Since bursting on to the scene as a 19-year-old at Germany 2006, Andres Guardado has gone on to become one of the most recognisable faces of the Mexico team. A thorn in Argentina’s side during El Tri’s unfortunate Round-of-16 exit four years ago, the Mexican wide man has maintained his high standards, impressing over the last three seasons with Deportivo La Coruna and earning the full confidence of his national coach Javier Aguirre.
Now aiming to impress the world again at South Africa 2010, Guardado spoke exclusively to FIFA.com about Mexico’s journey to the world finals and their hopes of success there.
FIFA.com: Andres, Mexico came back from a shaky start in the qualifiers. How much of a part did coach Javier Aguirre play in the side’s recovery?
Andres Guardado: An absolutely essential one. He came in and got rid of the negativity in the national team, especially with the media, and created a nucleus of players that responded really well. That was the key to our qualification and luckily for us we’ve managed to keep that spirit alive.
What was it that changed in the team?
What he asked from us more than anything else was for each player to apply themselves for the benefit of the side. He said that just because we were Mexico didn’t mean to say we were the best in Central America. He brought us back down to Earth and made it very clear that if we lost another game, we’d be out of the World Cup.
Was there a time when you thought Mexico might not make it to South Africa?
Yes, when we lost in Honduras. I think we all had our doubts. We thought there was no way out but Javier gave us a boost, even though we still went out and lost to El Salvador in his first game.
What was the problem with his predecessor Sven-Goran Eriksson?
He didn’t have the best understanding with the players. He didn’t know Mexican football very well, which held us back a lot, and he sometimes used players in positions they weren’t familiar with. Maybe he could have got things right if he’d had more time but we needed results straightaway and he couldn’t get them.
What do you think was the turning point of the campaign?
The game against Costa Rica in San Jose (which Mexico won 3-0). We knew it was a matter of life or death and that we just had to win. That was the only game I started on the bench but I wasn’t down at all because Aguirre made it perfectly clear to us what he wanted. That match was also something of a test for me, a test of character. But I’m a dedicated professional and I think Aguirre could see that I responded well to being on the bench. I’m back in the starting XI now.
What do you think of Mexico’s group in South Africa?
It’s going to be tough. The host nation always tends to do well at the World Cup. Then there’s France, who have got players of the calibre of [Yoann] Gourcuff, [Franck] Ribery and William [Gallas]. And even though the Uruguayans never arrive at the finals in good form they are always really tough opponents. What I’m most excited about though, is the Opening Match. The whole world will be watching us and I think any country would love to have that opportunity.
There is always an immense amount of pressure on Mexico whenever they play. Does that ever get to the players?
Yes, of course it does. You try to get on with your job and put all that out of your mind but the whole country comes to a standstill whenever the national side is playing. Sometimes other people just don’t understand the level of passion among Mexico fans. The cities are like ghost towns, every TV set is showing the Mexico game and the presenters on all the TV programmes, even the non-sports shows, are wearing Mexico shirts. Everyone has an opinion and obviously that creates pressure for us. Our job is to get that out of our heads and try to be calm as possible out on the pitch.
How far do you think this team can go?
I don’t like to set limits. There are always lots of surprises in football and though no one probably gives us much chance of getting through to the next round or the quarter-finals, we are confident we can be the revelations of the World Cup.
What do you remember about Germany 2006?
The first thing was getting the surprise phone call. I couldn’t believe it when (then coach) Ricardo La Volpe told me because I’d only been a professional for a year. But I guess that’s one of the reasons why he’s called 'El Loco'. He was mad to take me and then to start me against Argentina, especially when you consider I was just one of the second-string players at the World Cup. He thought I had the necessary skills, though, and he told me exactly what he wanted. All in all, I think I did a pretty good job for him.
Your face lights up when you talk about La Volpe. How important a part has he played in your career?
He was an idol of mine when he was coach at Atlas, my favourite team, so to be with him in the national team was really amazing. I learned so much with him. We were training once and he said to me: “I don’t know if you’re going to be a phenomenon in 2006 but by 2010 I’m sure you will be. It will be thanks to me too, because it was me who showed you how to play.” He was right too. I’m indebted to the people who’ve coached me since I was young, but there’s no doubt he’s the coach who’s had the biggest impact on me during my professional career.
There have never been as many Europe-based players in the Mexico team as now. Is that an advantage do you think?
Absolutely. If you compare us man for man with Spain, Brazil or England, we’re all more or less in the same teams. We know all their players too because we’ve played against them before. We’re trying to level things up with the major nations and playing in Europe is a big part of that.
What do Mexico need to do to break into the world footballing elite?
People used to say that Mexican players lacked ambition because they didn’t want to play in Europe. Now it’s the club directors who put a big price tag on our heads and don’t let us leave. With Mexico the way it is at the moment there’s no way a top team can pay €20 million for a player, and people have to understand that the best way for Mexican players to develop is to play for the best clubs in the world against the best players in the world.
Can you see Mexico making the big breakthrough at South Africa 2010?
Yes, because people are getting to know more and more about our football. Nobody knew much about us before and now I get coaches coming up to me and asking about Mexican league players. My hope is that we can carry on making the same kind of progress at the World Cup.