Though it may sound strange, it is not too much of a stretch to say that Pablo Lopez made his first contribution to the Mexican cause years before he was named in the squad gearing up to kick off their FIFA U-17 World Cup Chile 2015 campaign this Sunday 18 October.
How is that possible? "It was during the 2011 [U-17] World Cup that Mexico won on home soil," Lopez told FIFA.com, letting out a laugh. "As a member of the Pachuca academy, I got to be a ball boy for the two matches that the team played in the city [the 2-0 victory over Panama in the Round of 16 and the 2-1 quarter final triumph over France]. I was 13; I knew I wanted to be a footballer and to represent my country, but back then I never imagined that I'd one day play in the same competition," he went on, a genuine sense of incredulity conspicuous in his tone.
This was not the first time El Tri had lifted the trophy, but the youngster's memories of the previous occasion, in 2005, are limited to the final against Brazil. As such, getting to witness everything from up close four years ago proved hugely rewarding and made a deep impression on the holding midfielder. In his words, "Hearing the crowd before walking out on to the pitch, seeing the players at that moment, the atmosphere before a big game… Things like that leave a mark on you and I want to relive them."
The anchorman will never forget a conversation he had after the 2011 tournament with Julio Gomez, another talent to come through the ranks at Pachuca and the hero of the semi-final win over Germany. "He told me that it's an amazing experience to be part of a team with the whole country rooting for you and that being a world champion is incredible. He pressed home to me that not everyone is lucky enough to have that sort of experience."
Moving into the heart of the action
Now the 17-year-old, who was born in Queretaro but has been learning his trade at Pachuca since being spotted by a scout at the age of ten, is contributing in a very different way. He has gone from retrieving the ball on the touchline to winning it back and funnelling play in the middle of the park, a task he did so impressively at this year's CONCACAF U-17 Championship in Honduras – where Mexico captured the title by beating the hosts in the final – that he earned player of the tournament honours. Lopez looked back on that achievement with modesty: "I admit that I was surprised when they read out my name, but then I realised that it was recognition for the group's efforts rather than just mine."
I prefer to play against the best, the big boys, right from the off, because you have to face them at some point.
The starlet, whose role models in his position are compatriot Hector Herrera and Spain's Andres Iniesta, does not believe he will be subject to extra attention from opposition players in Chile on account of winning this accolade. "That's never crossed my mind, but if it does happen, I'm sure it will free up one of my team-mates who'll be able to take advantage," he reasoned, his logic displaying a maturity beyond his years.
However, Lopez is aware that Mexico's 2005 and 2011 successes give them a high profile going into the event in Chile. "You can understand why some people might see us as favourites, look at us differently and maybe even study us more closely. That's a mark of respect, which is important for Mexican football, but we've worked hard to prepare for that situation," he said.
El Tri have been placed in one of the more unpredictable-looking sections of the draw, Group C, alongside Argentina, Australia and Germany. Far from complaining, though, Lopez is embracing the challenge: "We know that it'll be tough, but we're not losing any sleep over it. Anyway, I prefer to play against the best, the big boys, right from the off, because you have to face them at some point if you're going to go far. This way you get into the swing of things quicker."
Speaking of swing, this lover of reggaeton – his favourite type of music, alongside rock 'n' roll and pop – is rarely knocked off his rhythm, not even when asked about the possibility of being crowned champions. "No, I'm not daunted," he replied. "We're well prepared, like I said before, we're in a good place mentally and we feel comfortable with our game. I'm quietly confident that we can reach the final."