Leaving the club dearest to him to fulfill a dream, Javier Aquino took an unusual route by swapping Cruz Azul for Villarreal in early 2013. The Yellow Submarine may have been in Spain’s Segunda Division at the time, but the Mexican midfielder was unperturbed. It would prove to be challenge he was more than up to and one that has seen him grow in stature.
“I knew it was a club with a very strong recent history in the Champions League,” he told FIFA.com. “And I knew there were great players here. I liked the challenge of helping them return to the top division and now I’m living a dream in La Liga – and in Europe.”
Certainly the team’s return to La Liga could hardly have gone much better. With the first half of the campaign complete, Villarreal currently lie fifth, just two points off the final UEFA Champions League spot.
Yet while he is enjoying happy times with his club, things have been less harmonious with his national team. Last year was a tough one for Mexico, even if El Tri finally managed to qualify – though not without a great deal of suffering – for the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™.
A traumatic experience
“Clearly the Hexagonal [final round of CONCACAF qualifying] tournament didn’t go as we’d hoped. It was traumatic because we thought we were out, we were disappointed… but in the end USA’s comeback in Panama gave us lifeline,” Aquino said, recalling his side’s qualification travails which ultimately saw Mexico claim a play-off berth and secure a spot in Brazil at the expense of New Zealand.
Following a disconcerting rotation of coaches which saw three different men in the dugout in the crucial final months of qualification, Miguel Herrera was appointed ahead of the play-off. In a risky move that ultimately paid dividends, Herrera opted to only use players from the Mexican domestic championship. The move meant Aquino was dropped, along with other stars like Javier Chicharito Hernandez, Andres Guardado and Memo Ochoa.
Looking back, Aquino believes the players should have done better during the qualifying campaign. “The ones most affected by bad results are the coaches, yet the ones most responsible are the players. We’re out there on the pitch and therefore we’re the ones who should be putting in the performances,” he insisted.
Ironically, one of the grounds where they struggled most on the road to Brazil was the Azteca, normally a veritable fortress. “It’s our home,” said Aquino, “and even though we didn’t get good results there last year, we’re still motivated to play there. When we start performing well, the Azteca gives us even more momentum,” explained the midfielder, who often went to the famous stadium as a youngster to support El Tri.
Having moved from the stands to the pitch, Aquino says the experience is completely different. “Of course I now understand football differently,” he admitted. “It’s not always such an easy game as it seems to the fans. From the outside it looks simpler, but down there it isn’t always the case. Sometimes things don’t go your way… but professional footballers have to be ready to face the critics.”
It is with that philosophy that he is looking ahead to the World Cup. “We hope and believe that we’ll greatly improve our performances,” he said. And significant improvement is likely to be needed, with the team having been drawn in a tough group alongside hosts Brazil, Croatia and Cameroon.
Strength in unity
For all that, Mexico have shown in recent times that they are capable of upsetting Brazil, as demonstrated in 2012 when Aquino and his team-mates beat a side featuring Neymar, now one of the stars of the Canarinha, 2-1 to claim Gold at the Men’s Olympic Football Tournament.
Perhaps it is this spirit that El Tri must invoke to rediscover their old consistency and get their fans believing in them again. “It’s difficult to compare because the level is different and the pressure is much greater now, but without doubt at London 2012 our strength came through unity,” the 22-year-old said. “More than a team, we were a family. We all pursued the same objective. We were all equal and there was a lot of joy in the dressing room.”
The young midfielder's next aim is to make Mexico’s squad for Brazil 2014. “The first World Cup I remember clearly was Germany 2006, so if I could be at another just two editions later, that would be amazing,” he said. If El Tri are to bounce back and bring people joy again, Aquino believes the players will need to step up. “All of the players need to share the responsibility,” he concluded. “After all, this is a team sport.”