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Flight of the Eagle

Mexico, América keeper Ochoa soars into stratosphere

Posted: Monday February 4, 2008 5:29PM; Updated: Tuesday February 5, 2008 2:36PM
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Patrolling the nets for América, 22-year-old Guillermo Ochoa has become one of the most recognizable faces in all of Mexican soccer.
Patrolling the nets for América, 22-year-old Guillermo Ochoa has become one of the most recognizable faces in all of Mexican soccer.
Ronaldo Schemidt/AFP/Getty Images

By Martín del Palacio Langer

Reprinted from SI Latino

In the full swing of the winter offseason, the small stands next to the field in the Coapa section of Mexico City are teeming with kids observing an inter-squad match amongst the Águilas of Club América. Their eyes are fixated on one of the forwards wearing yellow.

With each touch of the ball, he makes the crowd's expectations grow. Suddenly, a penalty is called. The attacker adjusts the headband that keeps his curly locks in place and walks over to the white spot. The crowd goes wild. His weak shot, however, is cradled by the blue keeper's hands. But the fans don't care -- they chant his name as if he had scored, "Memo Ochoa, Memo Ochoa!"

The striker is none other than Guillermo Ochoa, the starting goalkeeper for the Eagles, who, during some training sessions, goes back to his old role on the pitch.

"I came to América as a forward," says Memo. "In Guadalajara I played both positions, but when I arrived here there were no spots for goalies. One day the keeper got hurt and the coach asked who wanted to put on the gloves. I raised my hand, saved a penalty and then they wouldn't let me go back to the attacking line."

Practice ends and the players walk toward the dressing rooms. All except for Ochoa. He heads for the kids who are waiting with open hands, ready to give him a hug. For 40 minutes, Memo gives out autographs and takes pictures. It's one of the ways in which he tries to repay the love they give him. That's why last year he joined a UNICEF campaign to spread awareness about the rights of Mexican children.

"I had the support of my family as a kid, I had the fortune of getting an education and of living as a child should," said Memo during the launching of the Gifts from the Heart campaign. "There are many children that have to work and don't have the opportunity of doing what they like to do, of enjoying life, and having fun with their friends, their parents."

Memo's normal childhood gave way to an agitated adolescence -- especially when, at 18, Dutch skipper Leo Beenhakker put him in goal for América. It was a period in which he began tasting the fame that now follows him everywhere.

"I have to go to the movie theater on Monday or Tuesday nights when no one is there," he says. "The funniest thing that happened to me most recently is that I went with my mom to the supermarket. We went in, but five minutes later there were so many people surrounding us that I had to run back to the car. She had to finish shopping on her own."

Besides the UNICEF campaign, various brands have exploited the image of the country's most popular player, creating a sort of Ochoa alter ego.

"It's funny seeing yourself in a video game [he's on the cover of FIFA 08] or in a commercial. I don't even believe it's me when I see some of my interviews. I sound different," he says. "I try not to change. I do the same things I did before my debut: I have the same friends, go to the same school [he studies Business Administration at Anáhuac University], and that helps me enjoy these special moments without getting a big head."

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