Who will be Mexico's leader at the World Cup? With Rafa Marquez doubtful to make the trip to Russia, both for legal and sporting reasons, some have wondered who will provide the veteran leadership that can be so important at a World Cup. The question doesn't linger long because the answer is clear. Andres Guardado is the perfect man to lead El Tri this summer.
Too often we conflate 'leadership' with being old. There's an element of experience, but it's also about how a leader relates to others and how they approach challenges. On the soccer field, you also want someone at the top level whose play will command the respect of his teammates. Guardado has it all.
Currently sitting at 145 caps, the 31-year-old could move into sole possession of second place all-time on Mexico's list this month. He'd need to see the field in both Friday's friendly against Iceland and next week's game against Croatia. Over the long haul, he has a chance to surpass Claudio Suarez's 177 appearances and become Mexico's most-capped player. Russia will mark his fourth World Cup. His first came back in 2006 when a 19-year-old "Principito" suited up for Ricardo La Volpe's team in Germany. He lived through the frustration of playing little in 2010 and thrived under Miguel Herrera in 2014.
He's set for another big tournament. Guardado has been a consistent presence with Quique Setien's Real Betis this season, though he's gone through a few injuries at the start of 2018. "I think the middle of the field is fundamental for a team to interpret the game," Setien said earlier this season, highlighting Guardado's ability to play in different midfield roles.
Guardado has settled into the left interior midfield spot in Mexico manager Juan Carlos Osorio's 4-3-3, a bit more withdrawn than he plays with the La Liga side but in a role suiting his skillset. Osorio wants players who can pass both short and long in the midfield, and Guardado adds the ability to win duels.
"I've changed quite a lot compared to that long-haired youngster, who started out on the left flank," Guardado told FIFA's official website when reflecting on his first World Cup. "I used to be more of a box-to-box player, who took people on and got on the end of moves. Now, I'm a central midfielder and hold my position more; I bring balance to the team. What's still the same, though, is my hunger, my drive to win both individually and as a team. That's what's kept me at the highest level"
Those are the kind of lessons he can deliver to a player like Jonathan Gonzalez, who has the potential to go to the World Cup like Guardado did and make the jump across the Atlantic. Guardado also has played a role in making sure Hirving Lozano adapted well to PSV, the club where Guardado won two Eredivisie titles.
Does Marquez have more experience on the club level? Has he had a longer career? Yes and yes. Yet, it's tough to see a place for Marquez in Mexico's roster with his current form. Should he be able to travel to Russia in light of the sanctions levied against him by the U.S. Treasury Department, Marquez has plenty to give to the team. His leadership style always has been more forceful, though. Guardado can be equally firm but has displayed an incredibly positive outlook toward the upcoming tournament. That attitude has permeated through the team.
"Everything starts with believing and dreaming and this doesn't cost anything," Guardado told AS earlier this year. "The change of mentality and the titles for Spain came on the back of a lot of failures.
"In Mexico we have to say it without fear: 'We can be champions of the world.' From there, if we we compete at the same level with everyone, the best will come. Greece was the champion of a Euro. If we believe it, we're closer to getting there than if we don't believe it."
His body of work stands as testimony that belief alone won't win trophies. It also requires effort, sacrifice and talent. That's the mentality Mexico needs, though. In a country where criticism is often louder than an encouraging word, Guardado's confidence in the group and in the locker room will be welcomed by players like Lozano, Carlos Salcedo and Jesus Corona who will all be at their first World Cup.
If Marquez is in Russia as an adviser, his voice also will provide comfort. He won't be able to provide what El Tri need on the field, though. Leadership can be a team effort, but if there's a time when Mexico needs someone to step up and say the right thing or provide a good example, it's clear who that should be. Guardado is the man El Tri need to lead them into Russia this summer.