Soccer has taken Uriel Antuna to places he never imagined. To the medal stand at the Tokyo Olympics. To Clubs in the Netherlands, England and the US Now to Qatar, where he’ll likely make his World Cup debut Tuesday when Mexico opens group play against Poland.
“Very happy to be achieving a dream that I set for myself from a very young age,” he said in Spanish.
Yet no matter how far he’s roamed and how high he’s climbed, Antuna has never forgotten where he came from and who helped him.
“My parents, my grandparents have always instilled that in me since they were the first people who were with me,” he said.
They weren’t the only ones. If it takes a village to raise a child, it can take considerably more than that to raise a World Cup soccer player. Which is why Antuna makes it a point to go back to the city where he grew up and to Santos Laguna, the Mexican club that gave him his start, to mentor kids who, like him, have a dream but little else in their lives.
Antuna grew up poor in Lerdo, about 10 miles outside Torreón, in the border state of Coahuila. Las Flores, the barrio where he lived, was a haven of gang activity and drug trafficking. Since his parents, Carlos and Berta, both worked, Antuna spent much of his time playing soccer on uneven dirt lots at the Charly Soccer school, where Carlos Escandon, the school’s founder, gave him both refuge and a future.
“They got into this little academy where they use soccer to rescue kids. And once they know that they have the talent, they start like funneling them to big clubs,” said Loren Fuentes, the development manager at Santos Laguna, the first-division club in Torreón. “That’s how he got here.”
At 14, Antuna was shy, polite and slightly malnourished, which left him small for his age. Yet he was also immensely skilled. Normally that would mean an invitation to live at the Santos youth academy, but Fuentes said the club took a different route with Antuna.
“Even though we knew that the family circumstances were challenging, we didn’t want to take him out of the family circle because they have a very close-knit family,” she said. “So we had him here the whole day. They would come here, have breakfast. He did his schoolwork here, then he had lunch, rested for a while, had a snack and then went to training.”
The improved diet helped him grow, the structure and routine gave him direction and discipline, and stints with Santo Laguna’s U-15, U-17 and U-20 teams gave him experience.
He made his Liga MX debut as a teenager in the spring of 2017, signed a four-year contract with Premier League Powerhouse Manchester City four months later and spent the next three years playing on loan in the Netherlands and in MLS, where he scored a career-high six goals for the Galaxy in 2019.
He also made his national team debut that year, recording a hat trick in his second international start. It was a breathtakingly rapid rise from poverty to prominence and it’s hardly slowed down. Returning to Mexico after his year with the Galaxy, he split the next five seasons between Chivas and Cruz Azul, and was the second-leading scorer in the Qualifying tournament for the Tokyo Olympics, where he helped Mexico to the Bronze medal.
Now, at 25, he’ll be counted on to help spark an injury-plagued team that has struggled for offense. With Jesús “Tecatito” Corona out and Raúl Jiménez still not fit to play 90 minutes, Mexico Coach Tata Martino will likely start a front line of Hirving Lozano, Henry Martín and either Antuna or Alexis Vega. Few of the combinations Martino has tried have worked lately with Mexico coming to Qatar with just three wins in its last nine games. And it hasn’t beaten a World Cup Qualifier in more than 14 months.
Antuna has done his part, contributing two goals in his last seven games, the more recent coming against Iraq in Mexico’s penultimate World Cup warmup match.
Yet his most important work has come off the field since Antuna still makes regular trips back to Lerdo, the Charly School and Santos Laguna, where he provides both inspiration and material help.
“I always try to help the people who helped me before being in Santos,” he said. “I always try to give them something to motivate them, to help them achieve what I achieved.”
More often than not, that means cleats, uniforms and other soccer equipment. At other times it has meant money for food, clothes or transportation. Among those he’s helped is Alex Valencia, who grew up not far from Antuna’s childhood home and now plays in the Santos academy and with Mexico’s U-17 team.
“He brings stuff, he has given like lectures to our kids,” Fuentes said. “They see him as one of us. We have his picture in the clubhouse. Now with this selection to the national team, he’s getting to be huge. He’s a kind of hero.”
For Antuna, it’s not a matter of charity or even doing good deeds. It’s a question of paying forward the help he got and of remembering where he came from.
“Those children have very few resources, so we help them,” he said. “We continue helping them so they can achieve their dream.
“Santos helped me grow. To not only be a good footballer, but also a good human being.”
This story originally appeared in the Los Angeles Times.