How Uriel Antuna rose from impoverished background to stardom

Football has taken Uriel Antuna to places he could never have imagined. About the medal stand at the Olympic Games in Tokyo. To clubs in the Netherlands, England and the USA Now to Qatar, where he is likely to make his World Cup debut on Tuesday when Mexico open their group game against Poland.

“Very happy to be able to fulfill a dream I set for myself at a young age,” he said in Spanish.

But no matter how far he hiked and how high he climbed, Antuna never forgot where he came from and who helped him.

“My parents, my grandparents always drilled that into me, ever since they were the first people to be with me,” he said.

They weren’t the only ones. If it takes a village to raise a child, it can take a lot more to raise a world champion soccer player. For this reason, Antuna returns to the city where he grew up and to Santos Laguna, the Mexican club that gave him his beginnings, to mentor children who, like him, have a dream but little else in their lives.

Antuna grew up poor in Lerdo, about 10 miles outside of Torreón, in the border state of Coahuila. Las Flores, the barrio where he lived, was a haven for gang activity and drug trafficking. As his parents, Carlos and Berta, both worked, Antuna spent a lot of time playing football on the uneven, unpaved lots of the Charly Soccer School, where Carlos Escandon, the school’s founder, gave him sanctuary and future.

Mexico's Uriel Antuna controls the ball during an international friendly match against Iraq.

Mexico’s Uriel Antuna controls the ball during an international friendly match against Iraq on November 9, 2022 in Girona, Spain.

(Joan Monfort / Associated Press)

“He came to this little academy where they use football to save kids. And once they know they have the talent, they start directing them to big clubs,” said Loren Fuentes, the development manager at Santos Laguna, the Torreón-based first division club. “That’s how he got here.”

At 14, Antuna was shy, polite, and slightly malnourished, making him small for his age. But he was also tremendously skilled. Normally that would mean an invitation to Santos’ youth academy but Fuentes said the club took a different path with Antuna.

“Even though we knew the family circumstances were challenging, we didn’t want to take him out of the family circle because they have a very close family,” she said. “So we had him here all day. He would come and have breakfast. He did his homework here, then he had lunch, rested a bit, had a snack and then went to training.”

Improved nutrition helped him grow, structure and routine gave him direction and discipline, and stints with Santo Laguna’s U-15, U-17 and U-20 teams gave him experience.

FILE - The branding will be on display near the Doha Exhibition and Convention Center in Doha, Qatar on March 31, 2022

⚽ World Cup 2022 in Qatar

He made his Liga MX debut as a teenager in spring 2017, signed a four-year deal with Premier League powerhouse Manchester City four months later and spent the next three years on loan in the Netherlands and MLS, where he scored a career-best goal six goals for the Galaxy in 2019.

He also made his national team debut that year, scoring a hat-trick on his second international start. It’s been a breathtakingly rapid rise from poverty to prominence, and it’s hardly slowed down. After his year with Galaxy, he returned to Mexico, splitting the next five seasons between Chivas and Cruz Azul and was the second-top scorer in the qualifying tournament for the Tokyo Olympics, where he helped Mexico to the bronze medal.

Now at 25, he is counted on to reignite an injury-plagued team that has struggled on offense. With Jesus “Tecatito” Corona is out and Raúl Jiménez is still not operational after 90 minutes. Mexico coach Tata Martino is likely to start a front line with Hirving Lozano, Henry Martín and either Antuna or Alexis Vega. Few of the combinations Martino has tried have worked lately as Mexico joined Qatar with just three wins in their last nine games. And it hasn’t beaten a World Cup qualifier in more than 14 months.

Antuna has played his part, scoring twice in his last seven games, most recently in the penultimate World Cup warm-up game against Iraq.

However, his most important work has fallen off the field, as Antuna still travels regularly to Lerdo, Charly School and Santos Laguna, where he provides both inspiration and material assistance.

“I always try to help the people who helped me before I was in Santos,” he said. “I always try to give them something to motivate them, to help them achieve what I’ve achieved.”

Uriel Antuna prepares to warm up with Mexican teammates ahead of an international match against Sweden.

Uriel Antuna prepares to warm up with Mexican teammates ahead of an international match against Sweden November 16 in Girona, Spain.

(Joan Monfort / Associated Press)

Most often that means cleats, uniforms and other football gear. At other times it meant money for food, clothing, or transportation. Among those he has helped is Alex Valencia, who grew up not far from Antuna’s childhood home and now plays at Santos academy and Mexico U-17 team.

“He brings stuff, he gave lectures to our kids,” Fuentes said. “They see him as one of us. We have his picture in the clubhouse. Now, with this selection for the national team, it’s going to be huge. He’s kind of a hero.”

For Antuna it is not about alms or even good deeds. It’s about passing on the help he got and remembering where he came from.

“These children have very few resources, so we help them,” he said. “We continue to help them so that they can achieve their dream.

“Santos helped me grow. Not only to be a good footballer, but also a good person.” How Uriel Antuna rose from impoverished background to stardom

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