How elite goalie Memo Ochoa became Mexico’s World cup hero

If someone were to put together a highlight film of Mexico’s performances at the last three World Cups, it would include a lot of footage from goalkeeper Memo Ochoa.

He was there in 2014 and made six saves – including two from tight headers from Neymar and Thiago Silva – in a goalless draw against Brazil. He was there in 2018, stood on his head in Russia and made nine saves against defending champions Germany in a 1-0 win. Finally, he was there in Qatar on Tuesday, stopping after Robert Lewandowski’s second-half penalty to give Mexico a point in a goalless draw with Poland.

“When we need Memo, he always shows up,” said defender Jorge Sanchez.

Mexico will certainly need Ochoa on Saturday when they face off against Lionel Messi and Argentina, who are looking to make a statement after seeing their 36-game unbeaten run end in defeat by Saudi Arabia, one of the most astounding upsets in the history of the World Cup.

“We have a strong opponent in the next game, but Mexico are also a strong opponent,” said Ochoa. “We worked really hard. We have prepared.”

The last part, working hard and being prepared, has allowed Ochoa to compete in five world championships. No male goalkeeper has participated more.

“For me it is something special because not everyone can go to a world championship. And be in five? It’s a big number, it’s historic,” he said. “But it’s a personal thing. The most important thing is the group.”

Mexico goalkeeper Memo Ochoa is on the pitch with teammates after a draw against Poland

Mexico goalkeeper Memo Ochoa in blue stands on the pitch with his teammates after a draw against Poland on Tuesday at Stadion 974 in Doha, Qatar.

(Martin Meissner/Associated Press)

But the number five is also significant for the group, as Mexico have progressed to the round of 16 at the last seven World Cups and have faltered there every time. As a result, reaching the quarter-finals and playing a fifth game has long been a goal for the national team, which El Tri last achieved in 1986.

And if Mexico gets there this year, it will almost certainly be because its goalkeeper carried it there – which is odd given that Ochoa never wanted to be a goalkeeper.

“I wanted to be a striker until a coach said to me, ‘No, you go for goal,'” he said. “You saw that I was better in goal. Another coach told me the same thing. And I believed it.”

These two coaches have changed the direction of Mexican football since Ochoa started 132 games in goal for Mexico, most of them by a goalkeeper.

Ochoa, who was born in Guadalajara, made his pro debut with Club América in 2003, winning Liga MX Rookie of the Year honors that season and leading the club to the Clausura title the following season.

Óscar Pérez, who scored ahead of Ochoa at the 2010 World Cup, says it’s that experience that makes Ochoa special after 12 seasons in Mexico’s La Liga MX and eight more in Europe.

“People have faith in him,” said Pérez, who works in Qatar as an analyst for Telemundo. “It’s reflected in the media, with his teammates, with the fans. Memo is a leader because he’s played at the highest level all these years. He’s a great professional and that’s important to his teammates because they see that and he’s going to be a good example.

“Initially with his game, but also with his behavior off the pitch.”

Ochoa takes both roles seriously. He and midfielder Andrés Guardado, also in his fifth World Cup, have become key assets for Tata Martino, the Argentinian-born Mexico coach, who relies on their advice to help set team policy, discipline and Building the chemistry in the dressing room is about .

That has proved important in a team that is the second oldest in Qatar yet includes 16 players making their World Cup debuts.

“As one of the more experienced players, you can help them feel normal, give them peace of mind, so the stress isn’t working against them, so that the Mexico crest on their jersey isn’t a burden,” Ochoa said. “It often happens that players who are very good in their clubs and in the national team are not the same and you have to try to bring them together and reassure them.”

Ochoa, 37, has also aged well, conceding less than a goal a game in his last three seasons for Club América, the best stage of his career while winning an Olympic bronze medal in Tokyo last year. However, it shines brightest on the biggest stage, the World Cup. In his nine starts, he has only conceded eight goals from his team-mates, but Mexico have lost just three of those games.

And that has Ochoa thinking about a sixth World Cup in 2026, when the tournament will be shared between Mexico, the United States and Canada.

“It’s not that far away,” he said. “Yes, I see myself in professional football and I see myself available for the national team. It would be very nice to end my career with a World Cup in Mexico.” How elite goalie Memo Ochoa became Mexico’s World cup hero

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