Player Spotlight: Vazquez an unlikely star for Mexico in World Cup

The Mexican midfielder is happy he passed up an opportunity to head to the United States as a teenager after earning an unlikely spot in El Tri's starting lineup.
If Mexico midfielder Jose Juan Vazquez had not been a footballer, the 26-year-old would likely now be in the United States.

The player had a simple, but life-changing decision to make as a teenager when his brother asked him to join him in traveling north of the border and leave his community of Roque, Guanajuato — close to Celaya — behind.

“I didn’t see any future here (in Roque),” Vazquez told ESPN earlier this year. “I was in the street and (my brother) just had his backpack and said, ‘What’s up? Are you coming or staying?’”

Vazquez thought about it, but declined. He has been richly rewarded for his decision since, especially in what has been a dream 2014.

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Brazil 2014 was never supposed to be Vazquez’s World Cup.

Sure, Mexico’s holding midfield, standing just 5-foot-5, came into the tournament off the back of consecutive Liga MX title wins with Club Leon, but at the turn of last year, he’d never been called into a national team squad, not even the domestic-based one that conquered New Zealand to book El Tri’s Brazil 2014 place.

Two years back from Mexico’s critical game against Croatia on Monday, Vazquez hadn’t even played one minute in the Liga MX and had only just won promotion to the first division with Leon.

But when Jesus Zavala had a nightmare match against the United States in April in Glendale, Arizona, Juan Carlos Medina got injured before the warm-up games and Hector Herrera proved a much better bet in a more attacking midfield role, Vazquez’s opportunity arrived.

“There’ve been circumstances that opened up the possibility (of him playing) and he has 100 percent taken advantage,” said Mexico coach Miguel Herrera on Friday in a news conference.

Mexico ‘keeper Guillermo Ochoa took the headlines against Brazil on Tuesday for his saves, but Vazquez was also in sublime form, covering 33,000 feet over the 90 minutes and positioning himself well to counter the significant threat the host nation possesses.

There may have been complaints about Brazil’s creativity from the press in the South American nation, but that was at least in part due to Vazquez’s performance.

At the other end of the field, “Gallito” (Rooster) — for his hairstyle as a baby — came as close as anyone in a Mexico shirt to scoring with a couple of long-range efforts.

It has not been an easy road for Vazquez to get into the position he is now in, from a childhood tainted by poverty.

“It was very sad not having enough to wear, not having enough to eat,” said Vazquez in the same interview with ESPN. “They were very difficult and sad moments.”

Vazquez worked in the fields, a bakery and even as a laborer as an adolescent in order to “earn bread each day.”

Even when he first trained as a youngster at nearby second-division club Celaya, he admitted he didn’t feel comfortable due to other kids having better trainers, more money and nicer clothes.

“It made me embarrassed and I thought, ‘This isn’t for me,’” he said.

Like in the last match against Brazil, this Monday, locals in Celaya will gather around a big screen that the municipal government has erected especially to watch the hometown hero.

They will cheer on Vazquez attempting to stop Real Madrid’s Luka Modric, new Barcelona signing Ivan Rakitic and Inter Milan’s Mateo Kovacic from controlling the midfield. And if Gallito plays anything like he did against Cameroon and Brazil, he’ll again be one of Mexico’s heroes, even if he is an unlikely one.

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