Mexico has a proud history at the U17 World Cup.
Qualifying for the tournament in 14 of its 19 iterations, El Tri’s U17 group have triumphed on two occasions; defeating Brazil 3-0 at Peru 2005 and downing Uruguay 2-0 in front of 98,943 fans – a U17 World Cup record – on home soil in 2011.
Alas for them, their quest to add a third trophy in Monday’s final were dashed after Brazil, down 1-0 entering the final fifteen minutes, roared back with two late goals by Kaio Jorge and Lazaro to claim their fourth U17 World Cup and join their opponents as the only nations to lift the trophy on home soil.
Nonetheless, despite the pain in the young Mexico players still being raw, focus for their federation must already turn toward taking this group of players and finding a core group that can be groomed for bigger and better things with the senior national side.
Such a concept is easier said than done at a U17 level, with the ability of Mexico’s previous World Cup-winning players to develop into consistent performers for Mexico’s senior national side demonstrating the contrasting fortunes that could await.
El Tri’s 2005 Cup-winning side was able to produce nine players that went on to earn senior caps for their nation including three – former PSV defender Héctor Moreno, LAFC attacker Carlos Vela and former Barcelona attacker Giovani dos Santos – that went on to record over 70 appearances.
Interestingly, and indicative of the challenges in identifying talent in the U17 cohort, Mexico’s most famous export in recent years in Javier Hernández – Chicharito – was not a member of that squad despite being eligible; having to wait until U20 level to receive his first national team cap.
In contrast to the 2005 squad, only two members of the group that triumphed at the Estadio Azteca in 2011 have gone on to play for Mexico’s senior national side and neither - Club de Fútbol Monterrey’s Alfonso González and Helsingin Jalkapalloklubi’s Marco Bueno – have cracked double-digit appearances.
Regardless, though, of just how many senior caps his 2019 teammates can produce in the years to come - although former Wellington Phoenix academy player Eugenio Pizzuto looks a good bet to kick on - the pathway ahead of silky left-footed attacker Efrain Álvarez appears to be bright.
While none of Australia’s players at the U17 World Cup has attained anything even approaching what one would describe as sporadic minutes at a senior level, Mexico’s phenom will now return back to clubland having played 516 MLS minutes with LA Galaxy in 2019; 194 more minutes than Sydney FC gave to all its players aged 21 and under in the 2018/19 A-League season.
Netting four goals and two assists at Brazil 2019, the youngster’s sublime equalising free-kick against the Netherlands in the semifinal was not only enough to keep his nation's hopes of World Cup glory alive but also served as a fitting highlight to a tournament in which he truly established himself as a highly-rated international prospect.
The son of Mexican immigrants Cresencio and Alicia, 17-year-old Álvarez was born in the sprawling metropolis of Los Angeles and raised in the City Terrace district of East L.A.
Frankly, East L.A. wasn’t the easiest, or safest, place to grow up; Álvarez telling ESPN in September that "[City Terrace] was a little scary; you couldn't walk around later than 8 p.m. or so. You could, but it was risky. There were a lot of gangs around us, so [my father] tried to help us avoid that with soccer the priority to get out of there."
Fortunately for father Cresencio, his son’s skills on the football field were never in doubt.
At just seven-years-old, the future Galaxy prodigy was playing with the U9s side of New York Cosmos West and caught the eye of French legend Eric Cantona.
Ostensibly there to observe the U17 and U19 sides of Cosmos West, the gruff Cantona grew frustrated with the talent presented to him and instead began to cast his view over the other junior sides in training.
His eyes settling on Álvarez with the U9s, the Manchester United legend reportedly proclaimed, “I’ve seen enough; I just want to watch this kid all day.”
Just over seven-years later from what, admittedly, could be a highly embellished story, the then 15-year-old Álvarez made history when he broke the record of now-Bayern Munich winger Alphonso Davies as the youngest signing in USL history in inking a deal with LA Galaxy II – the reserve side of LA Galaxy.
Winning the 2018 USL Young Player of the Year award after scoring 12 goals and notching three assists in 17 appearances, a transition to the LA Galaxy’s senior team began in 2019; the youngster making 18 appearances across all competitions for a squad also featuring a certain Zlatan Ibrahimović.
Debuting off the bench on matchday one, the then 16-year-old provided a gorgeous assist for Daniel Steres’ equaliser as the Galaxy came from behind to defeat Chicago Fire 2-1.
On matchday 18, he delivered a cross that Ibrahimović headed home to open the scoring in Galaxy’s 2-0 win over Toronto and, on matchday 28, he delivered the assist that enabled the Swedish superstar to make it 7-1 over Sporting Kansas City.
"In MLS, he’s by far the biggest talent from everybody because he thinks football,” Ibrahimović said after the win over Toronto.
“He has that football in him. It’s natural. It didn’t come from him training or something. He’s not afraid to take action. He plays with a lot of confidence. Mistakes come, but we all make mistakes."
Theoretically, the above statements could easily be dismissed as a veteran player giving a pump-up to a young player looking to break into the team - a canned platitude that is dime a dozen across dressing rooms throughout the footballing world.
Yet, when one considers the forthrightness that Ibrahimović conducted himself with during his time in America – his statements on MLS MVP Vela spring to mind – and the fact that he is… well…. Zlatan, the comments begin to carry more weight.
With a promising club pedigree, impressive performance at the U17 World Cup and previous endorsements from the likes of Cantona and Ibrahimović, it should surprise nobody that Álvarez is the subject of heavy interest from both the United States and Mexican federations.
The LA-born Mexican representative was previously brought into the national junior setup of the US at a young age and at one point even serving as captain of the U15 side.
However, a falling out with the USSF – the acrimoniousness of which are the subject of conflicting reports from the Americas – opened the door for Mexico to aggressively stake a claim on the youngster.
Proceeding to make the switch from the land of his birth to that of his parents, Álvarez place at the U17 World Cup would seemingly indicate that El Tri is in the box seat to secure his services at a senior international level thanks to both the fact that he would now be forced to switch his international registration should he wish to switch back to the US and that he is now subject to the emotional pull that playing in a World Cup final – albeit a junior one – holds.
Yet, regardless of where that much sought after international future lies – recent reports from Mexico and the United States indicating that, while Mexico is confident of retaining him, Álvarez remains undecided on his senior international future – his is a star is on the rise.