If ever proof was required of just how fine a line there is between love and hate, you need look no further than Miguel Layun. The defender has experienced both, although recently considerably more of the former in the wake of scoring the decisive penalty to secure the Torneo Clausura 2013 for Club America. In doing so, not only did he win over a fan base that had judged him prematurely, he also earned a place in the Mexican national side.
In an exclusive interview with FIFA.com, the right-back spoke about the spectrum of emotions he has encountered after some difficult years, as well as analysing El Tri’s prospects in the intercontinental play-off against New Zealand for a berth at the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™.
In September 2009, following three years with Veracruz, Layun became the first Mexican player to appear in Italy’s Serie A, at the age of 21. “The chance to go to Italy meant a lot to me,” said the defender, now 25. “Being there was like a dream. It made me appreciate lots of things about Mexico, but above all it was about having the chance to fulfill an objective, having high hopes and the desire to do well.”
Layun’s spell in Europe with Atalanta lasted just six months, but upon his return to his homeland he joined one of the country’s heavyweights: Club America. However, his arrival was not welcomed by all sections of the club’s supporters, many of whom expressed their displeasure on social networks using the hashtag #TodoEsCulpaDeLayún (It’s all Layun’s fault).
Facing an uphill battle, Layun opted to win over his doubters with his on-field performances. “It was difficult at the beginning,” he recalled. “A lot of people were asking if I was good enough to wear the shirt. It was hard to deal with everything that happened on the social networks but I was convinced I could turn things around.”
“Times like that are what will really help me in my career,” Layun continued. “I had to try very hard and push myself to the limit to change the situation I was in. A lot of people had opinions without knowing the reality and it was difficult explaining things and trying to convince everyone. The only way to change anything was to do my talking out on the pitch instead of on social networks.”
For all that, It still took three years to fully win over the supporters. The decisive moment arrived in the return leg of the Torneo Clausura 2013 final against Cruz Azul. La Maquina Celeste held a 1-0 advantage from the first meeting and were also a goal up in the second leg with just two minutes left on the clock. The title appeared to be beyond Las Aguilas’ reach, but Aquivaldo Mosquera levelled the score on the night in the 89th minute, before a stoppage-time goal from goalkeeper Moises Munoz forced the match into extra time. Once matters proceeded to a penalty shootout, the tension in the stadium, and beyond, was off the scale.
It was then that everything truly did become Layun’s responsibility. With his right boot, on which the fans’ taunting phrase is embroidered, he converted the decisive penalty to give his side the championship in the fabled Estadio Azteca. “The opportunity presented itself to me,” said Layun. “I had to make a very difficult decision; I knew there was a lot riding on that penalty for me. It was decisive and if I’d missed it could have been the start of a lot of negative things. But at the same time I knew I had the chance to change everything I’d experienced. It was an about-turn and a watershed moment in my career.”
He began receiving regular call-ups to the national side shortly after and has consolidated his place in the squad since America coach Miguel Herrera was brought in to take charge of El Tri for their play-off against New Zealand. “He’s a great coach who likes to attack and play very directly,” said Layun. “Over the years he’s learned a lot. Sometimes the system was so direct that the defence would be left exposed. Over time he’s found the balance that allows him to attack but maintain cover at the back.”
With Mexico in a precarious position, Layun’s personal experience of overcoming setbacks could be crucial. “It’s tough at the moment, sometimes it's all so complicated you can’t really see what’s happening,” he explained. “Within the group we try to make sure we show a united front against the criticism and the difficult patch we’re going through and to move forward. Everyone has their own experiences and in my case, it’s about knowing that you can conquer anything if you work hard enough.”
Layun is now focused on the upcoming fixtures against New Zealand, conscious of the fact that 180 minutes of football will determine whether or not Mexico make it to next year’s World Cup. “I’m convinced we can do it,” he said. “We can’t just say that though, we need to do it out on the pitch. It won’t be an easy game. We have to do what we’ve been doing in training in order to achieve our aim, which is to be in Brazil.”
Many Mexican fans are now drawing inspiration from that fateful encounter on 26 June 2013, when a courageous defender overcame adversity to help add more silverware to his club’s cabinet after an eight-year trophy drought. Against New Zealand, just like five months ago, Layun could once again be responsible for another outpouring of joy.