TORREON, Mexico — It’s naturally a bitter disappointment whenever a player is forced to miss a World Cup due to injury, but the news on Wednesday that Nestor Araujo will not be part of Mexico’s squad that travels to Russia was particularly cruel.
The 26-year-old center-back almost didn’t make it as a pro and has gone through more ups and downs in his career than most seasoned veterans. As a teenager in Cruz Azul’s youth system, Araujo was close to packing his bags and returning to his native Guadalajara, convinced that his goal of making it as a professional was simply not going to come to fruition.
But there was one lingering factor that Araujo knew, deep down, forbade his return despite badly missing his family and his struggle to survive on around $145 a month: Araujo simply didn’t want to give his mother the “bronca” of having an extra mouth to feed. He knew times were hard for his family, and another financial bronca — best translated here as “problem” — was the last thing they needed. Araujo also knew that making it in Mexico’s first division was potentially a way to ease his family’s difficult economic situation.
His decision paid huge dividends. Araujo has since established himself as one of Mexico’s best defenders and he would have been almost a guaranteed starter for Mexico in Russia, perhaps the only one based in Liga MX. If he’d been part of the World Cup squad, head coach Juan Carlos Osorio was tipping him to use the tournament as a springboard.
“As a center-back, [Araujo] has all the ingredients to be in Europe,” said Osorio to ESPN FC in a recent interview. “He’s very good in the air, his speed and physical condition is good enough to compete and with the ball he is very assertive, looking for passes, trying to skip the next line of pressure.”
“I think if we do have a good World Cup, he’ll be the next player [to go to] Europe.”
Those comments were obviously before Araujo’s injury took a turn for the worse. Everything had pointed to Araujo recovering from the March 27 left knee injury and making it to Russia 2018, but tendonitis has robbed him of his chance to perform on the biggest stage.
Talking to Araujo for almost an hour back in April, sitting in the plush Santos Laguna press room in Torreon, his hopes for Russia were high and the defender was in good spirits, doing double sessions daily to be ready. The more he talked, the more difficult it was to believe he was only 26 years old. Araujo broached topics ranging from winning Olympic gold to bouts of ill-discipline earlier in his career. He sounded like a veteran and missing the World Cup adds an extra chapter to what has been, at times, a difficult road.
Araujo was a football-mad child, but it wasn’t like he had the carefree luxury of playing outside from dawn to dusk. In order to find time to play, he made a simple deal with his mother: If Araujo helped her with her seafood stall outside the family home in the working class neighborhood of Mezquitan Country in Guadalajara, he could play football after school before returning to help again at night.
Before the street-side seafood stand, Araujo’s mother had a stall at a tianguis (street market) selling children’s clothes, while Araujo’s father worked in a separate seafood stall for 35 years. Araujo’s brother Felix, the main influence in Nestor’s career and his close confidant, used to help his mother too but when the family was forced to sell the stand due to financial problems and Felix left to enter Cruz Azul’s youth system, Araujo and his twin sister had to step up.
Like millions of Mexican families, the different generations came together, chipped in and grafted to put food on the table for everyone.
“[My mom] started to sell seafood outside our house,” said Araujo in an exclusive interview with ESPN FC in Spanish. “Then she sold hamburgers, dinners, tacos in the morning, then raspados (flavored frozen drinks), ice cream and almost everything. All types of food! She did so to be able to have something for us to eat.”
Before Araujo became a teenager his days were already hectic, although he almost always did the chores with a ball at his feet.
“When we sold seafood, I woke up at 6.30 a.m. to go to the seafood market to accompany my mom, then to the tianguis to buy the vegetables. After that, prepare the food, get out all the things for the tables and then I’d go to school. After school I’d come back and we’d continue to help.”
“I never didn’t have anything to eat, but the situation was difficult.”
Sometimes at weekends, Nestor would accompany the rest of his family to Estadio Jalisco, but it wasn’t a family outing to watch their favorite team, Chivas. Instead, Nestor and his five siblings, his mother and father would get in line from 7 a.m. in the morning to buy tickets, hoping to sell them on to people later on for a “tip.”
“In time, the sellers recognized us and didn’t sell to us. They kicked us out of the line!”
It wouldn’t be long before Araujo’s path to playing in stadiums like “el Jalisco” became clearer. He followed in his brother’s footsteps by signing for Cruz Azul and entering the Mexico City club’s youth system at the age of 14, but that didn’t mean he’d made it.
Araujo, a tall and powerful center-back, scaled up through the youth teams but three years into his career at Cruz Azul, he fractured his fibula and seriously damaged his ankle ligaments when making a sliding tackle.
“I didn’t know what to do,” said Araujo, who was earning around $270 per month by that point and was able to send a little back to his mom in Guadalajara. “The physiotherapists don’t take you into account as much because they’re with the first-team players, so it was very frustrating.”
It was then that he enrolled in a high school and finished his education just in case he had to return to Guadalajara and find a job outside football. “They were the six or eight most difficult months that I’ve had as a player and, of course, you don’t know whether you will be OK, if [the club] will want you or if they’ll fire you.”
There’s a naturalness about Araujo. He’s polite, has an understated demeanor and doesn’t sugar-coat his career. Araujo talks of Olympic gold in 2012 not meaning as much as Santos Laguna’s 2015 Apertura title, for example. Other non-playing members of that squad would probably say an Olympic gold medal was their greatest achievement.
There are also moments in his career in which he freely admits he let himself down and you get the feeling that without those lows, he may not be a Mexican national team regular today.
Araujo’s career was fast-tracked by coach Enrique Meza, who debuted him for Cruz Azul at age 19 on Sept. 18, 2010 against Queretaro. By the Apertura 2011 and Clausura 2012, Araujo was a regular center-back for Cruz Azul, one of Mexico’s “big four” clubs. But then the minutes suddenly dried up.
“When Enrique Meza left, Guillermo Vazquez came in,” explained Araujo. “I started to not look after myself. I didn’t rest properly. I didn’t eat as I should and in the end, football catches you out and I was put on the bench.
“Now I’m much more mature. I know what is right and what is wrong. [It was] never alcohol or anything like that. [It was] sleeping at 1 or 2 a.m., eating before bed, arriving at training 20 mins beforehand. Now I arrive two hours before. I used to go to the shopping mall instead of having a siesta.”
It was his brother and mentor Felix who gave Nestor more than a gentle reminder of where they had come from to wake the younger sibling up. “Felix was the one who gave me slaps in the face with his words,” said Araujo, who gets a little emotional when he talks of his big brother’s influence. “He straightened me out and I started to become happier and started to enjoy football and life more.”
A move to Santos Laguna in June 2013 rejuvenated his career. And although many have criticized Cruz Azul for letting go of a defender who is now making waves, Araujo doesn’t blame the club.
“Now I hear many people saying that Cruz Azul made a bad decision because it let me go but I think that I let Cruz Azul down because I didn’t know how to behave as I should,” said Araujo.
Araujo is one of Mexico’s few physically imposing players and his aerial ability attracted Mexico coach Osorio early in his reign. Araujo had made his national team debut as part of a young Mexican squad at the 2011 Copa America in Argentina but it has been under Osorio that he’s become an established international.
Osorio called Araujo into the squad for the February 2016 friendly against Senegal and made him captain straight away. “I remember that I told him that if he didn’t trust me, if he had any doubt that I could be captain not to make me it,” said Araujo. “In the end, he made me captain.”
You wouldn’t rule Araujo out of becoming a future Mexico captain, either. Aside from his aerial ability, Osorio has been impressed with the assertive way the center-back plays out from the back and his boldness in changing play through longer balls out to the wing.
“I remember in the first call-up, [Osorio] asked me to change the direction of play a lot and honestly that’s what I did in the first game, even sometimes when it wasn’t so clear I did it,” said Araujo. “I suppose he liked that I was trying to do what he told me.”
There have already been rumors linking Araujo to the Bundesliga. He said he is mentally ready for the challenge of playing in Europe and the ideal league he’d like to test himself in is the Premier League. Featuring in games like El Tri‘s friendly against Belgium last November whet his appetite to play in Europe if the chance comes around.
But those hopes and dreams will have to wait. It’s back to the treatment table for Araujo right now, although given his past, you don’t doubt he’ll come back even stronger following this latest blow.
Tom Marshall covers Liga MX and the Mexican national team for ESPN FC. Twitter: @MexicoWorldCup.