Richard Sanchez's first-person account of his history-making performance at the 2011 U-17 World Cup originally appeared in the October 2011 issue of ESPNHS magazine.
The night before the World Cup began, I was so nervous I couldn't sleep. I didn't realize it was possible to be that nervous, but it certainly was for me that night. I could feel it in my body, and my mind was racing.
Part of it was pressure. Representing Mexico at the international level and having Mexico be the host country -- there's definitely high expectations. And just playing in one of the most prestigious tournaments in the world, you know that all eyes are going to be on you.
I was also thinking about my teammates and what I could do to support them and help them in any way possible. The coaches hadn't told us who would be starting yet, so I was trying to go over scenarios in my head and plan out what I would do if I was the starter or if I was a backup. I wanted to make sure I was prepared to help the team either way.
I finally did get a little bit of sleep, but it wasn't much. When we all got together the next morning, we were all asking each other, "Were you able to sleep?" Nobody was. Talking to everyone about how we all felt the same way, I think that actually helped make us all feel less nervous.
After that we had a meeting and found out who was going to be starting. They just drew the lineup on the board and said, "You guys are starting." Thank God I was in that lineup. It was something really cool, something you've worked for a long time to achieve. I was in a state of euphoria, but there was also a definite sense of relief.
It's weird because it felt like just a short while ago I was 14 and hearing about the U-17 World Cup for the first time. It was always on my mind after that, but it also felt like it was so far away it would never get here. Now all of a sudden it was about to begin.
Playing for Mexico is what feels right
I'll be honest, I do feel more Mexican than American even though I've never truly lived in Mexico. I was born in California and live in Texas now, but I was eligible to play for Mexico because my parents were born there.
My dad would always watch the Mexican league on TV. I always felt something different when I saw the Mexican flag, and I know at heart I'm Mexican.
My dad was a goalkeeper as well, so he got me playing in goal by the time I was 5. He knew the techniques and drills that could help me.
Ever since I saw Oswaldo Sanchez and Jorge Campos in front of goal for the Mexican National Team, that's when it really started for me. I grew up wanting to follow in their footsteps. It was never really a decision for me: Should I represent Mexico or should I represent USA? Playing for Mexico is what feels right.
I do have respect for America and appreciate what this country represents. I have a different perspective than my teammates. They'll say something like, "All Americans are racist." But I know that's not true at all. I tell them, "How many Americans have you met? What would you say if I told you all Mexicans are drug dealers?" It goes both ways.
It's a privilege to live here, and I'm grateful for that. I have the freedom to pursue whatever I want in this country, and because of that I try to do what I can to get people beyond the generalizations they make about both countries.
I knew what I wanted and I fought for it
A Mexican scout first noticed me when I was 10 years old playing at an Olympic Development Program tournament in Ensenada in Baja California. He kept an eye on me, and when I was 13 he gave me a call to go to a camp in Mexico.
Pretty soon after that they started talking about the U-17 World Cup. There were six or seven goalies in contention at that point, all fighting for one position. Eventually it was cut down to four, and then the final three who made the World Cup team.
About a year before the World Cup, the U.S. asked me to come in and see if I was capable of making their team. But I had already been with Mexico three years, so it was just too late to even consider it.
It was hard the first week training in Mexico because I felt like a loser who didn't have any friends. I didn't speak Spanish very well at that point, so it was tough. But that went away quickly and I made friends, and then it was just soccer.
I always had the mentality that I was the No. 1 keeper, no matter how many others were in camp. I knew what I wanted and I fought for it. No matter what happened or what anyone said, I didn't let anything change my mind that I was going to be the starter. Until someone told me I wasn't the starter or I saw a lineup written down with someone else's name, my philosophy was, "I'm starting for this team."
My hopes were falling, but I still had faith
Before the tournament started and as it was going on, one thing me and my teammates would do is picture ourselves holding the trophy after we won. I would picture myself holding the trophy -- I could see it in my hands. I think that motivated us.
Other than that, we just tried to take it minute by minute, game by game and not get caught up looking ahead. In the group stage, we just thought, "We have to beat North Korea before we can worry about Congo. We have to beat Congo before we even think about playing Holland."
Holland was one of the most exciting games I've been a part of. We were up against a European team with a great history of success. We ended up winning, 3-2, and I actually helped the team stay on track by saving a penalty. As soon as the ref blew the whistle to start the PK, it was like I could see the play coming. I knew he was going to my left, so I dove that way and made the save.
Winning that game clinched first place in the group for us. We kept the same way of thinking in the knockout stage as in the group stage, just focusing on one game at a time. We beat Panama and then France to reach the semifinals against Germany.
We were losing in the second half against Germany, 2-1. My hopes were falling, but I still had faith in my team. I tried to think positively, "We're going to pull this off. We're going to win. We're going to win." I'm pretty religious, so I was praying and praying to help us turn things around. With about 15 minutes left, we got the goal that tied it up. It was just like one of those moments that was just amazing. My jaw dropped pretty much to the floor and I ran all over celebrating.
After that, I was ready for overtime and I thought we could win it there, but with barely any time left one of our forwards, Mario Gomez, scored a scissor kick to win the game. It was incredible. When the ref blew the whistle, all the emotions came out.
This time we had an advantage
In the locker room after the Germany game, our coach told us that we had just beat one of the toughest teams in the world, but that we needed to keep our feet on the ground, forget about it and get focused on the final.
We were up against Uruguay in the final, and we knew them well. We'd played them a few times, and the results were never in our favor. The last time we played them, we lost 6-2. But this time we had an advantage. We were playing them in front of 100,000 of our fans in one of the most intimidating stadiums in the world -- Azteca.
Walking into the stadium, hearing the national anthem, hearing the fans chanting "Mexico," I can't put that feeling into words. I just know it's something no 17-year-old would ever think they could accomplish.
The game was kind of a blur. We won, 2-0, and I know I held the trophy in my hands. But it didn't feel real. It didn't really hit me until we were on the bus and the trophy was in my lap and I was taking a picture of it with my phone.
We accomplished something important
Being the first American-born player to win a FIFA tournament feels good. At first it didn't feel that important because soccer isn't as popular here as it is around the world. But to be the first is truly an honor and something I'll keep in my heart and save for the rest of my life.
I hope it's the beginning of something big for me. This is just one chapter in my life. Just because I won one tournament will not mean I have a starting position anywhere or guarantee me anything. Now it's time for the next chapter.
I give so much credit to FC Dallas for signing a 17-year-old kid. I'm just taking things day by day, so that whenever my name is called I am ready. In order for that to happen, I have to stay humble and keep working. I am still the same person I was before the World Cup, so I won't let success get to my head.
Looking back now, considering how well Mexican soccer did this summer with winning the Gold Cup and finishing third at the U-20 World Cup, I'm even more proud. With the whole situation with the cartels, being able to accomplish something like this that helps bring Mexico's reputation up -- it feels like we accomplished something important.
Even with the really bad time we may be in, Mexicans haven't lost their pride. When we have a dream, we go after that dream. There's still hope within the youth that we can make a change. It's not all about drugs and killing. We actually dream and fight for what we want.