December 14, 2005 was the date Mexico defeated Hungary 2-0 in a friendly in Phoenix, Arizona. Nothing too remarkable about that you might say, but the game is destined to go down in the record books as the night one of the greatest talents to come out of Mexico in recent years picked up his first international cap. His name? Francisco Guillermo Ochoa. And his age? Just 20 - young enough to make this goalkeeping prodigy a potential candidate for the Gillette Best Young Player Award at Germany 2006 next summer.
Mexico, land of goalkeepers
Throughout its proud footballing history, Mexico has produced a succession of great keepers. The legendary Antonio Carbajal, the first ever player to appear at five FIFA World Cups, opened a door that has remained ajar ever since. In the years that followed, Ignacio Calderon and Pablo Larios proved worthy successors and helped Mexico reach the quarter-finals when they hosted the 1970 and 1986 FIFA World Cups respectively.
At USA 94, it was the turn of the uniquely gifted Jorge Campos to come of age on the international scene. The man from Acapulco amazed the world with his gravity-defying leaps, feline agility and colourful livery. Equally adept as a striker, the diminutive Campos holds a prominent place in the recent history of the Tricolor.
When his long reign between the sticks came to an end, it was the similarly agile Oscar Perez who took up the mantle at Korea/Japan 2002. Oswaldo Sanchez, his deputy in the Far East, has now made the number one jersey his own and is rightly considered one of the finest exponents of his trade in the world, a status he is sure to confirm at Germany 2006.
The story of the 'Ice Kid'
Few had even heard of Francisco Guillermo Ochoa when he made his debut for Mexican giants America. It was early 2004 when Leo Beenhakker, the then Águilas coach, dropped in on a game between two of the club's youth teams. The veteran Dutch tactician was astounded by what he saw: an 18-year-old who kept goal with all the assurance of a veteran. In his inimitable style, Beenhakker went up to the youngster and said: "You're with the first team from now on."
A few weeks later, with regular goalkeeper Adolfo Rios sidelined through injury, Ochoa pulled on the America jersey for the first time at the mythical Azteca Stadium. Shrugging off the nerves that usually bedevil debutants on the big stage, Ochoa produced an ice-cool display, and by the end of the season few questioned his claim to be America's first-choice custodian. As if that were not enough, he also claimed the award for best emerging player and was handed the number one jersey and the captaincy of the Mexico U-20 side by coach Humberto Grondona.
The following season got off to a disappointing start, however, when Mexico failed to qualify for the FIFA World Youth Championship Netherlands 2005, and America's new coach, Oscar Ruggeri, signed fellow Argentine and former international keeper Sebastian Saja. Within a mere two months, however, the 'Ice Kid' had dislodged his more experienced team-mate from between the posts.
The present is bright, the future even brighter
Ochoa was a key figure in America's dominance of the domestic scene in 2005. The Águilas won the Clausura 2005 tournament and went an impressive 30 games unbeaten. The cool-headed shot-stopper belied his age with a virtually flawless season, consolidating his position among the country's finest keepers and staking a compelling claim to a national-team call-up.
Sure enough, it was not long before Tricolor coach Ricardo La Volpe gave in to public demand, drafting Ochoa into his CONCACAF Gold Cup 2005 squad as well as including him in various team get-togethers. Although he was not called into to action, Ochoa at least got the chance to savour the atmosphere at international level.
His dream finally became reality on 14 December, when he came on for the second half against Hungary. On a relatively quiet night, the youngster gave a typically composed display, venturing smartly off his line to snuff out the only Hungarian attack of note. "I'm so happy to finally get on and play, even if it was just for a few minutes. I'd like to thank the coach for his faith in me, and I'm sure this is the first step on the road to Germany 2006," said a contented Ochoa afterwards.
An outstanding keeper and a hero to millions
Although his biggest gift is an ability to stay calm in the most nerve-wracking of situations, young Guillermo has other strings to his bow, not least his sensational reflexes. Back on matchday 11 of the 2005 Clausura championship, for instance, he pulled off perhaps the finest save of the season when he somehow clawed out a thunderbolt free-kick that was heading inexorably for the top corner. The 'Ice Kid' is more than just a shot-stopper though, and has proved equally effective at dealing with one-on-ones, crosses and clearances.
A commanding presence on the pitch, his freewheeling approach to life off it has earned him hero status among America's legions of fans. With his long curly hair, oversized sweaters and baggy trousers, Ochoa cuts a distinctive figure and is a permanent fixture not just in Mexico's sports dailies but also in the gossip columns thanks to his romance with a well-known pop singer.
The boy from Guadalajara is very much the future of Mexican goalkeeping, and were it not for the extraordinary Oswaldo Sanchez, he would surely have made the number one jersey his own by now. All the indications are that this goalkeeping sensation will be making the trip to Germany 2006, though, where he will no doubt provide a valuable source of calm and serenity for less composed team-mates to draw on.