Mexico entered the 2011 Gold Cup as favorites to win the tournament and lived up to expectations by defeating the United States in the final. There were plenty of bumps in the road -- most notably the United States' early two goal lead in the final -- but they showed their class and upstaged the Americans with a stellar final 60 minutes, in which they netted four goals. Little did anyone know that this was going to be the first of many great achievements in a banner year for Mexican football.
The Under-17 World Cup, hosted by Mexico, kicked off while the Gold Cup was still ongoing. The hosts surged through the tournament flawlessly, winning every single one of their seven games without requiring extra time. A group of talented teenagers got the opportunity to play in front of nearly 100,000 El Tri supporters in their fantastic performance against Uruguay, a 2-0 victory.
Five of the players on that team, none of whom have yet reached their 19th birthday, are already playing regularly for their club teams. Giovani Casillas and Carlos Fierro are considered to be the future of Chivas Guadalajara, while Julio Gomez and Marco Bueno have earned the same distinction at Pachuca. The captain of that team, Antonio Briseño, is already a first team player for Atlas.
The summer of 2011 ended with the Under-20 World Cup, where Mexico placed third. It was their first run to the semifinals of the competition since the inaugural FIFA World Youth Championships back in 1977. Diego Reyes, Jorge Enriquez and Nestor Araujo have made the jump up from the under-20 level to the under-23 level, with Reyes and Enriquez emerging as starters for the under-23 team.
A year after those three successes, Mexico plays Brazil for the gold medal at the London 2012 Olympics on Saturday. Even if they fail to beat Brazil, these games are already a success for El Tri. They entered the tournament as a dark horse for a medal, predicted to finish behind Spain, Great Britain and Uruguay. They've outlasted all of those teams and are already guaranteed to win their first ever Olympic medal in football.
Reyes and Enriquez are not only expected to start on Saturday, but are expected to slowly be phased into the senior national team. The immediate future could hold a similar fate for Hector Herrera, the best player at the Toulon Tournament before the Olympics, as well as Chivas star Marco Fabian and Tigres right back Israel Jimenez.
Mexico has top players at every single level of their system, and they already have an immediate history of bringing them up the ladder, from the under-17 squad to the senior squad. There will be high expectations on the stars from the Under-17 World Cup at the Under-20 World Cup in the summer of 2013, and the players currently playing in the Olympics will be expected to make an impact for El Tri's senior side during Olympic qualifiers.
At every age level, players are coming up the pipeline for Mexico. At every age level, they have a history of playing regularly and winning big games at both club and international level. The same cannot be said for any team in CONCACAF, or for any team in South America outside of Brazil.
Success at youth level is not always an indicator of success at senior level, but Mexico's youth international stars are already playing regularly for their club sides, and their senior team is already the best in CONCACAF. Mexico isn't waiting on a great generation of youngsters to save them, but there are some holes to be filled in their national side for them to be competitive with the world's best, not just CONCACAF's best. The conditions are perfect for some of Mexico's under-20 and Olympic stars to be blended into the senior side over the next World Cup qualifying cycle so that, come 2014, the likes of Reyes, Enriquez, Herrera and Fabian are ready to play on the biggest stage, against the best in the world.
This has been the greatest 12 month period in the history of Mexican football, and there's no reason that they can't expand on that success. Win or lose on Saturday, the Under-17 World Cup, Under-20 World Cup, Gold Cup and Confederations Cup await El Tri in 2013. They will be expected to be competitive in all four competitions, and the continued development of their young stars in those competitions will give 'Chepo' Jose Manuel de la Torre a massive pool of experienced and seasoned young talent that he can choose from to fill out his squad for the 2014 World Cup.
For news and features ahead of our live coverage of the final, follow along with our Mexico vs. Brazil, 2012 Olympics men's soccer final StoryStream. For more on Mexican football, head over to FMF State of Mind.