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Soccer

Flight of the Eagle

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."

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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