confidence in her abilities, integrated well into Mexico’s frontline at first trial, quickly claiming a place in the starting line-up as the squad sought qualification for Germany 2011 in the CONCACAF region. “He [Cuellar] liked me from the first camp that I went into and I figured that it was a great opportunity, so I just took it as: ‘I want to play and if I have a chance to play in a World Cup then I’m going to do it’,” Perez said.
And, it was not long before Perez had the Mexico faithful celebrating a historic passage into the FIFA Women’s World Cup. With the qualifying tournament taking place on home soil in November 2010, thousands of fans deafened ears at Estadio Beto Avila as Mexico took on giants USA in a semi-final match that would determine which of the two sides would earn a direct ticket to Germany 2011.
The Mexicans stunned their northern neighbours, defeating the United States 2-1 with Perez notably assisting Maribel Dominguez’s opener in the third minute before nodding home the winner in the 27th minute after Carli Lloyd had equalised. “I couldn’t even think - I think my mind went blank for five minutes,” Perez said. “Everyone was so happy! The only thing I was thinking about afterwards, since we scored really early, was that we have 65 more minutes. It was definitely a very exciting moment and probably my happiest soccer moment in my career so far.”
It was the first time Mexico had beaten USA, and Perez was delighted with the success, noting that few thought they had a chance and would likely have to vie for their place at the global showpiece in a play-off tie against Italy. However, it was the Americans who would go about qualifying the hard way, while the Mexicans were Germany-bound.
A dream come true
Upon arrival, Perez was impressed by the support for women’s football in Germany, and while Las Tricolores did not advance past the group stage, it was a momentous event in the forward’s life. “For me, it was such a great experience because ever since I was little I wanted to play in a World Cup and when you get to that moment where you actually walk out on the field and start in a game, you feel like: ‘Wow, everything that I have worked for until this point has come true’. I felt really proud.”
After the world finals, Mexico quickly switched gears, and while they placed third in the Pan American Games behind Canada and Brazil in October, they are very hopeful of building upon their FIFA Women's World Cup experience and earning a place at London 2012. “Our main focus right now is qualifying for the Olympics," Perez said. "We have been training for the past two months, gearing up for this [qualifying] tournament and we are just trying to train as hard as we can.”
The Mexicans are set to begin their Olympic qualifying campaign later today in Vancouver, British Columbia against Guatemala, and will then face Dominican Republic followed by a much-anticipated meeting with USA. “We are definitely focusing on our first two games because we want to have a good start," said Perez. "If we end up playing them [USA] to determine who is first and second in our group, then we just have to go in with the same attitude we did against them in World Cup qualification - giving it our all on the field. Hopefully that is enough to beat them. If we end up getting first in our group, I think it will give us more confidence going forward into that important semi-final game.”
Perez, along with her team-mates, is well aware their final group match against the Americans could determine their standing going forward in Vancouver, and that they will not have the home crowd support which she felt gave Mexico "a huge advantage in World Cup qualifying". However, having attended college in Seattle, Washington, Perez is happy to be returning to the Pacific Northwest for the qualifying competition and is expecting plenty of Mexico supporters to show up. But nonetheless, Perez has yet another dream still alive and is savouring every moment. “We played in the World Cup and the Pan Am games, but to be able to play and help Mexico qualify for the Olympics would be huge. I would feel really grateful and blessed.”