Mexico’s men’s national team is one of the best in the world. How you define “one of the best” is up to your interpretation, but they are the best team in CONCACAF, the 18th best in the world according to FIFA’s rankings, and always a good bet to play at least four games at every World Cup, even if they have Germany in their group. And for the last 14 years, the engine at the heart of El Tri has been Andrés Guardado, a do-it-all midfielder and, as of last year’s World Cup, the captain of the beloved national side.
On Wednesday, Guardado and Mexico took on Canada, who is decidedly not elite at soccer (well, at least the men aren’t). Though Mexico controlled the possession (ending with a very nice 69 percent on the night), Canada didn’t look overwhelmed, matching Mexico’s chance creation with their own, and looking at least a minor threat to snatch a point from the continental big bosses. Guardado had subbed on in the 37th minute, following an injury to Erick Gutiérrez, and proceeded to win man of the match honors with one of his finest performances to date for the national team.
First, with the score sitting at 1-0 Mexico in the 54th minute, the man nicknamed El Principito (“The Little Prince”) decided he had had enough of this shit, and scored the goal of the Gold Cup so far:
He would go on to tally another after Canada pulled it back to 2-1 in the 75th minute, following Lucas Cavallini’s goal with a deflected-and-post-aided score two minutes later:
Guardado is not a goalscorer. Or, rather, he’s not a prolific goalscorer (though he did tie the Mexican record for goals scored in the Gold Cup on Wednesday; he now sits at 12, tied with Luis Roberto “Zague” Alves). Playing more like the Iberian midfielder archetype, the 32-year-old is a possession machine in the center of the park, focused less on crunching tackles and more on winning the ball back with smart positioning and then pushing it forward for both club (Real Betis) and country. He’s not particularly elite at any one skill, but he is above-average at nearly everything he does: key passes (one per game last season), tackles (ditto), dribbles (also yes), and interceptions (you know where this is going).
In other words, Guardado is the player you don’t notice that makes a team go, at least until he rips left footed bombs, then you really notice him.
Playing in La Liga for most of his career (for Deportivo La Coruña, Valencia, and now Betis), Guardado found a perfect match of league and skills. In the Spanish first division, possession has trickled down from the tiki-taka of Barcelona into a league-wide philosophy, with skilled players in the center of the park capable of breaking presses and moving the ball up towards more attacking options. In that way, Guardado is one of the best foreign imports into the league, and a decidedly not Mexican-style player; El Tri’s midfielders around Guardado are more destroyers and speedsters, a la Héctor Herrera or Rodolfo Pizarro.
Having Guardado as captain and point man allows Mexico to dominate the teams they should, even as he is subbed out or left on the bench against certain dominant teams; he was taken off for former captain Rafa Marquez in the 74th minute of that famous Mexico win over Germany, with coach Juan Carlos Osorio preferring the latter’s more defensive style to preserve the 1-0 lead. But in the Gold Cup, where they face the Cubas and Canadas and Martiniques of the continent, Guardado’s ability to suffocate teams with passes and interceptions is worth its weight in silver.
With so many tournaments all over the world running concurrently right now, it’s possible that the Gold Cup takes a backseat; the Women’s World Cup is the most important, Copa América is the most ridiculous, and even the soon-to-start African Cup of Nations should be more entertaining than watching Mexico whomp Cuba 7-0. But take some time, if you can, to watch Mexico as it progresses into the knockout rounds. For them to lift their continent-leading eighth trophy, Guardado will have to be his usual versatile self, floating around tackles and pinging passes to the strike-force that is missing Chicharito Hernández (who took the tournament off for the birth of his first child). If the Canada game is any evidence, Guardado is up for the task; he always is.