If one thing must be said about the U17 Mexican team on the eve of their all-or-nothing Group F match at the World Cup, it is this -- they are refusing to be daunted. In the midst of Monday's massive deluge in Kolkata -- that flooded neighbourhoods, uprooted trees, knocked flight schedules out of gear with fierce winds that ripped apart most of the vinyl advertising hoardings throughout the city -- the Mexican team went to training.
It wasn't quite a cyclone but it certainly tried to look like one, but the El Tri (named after the Tricolour of the Mexican flag) just shrugged at their Sports Authority of India training ground. A tree came crashing down at one side of the pitch they were about to use, but they thought nothing of it. They were using the other half of the pitch anyway, they told anxious organisers, and went about their drills for 90 minutes in pouring rain.
Ask them about the heat and humidity that has bothered and visibly affected the rest of the teams and Mexico's coach says the weather is a strength, not a problem for his team. He points out that they won the Central American (CONCAFAC) championships in Panama playing in 36-37degree heat and before coming to India, trained on the Spanish coast in Marbella in the September heat. But is it not difficult to get these young men up and running to play three matches in a week? In such tough conditions? No, said coach Mario Artegea, it is what Mexican boys do all the time, they are used to three matches a week in their local tournaments. Plus they have staff on hand to get them recovered in time.
So, rain, heat, humidity, the physical load, the sea-level altitude? No hay problema. No problem.
It is just the drive and sangfroid Mexico would need on Wednesday to counter what is being sighted as an English resurgence. The Mexicans would hope to do better than their 1-1 draw against Iraq and a win would take England through to the knockouts. On Sunday, it was a rush of nerves, first at the occasion and then playing before a large crowd that had held Mexico back against Iraq, but midfielder Alexis Guiterrez said they were now past that. "It was a stadium full of people and we were a little nervous but settled into it and started enjoying it later. It's like a dream of every footballer to play before a stadium full of people. We're set for the match tomorrow."
Coach Artegea said that while England's performance had been impressive, Mexico would enjoy their style of play, one whose propensity for attack gave their rivals chance and space to play their own game. "They will also attack us, but they also you give you the space to attack them," he said. "They are a tough team, but Mexico is going to plan this match to make some damage for them, to complicate things for England." Guiterrez's analysis of England was more sanguine -- he'd watched them training and knew that their key qualities were "speed, technique and order". On the field though, he said, contact with a rushing rival was quite another thing.
Artegea, a coach with his Under-17s in some form or the other for their last four World Cups, was ready to play his respects to every English name that popped up in the media conference, but gave enough glimpses of the holes he had been able to spot as well. In the 4-0 spanking of Chile, England's defence had not been pushed. Aretgea praised their central defender and their goalkeeper and then offered this: close England's spaces down, and keep attacking them in their zone. Besides, the strength of the Mexican attack -- including their 5ft 5in prodigy Diego Lainez -- has not been unfurled yet.
Whatever else the world may think of the U17 competition, Mexico take it very seriously -- two-time winners, finalists in 2013 and 2015 losing semi-finalists to eventual champions Nigeria. Artegea said, "The Under-17 squad is like the beginning for the processes to build the national team... the federation knows the importance and that is why they send good teams out to events like this. It is these teams that have been feeding all the rosters. This is where many players begin their international careers."
The U17 World Cup's Los Ninos Heroes vs the Young Lions may not attract the television audience of the great Mexican Derby, Club America vs Chivas Guadalajara. But even though it will kick off at 630am Mexican time, it will be followed. The team has been together for 20 months now, and a Mexican team official said, "This is the only title we have had in this category, so everyone at home is waiting for something big from this team."
Think of what it must be to be Mexican -- sandwiched between the world's political and economic superpower to its north and several footballing superpowers on the south. Getting intimidated or squeezed out is an easy option but Mexico holds its own and stands its ground. In football, they do so in the only way they know will make a mark -- by going forward. It is what they hope will burst through England's defence and its confidence.
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