Mexican goalkeeping in safe hands
© AFP

While Mexico sides still come and go with varying degrees of success, one thing has remained constant down the years: the quality and dependability of their goalkeepers.

From the legendary Antonio Carbajal to new kid on the block Guillermo Ochoa, Mexico have had a string of commanding keepers as their last line of defence. These fabled custodians have all written their names in the country's footballing history and become part of a dynasty that looks set to continue for some time yet.

An illustrious past
El Tri's long tradition of goalkeeping excellence dates back further than most people imagine. In fact, at the inaugural FIFA World Cup™, in Uruguay in 1930, Oscar Bonfiglio made headlines by saving a penalty from the great Argentinian striker Guillermo Stabile, who would go on to become the tournament's top-scorer.

However, for generations of Mexican fans, no one comes close to the great Antonio Carbajal. Just 20 when he made his debut at Brazil 1950, he would go on to make the position his own and play at five consecutive FIFA World Cups, the first person to achieve that feat. A no-nonsense shot-stopper with masterly positioning, La Tota remains an icon for Mexican goalkeepers.

His successor, Ignacio Calderon, who played at England 1966 and Mexico 1970, was better known for his spectacular saves. Another top-class keeper, as well as a charismatic and influential presence on the pitch, Calderon cut an unusual figure with his all-white kit and long sideburns. On top of his on-field heroics, the player gained cult status with his frequent appearances in some of Mexico's most popular photo-novels.

The next great exponent of the goalkeeping arts came to prominence with the Tricolor in 1986. Pablo Larios was unsurpassed when it came to intercepting crosses, but also had a reputation as a risk-taker - not wholly underserved given his penchant for straying out of his box.

But it was the man who took over his mantle who really caught the imagination of planet football. With his dazzling, multi-coloured jerseys, superb ball control and almost supernatural reflexes, Jorge Campos fashioned a style of goalkeeping that was way ahead of its time. Even more impressively, he played outfield for club side Pumas as well as the national team. According to the player himself, his only regret in football was never having scored for his beloved Tricolor.

At France 1998, two young keepers began their apprenticeship under the tutelage of Campos, with Oscar Perez the first to fill his idol's shoes. The keeper dubbed El Conejo (The Rabbit) for his short stature but tremendous leap, wore the No1 jersey at Korea/Japan 2002, where his performances earned him rave reviews.

Campos' second understudy, Oswaldo Sanchez, has established himself as one of the top goalkeepers in the world in recent years. Since replacing Perez in 2003, he has made the goalkeeper's jersey his own with the national team. Hugely dependable and a great man to have in one-on-one situations, Sanchez is also a born leader. His full repertoire of skills were on show at the FIFA Confederation Cup Germany 2005, with the player more than living up to expectations 12 months later at the last FIFA World Cup.

You might think that at 34, still a relatively young age for a keeper, Sanchez's would be sure of his place in El Tri, at least until South Africa 2010. But that would be to discount Francisco Guillermo Ochoa, a player with designs of his own on the coveted position.

Discovered by veteran coach Leo Beenhakker, Ochoa was already first-choice keeper with the prestigious Club America at 19, and his star has not stopped rising since. El Tri's third-choice keeper at Germany 2006, he was recently named best goalkeeper at the Copa America Venezuela 2007 despite having to share first-team duties with Sanchez. His stunning reflexes and ultra-safe handling have brought him to the attention of several European clubs, and at 22 the player looks all set to grace one of the old continent's finest leagues.

And if all that were not encouraging enough for Mexico, there are a host of other exciting prospects following in their footsteps. Jesus Corona, Cirilo Saucedo and Jorge Bernal have been in splendid form in the country's domestic league, while the spectacular shot-stopping of youth-team keeper Alfonso Blanco has impressed observers at the FIFA U-20 World Cup Canada 2007. Ample evidence, if any were needed, that Mexico's proud goalkeeping tradition remains in very safe hands.