Guillermo “Memo” Ochoa is already a hero at the World Cup, more so because few even in his country expected him to be even part of it.
His performance against Brazil was stunning, as the Mexican goal-keeper made outstanding saves when Neymar and Thiago Silva’s headers that looked destined for the back of the net. He keep out everything Selecao could throw at him as well.
But Ochoa wasn’t supposed to be the first-choice custodian at the tournament for Mexico, though. Just like 2006 and 2010, Ochoa was supposed to warm the bench.
In 2006, Mexico’s Argentinian coach Ricardo Lavolpe chose veteran Oswaldo Sanchez over him. At that time, Ochoa was just a talented 20-year-old. His disappointment was much bigger when Javier Aguirre gave Oscar Perez the nod four years later. Perez was the safer option, they said.
Ochoa’s image is inseparable from that of the only team he has ever played – America are the biggest club in Mexico as well as being the most loved and the most hated club. Ochoa, with his youthful looks, gorgeous hair locks, outspoken character and spectacular playing style, easily became one of the most recognised players of the club. He was the star for the female fans and signed countless advertising contracts, getting all the public attention one could possible desire.
At the same time, however, he was under constant pressure from journalists and fans who disliked America. That is why his international career was always going to be rather tough. Too many people claimed that his acrobatic saves are just meant to get more attention, that he is inconsistent, and that sponsors put the national team under pressure to play him even though he doesn’t deserve it.
Choosing Ochoa became risky for national coaches, and it is easy to understand why they opted for less controversial keepers. He could easily have stayed at America for life, but decided to be much more adventurous and become the first Mexican goal-keeper in Europe. At first, there was no shortage of suitors for the talented custodian, as Paris Saint Germain and Olympiacos made offers.
Then disaster struck. He tested positive for banned substance during the Gold Cup in 2011. He was innocent and the Football Federation acquitted him. But appeals were launched in the Court of Arbitration for Sport and all the interested clubs decided not to wait for him. The only possible option remained Ajaccio, a small Corsican club newly promoted to Ligue 1, and Ochoa duly signed a three-year contract with them.
Fans all over Mexico were stunned. How is it possible to move from a huge team like America to an outfit few have ever heard about? For Ochoa, though, that was a natural decision.
“Playing in Europe has always been a dream for me. I don’t earn as much as I did in Mexico, but I feel much happier,” he said back in 2012. His form for Ajaccio was mostly outstanding as he excelled on the biggest occasion.
Despite his success in France, there were few chances for Ochoa for Mexico.
“He is not at America anymore, but the stigma still surrounds him”, says Mexican journalist Cesar Hernandez. His conflict with former coach Jose Manuel de la Torre almost prompted him to quit the national team for good. When current coach Herrera got the job in October, he clearly favoured the experienced Cruz Azul keeper Jose Corona. America’s Moises Munoz was chosen for the couple of playoff matches versus New Zealand.
As the World Cup drew closer, the competition became more intense, but Ochoa remained second, or even third choice. Less than a week before the opening game versus Croatia, Herrera claimed: “Corona plays better with his feet, and that is important for me. We have three great goal-keepers, and each has his own qualities.”
It will be quite bizarre to think about rotation now. Ochoa’s time has finally come, at the age of 28. Mexico need a draw against the dangerous attacking line of Croatia to qualify for the second round for the sixth World Cup in succession, and the keeper will have a crucial part to play if they are to achieve that goal.
International fame couldn’t have arrived at better timing for Ochoa. Ajaccio were relegated, the keeper’s contract with them has expired and he is about to become one of the most sought-after free agents in Europe.
At long last, the world is at his feet, and he deserves that.