It is unfathomable to most to have the chance to play in the World Cup and say, 'No, thanks', yet that's the decision Mexico's Carlos Vela made in 2014.
Miguel Herrera courted the then-Real Sociedad forward but his advances were rejected. So too were all approaches made by those involved with the Mexican federation between 2012 and 2014. It doesn't seem to make sense.
Most of us never make it to any significant level in the sport, and those who do have brushes with greatness still talk about their stints with this academy or playing with that future superstar no matter how long ago those glory days came. But Vela said last week he had no regrets about the choices he made.
"Not at all because I did what I thought was right, what my heart told me I had to do, and when you do what you believe is best for yourself, you end up with a clear conscience," he said after LAFC's draw with D.C. United. "Obviously, playing in a World Cup is always beautiful, helping your team is always cool, but when you don’t think it’s time, you have a clear conscience. That’s the important thing. I don’t regret it and what I can say now is that if I don’t go (this year), bad luck. Those things can happen as well."
Lots of people around Vela have said he doesn't particularly like soccer. He's obsessed with the NBA. In Spain, he skipped training sessions to go to concerts. He vexes fans and journalists who are obsessed with the game. And he is open about the fact he views soccer as his profession rather than a game he loves.
"I think at the end of the day, it was soccer. I was never against Mexico and I’m not the most patriotic guy in the world now (that I'm with the national team)," Vela said. "At the end of the day, it’s a job. I’m going to try to do my best and the important thing is that all Mexicans enjoy."
That may frustrate the romantics who want to believe it's still about the love of the game. But put yourself in Vela's shoes. Maybe you work at a job you don't particularly enjoy, but the pay is all right, so you stick with it. Then maybe there was a moment where it all clicked and you realized it wasn't so bad.
For Vela, that moment seems to have been his winter move to join MLS expansion side Los Angeles Football Club. The switch to LAFC has led to positive results on the field, with Vela scoring seven goals and providing five assists in 12 matches. More importantly, though, Vela looks to be in the best mental state of his career. He looks, well, happy.
"It’s difficult to say I am better than before, but I am living in the moment," he said. "I feel really good, I feel mature and ready to do great things in the World Cup to help my team. I think it’s a good moment. I’m really prepared to be there, to do well, to try to make history with Mexico and I hope I can do it, that I can be in Russia and do my best to help Mexico to a great tournament."
Vela previously was surly. Now, he's willing to chat with fans outside the game and often speaks to the press post match. He earned a reputation as a party animal. Now, he's raising a son. There were concerns about how Vela would react to playing in MLS and to working under LAFC coach Bob Bradley, who is known for demanding discipline both tactically and off the field.
"I have no doubt that he'll do instantly well. I just don't know if he's Bob's cup of tea," ESPN analyst Hercluez Gomez said when the signing was announced.
"He’s been awesome. He’s been so positive as a guy, as a player," Bradley said. "Certainly at LAFC there’s been people who have been part of the organization for a few years who reached out to connect to the community that wanted to make us a team that had a special connection with the city and the diversity of the city and we know how important the Mexican-Americans are as part of this club.
"So, when we signed Carlos as the first signing and then he comes in and embraces every part of it, he’s smiling, he’s playing well, he’s into it, he’s great with his teammates. It’s awesome. I’m so excited for him now with the World Cup, but in terms of what he has brought to our club and our football and our fans? Fantastic."
Bradley's praise hints at a more mature Vela, one who not only has benefited from living in LA, where he can blend into a crowd more easily than he did in San Sebastian, but also one who is starting to take on life's challenges with a strong team behind him.
"I think it’s a culmination of things," Vela said. "At the end of the day, when you’re young you think you’re invincible. A lot of times I made the wrong choices and you learn from this, what is good, what’s bad. Having a family has helped a lot with my partner, my son. It helped me focus on soccer. That’s an important thing that they’re supporting me and with me every day."
The new and improved Vela hasn't just turned heads in LA. He's also drawn the attention of Mexico coach Juan Carlos Osorio, who is getting more and more out of the 29-year-old.
"Carlos is having a great season playing in behind the No. 9 or behind the striker, a position where we seen him playing as well as on the right side playing as a false winger," Osorio said.
The manager also has tried out Vela a bit deeper, as one of the interior midfielders in a 4-3-3, and liked the results. El Tri probably don't need him to play that role during the World Cup, but Osorio likes versatile players who give him options. Vela is exactly that.
He's also a player who Mexico fans are hoping is finally ready to give his best. Vela went to the 2010 World Cup as a 21-year-old but has been an object of hope for Mexicans since he and Giovani dos Santos helped Mexico to the 2005 U-17 World Championship in Peru.
That's the thing, though. Vela isn't an object. He's a human being with all the emotions and pressure that comes with that. Now, it looks like he's a happy man. If he's able to produce great things in Russia it may be thanks to his move to MLS – a move roundly criticized in Mexico – that he was in the physical and mental state to do so.