Farewells come in many shapes and sizes: happy, sad, bitter, forgettable and, in the case of Guatemala international Carlos Ruiz, truly memorable. Indeed, his was the kind of departure that will be hard to forget and which earned him a place in the record books.
Following 18 years of loyal national-team duty, many of them spent wearing the captain’s armband, the man they call El Pescadito (“Little Fish”) has called time on his international career. He did so in style, scoring five goals against St Vincent and the Grenadines on 6 September to take his overall FIFA World Cup™ qualifying tally to 39 and move past Iran’s Ali Daei as the leading scorer in the history of the preliminaries.
“The record came in what was a tough assignment for us: we had to score 12 and hope that Trinidad and Tobago beat USA,” said the 37-year-old told FIFA.com in an exclusive interview. “We were totally focused on what we had to do. Every time we got a goal, we picked the ball up and ran back to put it back on the centre circle. We didn’t have much time to celebrate when I broke the record, though I did go and share a hug with the goalkeeper Paulo Cesar Motta, who was on the bench and with whom I’ve spent so many years in the national team.”
A veteran of five World Cup qualifying campaigns, Ruiz added: “After the game people were coming up and congratulating me. My only wish was that we’d qualified for the final round but it wasn’t to be. I’ve had a lot of messages from my compatriots and former team-mates supporting me in my new role in the game. It’s been a very nice week.”
An emotional goodbye
Born in 1979, Ruiz began his professional career at the age of 16 with Guatemalan club Municipal. After then breaking into the national side, the striker, who is 5’9 (1.75m) tall, moved to Los Angeles Galaxy in 2002, the start of a long period of exile overseas. Following subsequent spells in Mexico, Canada, Paraguay and Greece, he returned home, to the club where it all started, in 2014.
Though blessed with a vast amount of experience, Ruiz found his legs were not quite as responsive as they used to be, his reflexes slower and his stamina somewhat diminished. Despite his waning physical prowess and greying beard, he continued to show the selfsame determination he had always done throughout his long international career with Los Chapines, in which he won 132 caps.
“I do feel nostalgic about it because I devoted many years to the national team,” he said. “At the same time, though, I feel happy because it’s the end of a cycle in my sporting career. Time will tell if I did well, OK or badly, but what I can say is that I gave body and soul to it. Unfortunately, I never won a trophy, but I can take away a lot of personal satisfaction.”
While Ruiz’s immediate future still lies in club football, he has a very clear idea of what he is going to do with his time afterwards. Rather than going into coaching immediately, he wants to apply his know-how in attempting to raise the standard of Guatemalan football.
“Guatemala are standing still,” explained the seasoned frontman. “I’m going to carry on playing until the national FA holds its elections, when I’m going to run for president. We need football people to come in and run things and make some overall plans. We need to be patient with the various national teams. We want a lot of young players to come through and turn professional.”
Ruiz has not forgotten his childhood days and growing up in a part of the world where a life of crime was the easy option. Driven by his passion for football, however, he took an altogether harder route, striving as hard as he could to make his dreams a reality and being rewarded for his dedication, a path he hopes today’s youngsters will also take.
El Pescadito plans to keep on encouraging young children and teenagers to swap guns, drugs and alcohol for football: “Every footballer has a different story to tell, though there are quite a few of us who have the same one: players from the neighbourhoods who grew up on dirt pitches and had tough upbringings. And there are still a lot of them out there waiting to be discovered. We have to get out to those areas where kids have no opportunities and where delinquency is on the rise. If we can do that, we can give them hope of a different kind of life.”
Though his international days are now at an end, Ruiz will continue to have a strong emotional attachment to the game, while trying to help the youngsters of Guatemala fulfil their dreams. As if by way of inspiring them, his farewell has marked the start of a legend, that of a natural born goalscorer who never tired of finding the back of the net for his country.