Mexico's odd couple out to silence another crowd
"The skipper is the boss here," said Francisco Venegas, or Paco as he is commonly known, pointing to Jose Esquivel by his side. "That's right," replied Esquivel, laughing, "But he covers my back at all times. He's my right-hand man."
Mexico conceded just once in their three group-stage matches at the FIFA U-17 World Cup Chile 2015. A major factor in this impressive record was their solid centre-back pairing, who have also had an impact at the other end, with Venegas scoring two of the team's four goals. "Like we say to the forwards, if they don't put the ball away, Paquito has to go and do it for them," quipped team captain Esquivel, adding to the soundtrack of laughs that would ring out throughout the defensive duo's chat with FIFA.com.
Despite their youth, Venegas and Esquivel have been playing together for what must feel like half a lifetime, since first rubbing shoulders in the Pachuca academy six years ago. It was not exactly friendship at first sight, however: "When we met, we didn't get along," admitted Venegas. "The thing is that he'd already been there for a year when I arrived and since I was new, he gave me a little bit of a rough ride. There was the odd initiation rite," explained Esquivel. "But life's funny like that; you can start off angry with someone and then end up on the best of terms," Venegas added with a big grin.
Bosom buddies The pair do not spend quite as much time together now that Jose is at Mexican second-division side Mineros de Zacatecas, whom he signed for last year. Still, there are always mobile phones. "Only he doesn't reply to my messages!" joked Venegas, feigning anger. "He's just still upset because I forgot to wish him happy birthday last year," chipped in Esquivel. Such jokes are a regular feature of their conversations, as shown when the talk turns to the FIFA video game. "I own Paco on the PlayStation," claimed Esquivel, prompting a swift riposte: "He's just saying that because he beat me in one tournament and now he won't agree to a rematch."
The duo are inseparable when reunited at international level and form a perfect partnership on the pitch. Esquivel is the more dominant of the two: as his sidekick put it, "Even though he's on the small side for a centre-back , he's got a really powerful leap and is very good in the air." As the captain, he leads by example and often barks out orders: "He's more vocal during matches. I sometimes don't know what else to say beyond 'Come on' or 'Let's go', but he is able to get people organised and in position." This praise is immediately returned: "I'd pick out Paco's long-range passing. He makes things look easy and is good with both feet to boot." They compliment and complement one another freely: in Venegas's words, "When games heat up, we try to handle the situation. Sometimes I fly off the handle and he puts me back in line, and vice versa."
Embracing challenges The centre-halves' personalities typify a side that are not daunted by challenges, as shown by the way they went about their business in Group C up against Germany, Argentina and Australia. "Before the tournament it was billed as a group of death. We set out to finish top and did just that. That's what I admire most about this team: they achieve whatever they put their minds to," said Esquivel, pride evident in his tone.
The next goal in Mexico's sights is none other than to dump out hosts Chile. "We'd have liked to face them in the final but it wasn't to be, so the hosts will have to go out in the last 16," dead-panned Venegas, amid more laughter. "Qualifying was amazing because we'd targeted reaching the final against the home nation, Honduras, and silencing the stadium. And that's exactly what happened when we beat them 3-0," said Esquivel.
"That's what makes this team different. We like challenges. We want to show that we've come here for nothing less than the title," the skipper went on. "Nigeria are pulling away from us a bit," chimed in Venegas in jest, with the holders now having won the U-17 World Cup four times to El Tri's two. As it happens, the Golden Eaglets defeated the Mexicans to clinch the crown last time round: "The lads from the 2013 squad have told us to go one better than them," Venegas continued. "El Potro gave us a talk that is etched in my memory. He showed us two photos, one of the 2013 runners-up, all stony-faced, and another of the champions from 2011 jumping for joy, and said to us, 'Which would you rather be?' We want to be parading the trophy in our picture on 9 November," Esquivel added.
The next step if they are to fulfil this wish is to overcome Chile and the two central defenders will leave no stone unturned as they look to make that happen. Right down to the order in which they alight from the team bus before the game. As Esquivel explained, "We always sit in the back row, on the right-hand side. I take the window seat and Paco sits by the aisle. Once everyone else has got off, then I go and Paco's always the last one off. It's our superstition." This has become their ritual, like silencing crowds, and they are hopeful it will bring them luck again.