Flight of the Eagle
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
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
"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
"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
It must be hard for him to stay grounded, considering he is the best keeper Mexico has produced since
"Memo is already a leader. He has exceptional talent," says
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
After the final of the Copa Sudamericana between
"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
"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
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.