April 21, 2006

World Cup 2006: Guardado on the fast track

A year ago Andres Guardado was an unknown, just another reserve player with Mexican giants Atlas, patiently waiting for an opportunity to prove himself in the first team. Little did he know what the next 12 months would bring.

Guardado’s rise in that time has been nothing short of meteoric. The youngster may have fulfilled his childhood ambition by making his top-flight debut, but it is the intelligence, nerve and lightning pace he has displayed from that point on that has really got the Mexican football world sitting up and taking notice.

Opposing defenders certainly know all about the flying winger after trying to keep tabs on him for 90 minutes. What makes his progress all the more amazing is the fact that instead of patrolling his customary left-wing position, he has had to fill in as a makeshift full-back, shoring up the leaky rearguard of his relegation-threatened side.

Atlas boast one of the most prolific youth systems in Mexican football. World-class footballers such as Barcelona defender Rafael Marquez, goalkeeper Oswaldo Sanchez and midfielder Pavel Pardo, three mainstays of the national side, have all rolled off the Guadalajara club’s production line. It was no surprise then, when the country’s latest footballing prodigy also graduated from the rojinegro academy.

The young Guardado was handed his chance thanks to an innovative Mexican Football Federation (FMF) initiative designed to promote the development of promising youngsters. From the middle of 2005, all teams were required to field at least one player under the age of 21 in half their league games, and the Atlas flyer was one such beneficiary.

Teams fighting for survival at the wrong end of the table usually fall back on experienced campaigners to guide them to safety. Atlas followed this tried-and-tested formula at the start of the season, but after three consecutive defeats and the introduction of the FMF’s new regulations, they were forced to call on one of their untried hopefuls to do the job. He did not disappoint.

Guardado made his first league appearance for Atlas against Pachuca in week four of the 2005 Apertura championship, taking to the field 15 minutes from time with the score locked at 2-2. No sooner had he come on than he started driving the rival defence to distraction with his searing pace. Atlas snatched the points with a dramatic 87th-minute winner, and Guardado has never looked back. Indeed, he missed only one of his side’s remaining 14 games in the championship and capped his astonishing rise to prominence with a call-up to the Mexico squad.

On 12 December 2005, only three months and nine games after that first outing with Atlas, the 19-year-old pulled on the famous green jersey of Mexico in a friendly against Hungary. In what turned out to be a comfortable win for the Tricolor, Guardado was given the perfect stage on which to take his first steps in the international arena. Much to coach Ricardo La Volpe’s delight, the debutant was coolness personified and appeared no more nervous than he would have been at a kick-about in the school playground.

He has featured in every Mexico game since, adding three more caps to his burgeoning collection and oozing class on every occasion. Who better than La Volpe then to assess his qualities. “He’s got the dynamism you’d expect of a 19-year-old kid,” said the coach. “He shuttles back and forth. He doesn’t know what fear is, either. We thought he might be nervous and overawed about playing for his country, but he’s shown real character and steel.”

It is these qualities that could well make Guardado one of the young players to watch at the FIFA World Cup this summer.

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