Clinical finishing, perseverance and commitment are perhaps the three attributes that best sum up Carlos Ruiz. Known as El Pescadito (the Little Fish), the Guatemalan is synonymous with his eye for goal, a feature that has brought him success in places as far apart as the USA, Canada, Mexico, Paraguay and Greece.
The player’s feats of marksmanship have not been limited to club football either. With his beloved Chapínes, Ruiz has netted 46 times, making him his country’s all-time leading scorer. Now with Guatemala safely through to the third and penultimate round of qualifying for the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™, FIFA.com spoke exclusively to the Mexico-based Veracruz striker about his distinguished club career and Guatemala’s hopes of going all the way to Brazil.
A footballing lifeline
The success enjoyed by the 32-year-old is even more impressive when you consider the obstacles he had to overcome early in life. "My three siblings and I grew up without our father. Most of the roads open to you were the wrong ones, while the right paths were few and far between," said the native of Guatemala City’s notorious Zona 21 district.
"Fortunately for me, I was able to concentrate on football, which is something that can prevent you from making the wrong choices – as it did for me. [Growing up] I played with a lot of young lads, most of whom are now either dead or in prison. It’s thanks to football that I’m still here."
Ruiz’s dreams of a professional career began taking shape in 1995, when, as a 16-year-old, he made his first-team debut with hometown side Municipal. Three league titles would follow in his time there before he got his first big break with a move to MLS side Los Angeles Galaxy in 2002. In seven years in North America, which also included a three-season stint with FC Dallas, El Pescadito forged his reputation as a feared striker with 116 goals in 214 games.
[Growing up] I played with a lot of young lads, most of whom are now either dead or in prison. It’s thanks to football that I’m still here.
“I have great memories of my time in MLS," Ruiz recalled. "When I first arrived at Los Angeles Galaxy there were a lot of big players, including the likes of Cobi Jones and Alexi Lalas. The management were focusing on winning the league title and fortunately we were able to secure the club’s maiden championship during my first year there.”
After his spell in North America, the striker tried his luck with Olimpia of Paraguay, where he got his first taste of South American football. “That period in my career really left its mark on me, as I again felt what it was like to be under pressure. Of course, that’s not to say that you don’t feel pressure in the MLS, just that in South America the game is different."
After ten goals in 18 games for Olimpia, Ruiz spent a season with Mexican outfit Puebla before finally realising his dream of European football with a move to Greek side Aris Saloniki. "Playing in Europe was so exciting. Luckily I scored a few goals and helped us reach the group stage [of the 2010 UEFA Europa League], which was a wonderful experience," said the first Guatemalan to play in a European club competition.
Back to Mexico and Brazil 2014.
Currently the well-travelled frontman has the twin objectives of getting Veracruz back into Mexico’s top flight and helping his country reach the finals of the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil.
"A lot of people might think that coming to Veracruz was a step backwards with the club being in the Liga de Ascenso [second tier]," he explained. "However, I was asked to come here as part of a big project, which has the full backing of the board and which has as its goal a return to the first division. Veracruz is an important club in Mexico and one with a lot of history, so now we’re aiming to put it back where it belongs."
With the Guatemalan national team, the challenge is no less demanding, as Los Chapínes continue their quest for a maiden FIFA World Cup appearance. "This year will be vital as we begin the [next] group phase, where we’re up against USA, Jamaica and Antigua and Barbuda," said the veteran international. In fact, with 93 appearances, Ruiz is his country’s third most-capped player of all time, behind Guillermo Ramirez (105) and Gustavo Cabrera Marroquin (103).
"It’s very clear to us that of the three direct qualifying berths and the additional play-off one, that we’ll be battling for third place with the likes of Jamaica, Costa Rica, Canada and Honduras. The standard of Central American and Caribbean football is below that of Mexico and the USA. So if we accept the reality that the top two places will go to those two countries, then we have to focus on securing the remaining berth."
In this quest, Ruiz is well aware of the important role he will have to play. "In the national team we share responsibility, but obviously in cases like Guatemala the overseas-based players are seen as standard bearers. Not only am I in that category, but my goal-scoring record means people are always expecting more and more from me,” he said, before finishing with a warning to the team’s regional rivals. “I hope to add to my goal-scoring tally and help my team achieve something really big.”