Long Reads

Andrés Guardado: The Wandering Adventure of Mexico’s Little Prince

“I ask myself if the stars shine so bright to make everyone find its own one day.” This quote from the extraordinary Antoine de Saint-Exupéry novella ‘The Little Prince’ may well have been the motto of José Andrés Guardado Hernández – a kid from Guadalajara, Mexico, who wasn’t afraid to make the leap and explore Europe.

Guardado took his first footballing steps at the academies of the Guadalajara-based football side Atlas Fútbol Club at the age of seven. Soon, he stood out as one of the club’s most promising youngsters and it didn’t take him very long to debut with the seniors.

Daniel Guzmán handed him his league debut on August 20, 2005, at the age of 18 and since then the kid nicknamed El Principito – the Little Prince – didn’t look back. His wandering had just begun and along the way he would learn new things, adapt to different cultures and adjust to several positions on the pitch.

A few months after being promoted to Atlas’ seniors, Guardado also debuted for Mexico in a friendly game against Hungary. By the end of the 2006 season, he had become an undisputed starter at Atlas and was called up to participate in his first ever World Cup.

European clubs were not late to take note of his potential and sent scouts to monitor his progress. Real Madrid knocked Atlas’ door and offered the Mexican midfielder the chance to move to the Old Continent.

“[Real Madrid] made an offer to sign me for Castilla,” Guardado recalled years later in an interview for UEFA. “They were looking for Roberto Carlos’ successor at that time and yes, they wanted me to go to Castilla for six months, see my evolution and see if I could make the leap to the first team.

“At that time, I had played a World Cup and my team [Atlas] did not believe that I should go to a B team, even if it was that of Real Madrid. That same year they signed Marcelo and look at how he has progressed.

“You never know what would have happened. Maybe I would have done very well and made my debut there, or maybe not, but I would have liked to live the experience.”

Clubs such as AC Milan, Roma, Villarreal, Osasuna, Benfica and Porto also expressed their interest in signing the Mexican youngster. He ultimately decided to stay at Atlas but was aware that the moment he would spot the next shining star, he would not hesitate to follow it.

Guardado would stay for one more season and after 64 games with the Mexican side, he agreed terms to join a struggling Deportivo de La Coruña side that was slowly losing its potency in LaLiga Santander.

Atlas organised a farewell friendly game against San Lorenzo for the fans to say goodbye to Guardado who had already become a fan favourite. This was the first – but not the last – time the Little Prince would create a special bond with the supporters of a team; but more on this later.

As many as 4,000 fans welcomed him in Galicia and the Mexico international hit the ground running at Depor. He put together some impressive performances in the first stretch of the 2007/8 season, but he was hampered by injuries that sidelined him until the end of the campaign.

“For us he is a very important player,” noted Depor’s then-coach Miguel Ángel Lotina. “He has created great expectations for our fans, and that is quite good for any team. We feel that we have signed a young player but with good experience at his team and his national team.

“For us he is the benchmark. They told me that in his presentation, he created an expectation that had not been generated in several years. Guardado is one of the most important signings in the Spanish league this year.”

Although injuries tarnished him in the next couple of seasons, Guardado was one of the players that stood out at Depor. Featuring on the left-hand side of midfield, he provided the team with speed, agility and explosiveness on the counter.

However, another heavy injury prevented him from playing more than 20 games in 2010/11 and Guardado was unable to assist Deportivo’s efforts to avoid relegation after two decades in the Spanish top-flight.

Although the Galician side dropped to the Segunda, Guardado didn’t jump ship. He stayed to help them return where they belonged and that’s exactly what he did.

After registering his best scoring season with 11 goals, being voted as the fans’ player of the year and named as the league’s best midfielder, Guardado decided that the 2011/12 campaign would be his last at the club.

“It was a very beautiful spell,” he told UEFA. “It was the team that bet on me to come to Europe. I was there for five years and lived through everything. We played in Europe the first year and then got relegated.

“I experienced good, bad, irregular things, and that shaped me a lot as a person and as a professional. It was like my school as a professional.”

On 28 May 2012, Guardado joined Valencia on a four-year deal. There he became a regular starter both under Mauricio Pellegrino and his successor, Ernesto Valverde, who shifted him from midfielder to a left-back. With Los Che he made his Champions League debut in an away defeat at the hands of Bayern Munich, but the club’s ownership troubles, along with the board’s insistence to promote academy product Juan Bernat, saw Guardado falling behind in the pecking order.

He was loaned out to Bayer Leverkusen to spend the final stretch of the 2013/14 campaign but didn’t convince the Bundesliga side to trigger his purchase option.

After an impressive 2014 World Cup, he joined Valencia for their preseason preparations but following the emergence of another prodigious left-back, José Luis Gayà, he decided to find a new destination. The stars didn’t betray him this time.

PSV Eindhoven, who were interested in him since his time at Atlas, placed their confidence in the Mexican international who didn’t fail them. With the Dutch side, he won two Eredivisie titles and another two Dutch Super Cups, earning himself a place in the fans’ hearts.

Meanwhile, under Phillip Cocu he would get to better know another position on the pitch; that of the holding midfielder.

“I feel very comfortable in a position that I have never featured in before,” said Guardado. “Phillip has spoken to me. What better teacher than him, who was a great player in that position. I have learned a lot and I am happy with my performance.”

In March 2015, PSV fans paid tribute to Guardado by putting together an impressive tifo, forming the Mexican flag, and displaying a banner that read: “Andres Guardado, our golden Mexican eagle, has to stay at PSV. Our house is your house, Andres.”

PSV maintained his services for another two seasons and after four titles, 102 games, 22 assists and four goals it was time for him to depart the Dutch side.

“PSV is a second home for me, like A Coruña,” he told UEFA. “I received a lot of affection from people. I felt very important. That always gives a player confidence, makes him better in his profession. I would have stayed there longer, but I have to prioritise personal goals and I made the decision to leave.”

His objective was being fit to make it to the 2018 World Cup in Russia and Real Betis made him an offer he couldn’t turn down. Quique Setién wanted to make him an undisputed member of the starting line-up and help him clinch participation in his fourth ever World Cup.

Straightaway, Guardado was elected as one of the team’s captains, was moved to an attacking midfielder role and became a vital cog in Setién’s machine.

“He will surely be the best footballer that I will train and that I have trained so far,” the Spanish coach told MARCA. “It is not only his ability in set-pieces, his technique or tactical knowledge during a match, but the enthusiasm he transmits to the rest of his teammates. From the first moment, we knew that he was going to be an important player.”

Meanwhile, Guardado was also named captain of the Mexican national team with whom he won three CONCACAF Gold Cup trophies in 2011, 2015 and 2019.

“[Being Mexico captain] is a very big responsibility,” he told FOX Sports. “Many times, I have felt that it is too big for me, because you come to replace a lifelong captain like Rafa Márquez. You see his bearing, his hierarchy, his career, everything he has won and being his successor is a very big burden.

“I have had to speak with my teammates of greater importance within the selection to ask for help. Thanks to that I have gained very important support from all my colleagues, which in the end is what makes you or not a good leader.”

In his first season in Seville, he netted two and assisted another eight goals, as Betis managed to clinch Europa League qualification after finishing sixth in the league. The Andalusian side struggled in the next two seasons, but Guardado didn’t lose his spot in the starting eleven regardless which was the coach that guided the team from the dugout.

This time, he is chasing another star which may show him the way to one of the greatest achievements a professional player could have under his belt. Should he represent Mexico in the 2022 World Cup in Qatar, Guardado will join an exclusive club of players who have participated in as many as five World Cups, along with his compatriots and heroes Rafael Márquez and Antonio Carbajal.

The Little Prince’s wandering may continue a bit longer; at least as long as the stars show him the way. Then, he can fulfil his promise and return to Mexico to conclude his extraordinary journey and hang up boots at his beloved Atlas.

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