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Commentary: Investing in youth pays off for Mexico

GUADALAJARA, Mexico — For the often-maligned CONCACAF region, Mexico's victory in the U-17 World Cup was a big deal.

South American and European teams have dominated men's soccer for generations, so the raw emotion of just under 100,000 screaming Mexican fans provided an excellent advertisement for the region to FIFA chiefs in attendance.

Mexico's victory was no fluke either. Over the past two decades, culminating in the 2005 U-17 World Cup title in Peru by beating Brazil in the final, Mexican soccer came to its senses. A number of clubs started seriously investing in their youth systems, and now it’s starting to pay.

Just look at the most prominent performers for Mexico during the campaign and the youth systems their clubs have in place.

The head-bandaged hero Julio Gómez is from the border state of Tamaulipas, but the man-of-the-tournament plays at Pachuca where there is a soccer university. Dutch maestro Hans Westerhof — the interim coach at Chivas USA back in 2005 — has recently been installed as director of youth development.

Striker Carlos Fierro has been brought up at all-Mexican Chivas de Guadalajara, where owner Jorge Vergara regularly tells fans that new first-team “signings” will come from the youth system. There has been heavy investment in the youth setup since Vergara took charge in 2002.

Across town at Atlas, there has long been a tradition of developing top players. Rafa Márquez, Pável Pardo and Andrés Guardado are just a few to have come from the Zorros. In the same tradition, Mexico captain Antonio Briseño gave assured performances throughout the tournament and looks set for great things. For Atlas, without a title since 1951, the production of players is vital for the club's income.

Finally, there is the case of Tigres UANL midfielder Jorge Espericueta, given the award for the tournament's second-best player. Tigres are not a club known for producing many top players. However, since Dutchman Dennis te Kloese took over in 2008, there has been an infrastructural overhaul in the club's youth system. Espericueta is part of the result.

From a Yank perspective, there is also a group of five young Mexican-Americans champing at the bit to get into the Tigres first team (more about this in Thursday's Postcard from Mexico). All four have received interest from European clubs, according to Mexican press reports.

Then there is case of the talented American 'keeper between the sticks for Mexico, Richard Sánchez. Born in Southern California, Sánchez plays with FC Dallas but has rejected offers to play for US youth teams in favor of Mexico.

Sánchez thanked FC Dallas and his family and friends in California in an interview with Mexican TV straight after the game. He has stated that he left Atlético Madrid in 2009 because of the problems he had learning in Spain. Having been brought up in the United States education system, in English, Sánchez and his family decided to move back to the US.

Although Sánchez can switch allegiances to the US, it would take some persuading for the world champion to turn his back on Mexico, especially after the wild scenes of celebration after the game. More likely for Sánchez is a move back to Europe, at least according to some press reports in Mexico.

On a more positive side for the US, FIFA President Sepp Blatter stated on his recent trip to Mexico that it is very possible the 2026 World Cup will be based in the CONCACAF region. That can only be a good thing for this part of the world as a whole.

Tom Marshall can be reached at tom.marshall.mex@gmail.com or via Twitter: @mexicoworldcup