Mexico are but one step away from redemption. After coming within two minutes of elimination in the final qualifying round in the CONCACAF Zone, El Tri are sitting pretty in their intercontinental play-off against New Zealand, and have a handsome 5-1 lead to defend in Wednesday’s second leg in Wellington.
Played out before a jubilant crowd in last week’s first leg at the Estadio Azteca, the tale of Mexico’s sudden rebirth is one that features many individual stories, among them that of Luis Montes.
One of the architects of their seemingly decisive defeat of the All Whites, Montes was happier than most to be playing a part in such an important game. After all it was only two years ago that the 27-year-old midfielder was plying his trade in Mexico’s second tier, his career having previously taken a downward path, making a place in the national side look more remote than ever.
The Leon man is all smiles now, however, and was only too happy to reflect on the turnaround in his fortunes and those of El Tri in an exclusive interview with FIFA.com.
A winding road
Montes had to travel a long and circuitous route before earning the acclaim of the fans and getting the chance to patrol the Mexican midfield against the New Zealanders. The quick-witted player seemed destined for anonymity after failing to hold down a first-team place in a five-year stay with Pachuca, where he came up through the youth ranks.
Then, after joining second division Leon during the 2011 Clausura season, his career promptly took an upward turn. After playing a leading role in his club’s promotion to the top flight, Montes helped them reach the semi-finals of the following season’s championship play-offs and earned a call-up to the national team on the back of his outstanding performances.
Though he is now playing the best football of his career, he is keeping his feet firmly on the ground: “It has not been easy, I can tell you,” he said. “You reach the stage when you start doubting yourself and wondering if you’ll ever make it. Fortunately, things have worked out for me now, but I can’t forget the hurdles I’ve faced. That’s what pushes me to keep going.”
Hurdles are what Mexico have also faced in their attempt to reach the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™, and lots of them too. After a year of setbacks and managerial changes, which have seen four coaches take charge of the team, Miguel Herrera has led the side to the brink of qualification. In Montes’ opinion, he has also brought some desperately needed stability to the team.
“The fact is we all feel very comfortable with Miguel,” explained the player, who hails from Ciudad Juarez. “He has a tremendous amount of confidence in us and I think that’s been the secret. His ideas are very clear and that’s allowed us to start playing good football again. We close down the opposition well, we keep on running and we create a lot of chances. We wouldn’t be in the position we’re in without him.”
The last step
Nicknamed Chapo, Montes was on the field for 59 minutes in last week’s first leg against the Oceania side. Looking back on that game and how it might affect the return leg, he said: “It might not have looked that way, but getting the better of New Zealand wasn’t easy. And we know that they’re going to come out with a different mindset at home, in front of their fans. They’re physically strong and they’re going to try and wear us down in the second leg.”
If Mexico’s latest training sessions are anything to go by, Montes looks set to start the game in Wellington. It would be only his sixth cap, a statistic that is somewhat surprising given the confidence he exudes on the field of play.
It goes without saying that Wednesday’s match will be the most important of his career, and he is intent on leaving nothing to chance ahead of it. “It’s absolutely essential that we stay calm and keep hold of the ball,” he said. “We know they’re going to come out and try to pressure us. They’ve got no option but to. What we need to do is keep our wits about us.”
As he went on to explain, there is no question of Mexico sitting on their advantage. “We’re going to dictate the play and try to win the game,” he vowed. “We need another goal just to ease our nerves and smooth our path to the finals. The worst thing we could do is to think the tie is over. We’ve still got the second leg to come and we need to be utterly professional and responsible when we play it.”
Asked to reflect one last time on Mexico’s rocky road to the world finals, the battle-hardened Montes offered a typically measured response: “We haven’t reached Brazil yet, and we won’t be there until the referee blows the final whistle with the scoreline in our favour. Only then will we be able to raise our aims and celebrate.”