Exactly 11 months ago the iconic Estadio Azteca provided the stage for an unforgettable night of football. With rain lashing down, Miguel Layun netted the fourth and decisive penalty for Club America to seal the 2013 Clausura title, sparking scenes of unbridled joy that were all the more intense for the manner in which Las Aguilas took the domestic crown. America had scored twice in the closing stages to force the match into extra time, before deciding matters in a penalty shoot-out.
The victors inevitably took the headlines, but for the losing side, Cruz Azul, the pain of defeat was equally acute. “I felt terrible, losing a final like that is the worst thing that can happen to a footballer,” Alejandro Castro told FIFA.com in an exclusive interview.
His anguish is understandable given that Cruz Azul were just four minutes away from lifting the trophy themselves. In the 88th minute of the title-decider, they had a seemingly comfortable two-goal aggregate lead when Aquilvaldo Mosquera reduced the deficit for the hosts. In the 92nd minute the sense of drama intensified when Cruz Azul goalkeeper Moises Munoz sprinted forward for a corner, and his header was deflected over the line by Castro.
The 27-year-old’s misfortune would not end there, however. When Castro stepped up to take his side’s second spot-kick in the shoot-out, he slipped just before striking the ball and his effort flew over the bar. “Those memories belong in the past,” said the battle-hardened defender, who has played for the club since 2001. “I feel great now and I’m ready for whatever the future holds.”
Nevertheless, recovering from such a loss was difficult and Castro received psychological help to aid him in the process. “Messages of encouragement from my team-mates helped me a lot, as did some things I read on the internet and passages from the Bible,” said Castro. “But above all, the unconditional support of my family was what helped me move on.”
The club, known as La Maquina Celeste (The Blue Machine), did not let that setback derail them and are now currently well positioned for another chance at silverware. As well as sitting at the top of the domestic standings, Cruz Azul are preparing for the return leg of the CONCACAF Champions League final, after a goalless draw in the first match. An added incentive is that victory would hand Castro and Co. a ticket to the FIFA Club World Cup Morocco 2014. “I’m really excited about the possibility of playing at the Club World Cup,” said the 1.76 metre tall defender, who is a vital cog in the club’s back line. “It would be a dream come true and would round off a great season. We know the best teams in the world compete there so we have to work really hard to make it happen.”
Standing in their way in the final are Toluca, the club that beat Cruz Azul in the 2008 Clausura title-decider. “I don’t know if it’s about revenge as that was a long time ago but what I can say is that we’re going to do everything we can to be crowned champions,” Castro continued. “They’re a very solid team and have shown that for several years now, they’re really compact. They’ve got a lot of quick attackers who can be very effective on the break. We’re the two best teams in the tournament and like us, they’re very disciplined tactically.”
He is equally reflective when it comes to analysing his own side: “We’re a very unassuming group of players who work hard, fight to the end, are solid and consistent, but also have our feet firmly on the ground. We’re aware things have gone well for us in the competition so far but we haven’t won anything yet so we’re just taking each game as it comes. Given Cruz Azul’s history, we’re a team that goes into any tournament aiming to win it. The chance to represent CONCACAF at a competition like the Club World Cup would be very satisfying. It’s something that really excites us.”
For now, however, Cruz Azul are focusing on the upcoming encounter at the Estadio Nemesio Diez, where both teams will be determined to earn the right to fly the CONCACAF flag in Morocco later this year. For Castro, it will also be the next step on his own personal path to redemption.