MARACAIBO, Venezuela - If a week is a long time in politics, a month is an eternity in football. Just ask Nery Castillo.
The Olympiakos striker made his debut for Mexico on June 2 against Iran. In the weeks since he has won seven caps, helped Mexico to the Gold Cup Final in the US, and scored the winner in a shock victory over Brazil. In doing so he has shot to attention as one of the brightest young stars to appear on the world stage in years. 'I was lucky enough to win the league again with Olympiakos and I am lucky to be here with the national team achieving important goals and that makes this the most important moment of my career,' Castillo said after his goal against Ecuador helped Mexico become the first team to secure a quarter final spot in this year's Copa America. 'I am taking advantage of it and trying to give my all on the field so that I can keep contributing.' Castillo has been the sensation of the Copa so far. Before the tournament started, Lionel Messi was the odds-on favourite to be the most talked about youngster. But at this early stage Castillo's speed, work ethic and of course his goals have eclipsed even Messi, who starred in Argentina's 4-1 win over the United States but was less effective in the 4-2 defeat of Colombia. The ultimate compliment for Castillo came a day after his explosive pace helped him to a poacher's goal against Ecuador and Mexico to their second win in two games: interest from Chelsea. Castillo's father and agent said Chelsea, along with clubs from Spain and Italy, were seeking to lure his son to Europe's big leagues. That may happen, especially if he keeps up the run of form, but right now Castillo Snr. wants his son to concentrate on the national side and the youngster would do well to heed his advice. Because for all the goals and magic moments, the 23-year old still has to prove to Mexicans he really loves the green shirt. Three countries wanted Castillo's signature on their registration and it was only recently he opted to represent the country of his birth. He was born in the Mexican city of San Luis Potosi - his father played for the local side - but his parents returned to Uruguay when he was just three years old and he made his professional debut for local club Danubio at age 15. His talent was clear and he almost signed for Manchester United as a 16-year old. However, the deal fell through because he could not get a work visa and he instead put pen to paper for Greek club Olympiakos. His long stay in Greece means he is about to win Greek citizenship and they, along with both Mexico and Uruguay wanted him for their national side. But Castillo dithered in deciding where his future lay and although Greece reportedly offered to pay him $1million to wear the blue and white shirt earlier this year he eventually decided on Mexico; his decision swayed by his close friendship with Giovani dos Santos, Barcelona's young Mexican prospect, and a phone call from idol and new Mexico manager Hugo Sanchez. That led to grumbling he was an opportunist and it overshadowed his decision for the longest time. Castillo is aware that many Mexicans were unhappy with his reluctance to pledge an early allegiance to the flag and he this week appealed to them to put the matter behind them and unite. 'For a long time people spoke about why I didn't play and I think they should stop concentrating on that and support the side and together we can do great things,' he said. Castillo's rise comes as Mexico once again show the rest of the continent they have the potential to rival the big powers of Brazil and Argentina. For decades, Mexico flattered to deceive. Although football is a passion to Mexicans, their geographic location among the minnows of the Caribbean and Central America prevented them from testing themselves against the more experienced sides of South America for many years. That changed in the 1990s, when the national side was invited to take part in the Copa America and club sides were allowed into the Copa Libertadores. In both tournaments, the Mexicans have shown they can compete, with the national side reaching at least the semi-final stage in four of its seven Copas and club sides frequently reaching the same stage in the Libertadores.
GettyImagesThe Mexican youngster has impressed in the Copa America.
By testing themselves at a higher level, they have improved tactically and their players have been pursued by European clubs for the first time. In addition to Castillo, Pavel Pardo and Ricardo Osorio play at VfB Stuttgart, Carlos Salcido is at PSV Eindhoven and their captain Rafael Marquez, probably the best known Mexican player since Hugo Sanchez, has been a standout in the heart of the Barcelona defence for years. Only Marquez is with the team at the Copa America, with Sanchez allowing the others time off after the Gold Cup. But as the week's results have shown, those that have traveled to Venezuela are more than good enough replacements. They are not the favourites, and they will be wary of Argentina, who knocked them out of the World Cup last year. But as Castillo wisely pointed out, they have started well and aim to get better. 'We can't say that we are here to be champions,' he said after the 2-1 win over Ecuador. 'We need to be humble and if we are calm we will take it step by step and eventually affirm that we are here to do something.'
GettyImages / CliveMasonRafael Marquez has pointed the way to emigration to Europe.