If someone were to put together a highlight reel of Mexico’s performances in the last three World Cups, it would include a lot of footage of goalkeeper Memo Ochoa.
There he was in 2014, making six saves — including two on close-in headers from Neymar and Thiago Silva — in a scoreless draw with Brazil. There he was in 2018, standing on his head in Russia to make nine saves against defending champion Germany in a 1-0 win. And finally, there he was Tuesday in Qatar, making a diving stop on Robert Lewandowski’s second-half penalty kick to earn Mexico a point in a scoreless draw with Poland.
“When we need Memo, he always shows up,” defender Jorge Sanchez said.
Mexico will certainly need Ochoa on Saturday when it faces Lionel Messi and Argentina, who will be out to make a statement after seeing their 36-match unbeaten streak ended in a loss to Saudi Arabia, one of the most stunning upsets in World Cup history.
“We have a tough opponent in the next game, but Mexico is also a tough opponent,” Ochoa said. “We’ve worked really hard. We’ve prepared ourselves.”
The last part, the working hard and being prepared part, is what has allowed Ochoa to play in five World Cups. No male goalkeeper has taken part in more.
“For me it’s special because not everyone can go to a World Cup. And to be in five? It’s a big number, it is historic,” he said. “But it is something personal. The most important thing is the group.”
The number five is also significant for the group though since Mexico has made it to the round of 16 in the last seven World Cups and has stalled there each time. As a result, getting to the quarterfinals and playing a fifth game, something El Tri last did in 1986, has long been a quest of the national team.
And if Mexico gets there this year, it will almost certainly be because its goalkeeper carried it there — which is odd because Ochoa never wanted to be a goalie.
“I wanted to be a striker until a coach told me, ‘No, you go to goal,’ ” he said. “They saw I did better in goal. Another coach told me the same thing. And I believed it.”
Those two coaches changed the direction of Mexican soccer since Ochoa has gone to start 132 games in goal for Mexico, most ever by a keeper.
Ochoa, who was born in Guadalajara, made his professional debut with Club América in 2003, winning the Liga MX rookie-of-the-year award that season, then leading the club to the Clausura title in the next one.
Óscar Pérez, who started in goal ahead of Ochoa in the 2010 World Cup, says it’s that experience, which includes 12 seasons in Mexico’s La Liga MX and eight more in Europe, that makes Ochoa special.
“People have confidence in him,” said Pérez, who is in Qatar working as an analyst for Telemundo. “That’s reflected in the media, among his teammates, with the fans. Memo’s a leader because of all the years he’s played a top level. He’s a great professional and that’s important for his teammates because they see that, and he becomes a good example.
“First with his play, but also with his behavior off the field.”
Ochoa is taking both roles seriously. He and midfielder Andrés Guardado, who is also playing in his fifth World Cup, have become important assets for Tata Martino, Mexico’s Argentine-born coach, who relies on their advice when setting team policy, meting out discipline and building chemistry in the dressing room.
That has proved important on a team that is the second oldest in Qatar, yet includes 16 players who are making their World Cup debuts.
“As one of the experienced players, the way to help them is to make them feel normal, give them peace of mind so that the stress does not work against them, so that the Mexican crest on their shirt does not weigh them down,” Ochoa said. “It often happens that players who are very good in their clubs and in the national team are not the same and you have to try to bring them together and calm them.”
Ochoa, 37, has also aged well, giving up less than a goal a game over his last three seasons with Club América, the best stretch of his career, while winning an Olympic bronze medal last year in Tokyo. Yet he shines brightest on the biggest stage, the World Cup. In his nine starts there, his teammates have given him only eight goals, yet Mexico has lost only three of those games.
And that has Ochoa thinking of a sixth World Cup in 2026, when the tournament will be shared by Mexico, the U.S. and Canada.
“It’s not that far away,” he said. “Yes, I see myself playing professional soccer and I see myself available for the national team. It would be very nice to close my career with a World Cup in Mexico.”
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.