Flight of the Eagle (cont.)
Posted: Monday February 4, 2008 5:29PM; Updated: Tuesday February 5, 2008 2:36PM
It must be hard for him to stay grounded, considering he is the best keeper Mexico has produced since Jorge Campos. Ochoa has it all: strong legs, stellar reflexes, speed, good hands and an aura of calmness that spreads to his teammates. At 22, he is the undisputed owner of the national team's No. 1 jersey, and his name is being linked to Europe's top clubs.
"Memo is already a leader. He has exceptional talent," says Antonio "La Tota" Carbajal, Mexico's goalie in five World Cup finals. "But he still needs to improve some aspects of his game, like finding teammates when clears the ball, and cutting off corners and crosses."
Ignacio Calderón, starting keeper for El Tri at the 1966 World Cup in England and at home in Mexico '70, says about Memo, "He is one of the best in the world in terms of talent, but also in terms of personality, something of utmost importance for that position. It's his moment right now, just like it once was Carbajal's, mine and Campos'."
Last year was full of acknowledgements for Ochoa. He was a candidate for the prestigious Golden Ball award given out by France Football magazine, and was voted the fourth best player in the Americas by the Uruguayan daily El País.
After the final of the Copa Sudamericana between las Águilas and Argentine side Arsenal de Sarandí, Diego Maradona touted him as one of the world's best goalkeepers; and Memo sees himself on par with the European greats like Spanish keeper Iker Casillas or Italy's Gigi Buffon.
"I see them and I feel there's no difference, that the goals are the same size," he says. "Everybody sees what they do because of the teams they play for, but I do the same things in América."
Ochoa has had the chance to show his skills beyond the Mexican borders. He was one of the brightest stars of the Copa América held in Venezuela, where his superb performance headlined Mexico's 2-0 upset of Brazil. Time and again, Ochoa made incredible saves against the best team in the tournament.
"At first, I was a little nervous," he says. "I wanted to play well, not let my people down. But I calmed down and did what I always do. And that was enough."
Because of that, Ochoa will surely follow in the footsteps of Andrés Guardado -- the 21-year-old Mexican winger who moved to Europe for a record transfer fee last summer. The keeper, though, is in no hurry to leave his country.
"I'm not going abroad just to live the experience," he says. "If the opportunity of joining an important club should arise, I'll go there. But the fact that I play in Mexico doesn't make me a worse keeper."
A couple of issues have postponed his jump across the Atlantic: the amount of money América wants for its prized possession, valued at $15 million, and the fact that Memo doesn't have a European passport, which means he would occupy a valuable foreign-player slot.
Even so, various reports indicate that at the end of the '08 Mexican Clausura, Ochoa could sign for Manchester United or AC Milan (Italian paper Tuttosport said that he is the main candidate to replace Brazilian keeper Dida in the Rossoneri goal).
That means Ochoa's enviable bachelor life in Mexico City is coming to a close. With his pop-star looks, Memo has been romantically linked to a couple of Mexican starlets. (What more proof than his Facebook profile to see that he doesn't lack female "friends"?)
"I take advantage of what comes my way," he says, letting out a bust of laughter. "Soccer players used to marry at a young age, but now they make their career a priority, and then comes marriage. I've had girlfriends, but I see marriage nowhere near because I'm concentrating on soccer and reaching my goals."
Those goals are very clear for '08: Win the Copa Libertadores to wash away the sour taste left by the defeat against Arsenal in the Sudamericana; help the national team -- that Memo will undoubtedly captain -- in the pre-Olympic tournament to be played in the U.S. in March and ensure a spot in Beijing; once in China, win Mexico's first gold medal in soccer; and with the senior squad, take the first steps toward South Africa 2010.
Ochoa is convinced that his generation will be the one that finally puts Mexico among the world's soccer elite. And when that happens, maybe Memo will be convinced that his destiny was always to be in goal.
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