With 79 minutes expired on the game clock, Martha Elena Ruíz is in agony. Mexico are trailing 1-0 to Venezuela in the Copa América in a game they need to tie in order to finish atop their group and avoid tournament favorites Argentina in Saturday's quarter-final. Nervously sipping a Tecate beer at a sports bar in Hermosillo, an industrial city in the heart of the Sonoran desert, Ruíz is sitting beside her husband, Narciso Corona, three of their children, and a dozen other friends and relatives, all proudly wearing Mexico jerseys.
"Bien, hijo," she says in encouragement as her son, Jesús "Tecatito" Corona, picks up the ball 30 yards from goal and just left of center. "Vamos mi amor, vamos." Seconds prior, the 23-year-old Corona, sporting what one commentator described as a "Pebbles Flintstone haircut," had skirted past several defenders and curled the ball just wide of the far post. It would have been a stunning goal. This time he pulls off something even more spectacular, somehow skipping between five opponents before slamming an unstoppable shot into the back of the net. The bar erupts, with his family members screaming for joy and exchanging elated hugs and high fives.
The game finishes 1-1; Mexico stay atop Group C and Corona is named man of the match. Minutes later he texts his mom to tell her he loves her and that he dedicates the goal — arguably his most impressive yet for Mexico's national team — to his family.
Having come on as an 18th minute substitute after Javier Aquino went off injured, Corona had been at the heart of all of Mexico's best moments, relentlessly driving forward as if affronted by his omission from the starting lineup, even if it was only intended to keep him fresh for the next round.
Tecatito is one of Mexico's top players, a winger who began his career in Liga MX with Monterrey at 17 years old. These days, he's starring for F.C. Porto in Portugal, but he could soon be on his way to a bigger club. Rumors have placed him in the crossroads of Real Madrid, F.C. Barcelona, and Manchester United. He has had that relentless mentality for as long as anyone can remember.
"Whenever I left him on the bench he'd be desperate to come on and score a goal just to prove me wrong," recalls Francisco Fierro, Corona's first ever coach. "He was so restless he'd even throw small stones at our own players in the hope that they'd come off so he could take their place."
The third of five children, Corona was born into a lower-middle-class family in Hermosillo, the industrial capital of the arid northwestern state of Sonora. Surrounded by rocky outcrops, the city is a sprawl of low-rise, white-washed buildings interspersed with palms and the occasional cactus.
As in much of northern Mexico, baseball has been the dominant sport here for many years. The local soccer team, Cimarrones de Sonora, was only founded in 2013 and has finished each of the last two seasons at the bottom of Mexico's second-tier division. Yet locals say soccer is becoming more popular among the younger generation, mainly because of the success of Corona and Jesús Molina, another Hermosillo native and national team star.
A short, skinny and antsy child, Corona was introduced to soccer at the age of six by his older brother, Narciso Iván. Inspired by his idol Cuauhtémoc Blanco — another diminutive but outrageously skillful player and the star of his favorite team, Club América — Corona was always making a nuisance of himself by incessantly kicking his ball around the house, in the street, or wherever else he found himself.
On the advice of a psychologist, Ruíz enrolled her overly energetic son in a local team in the hope that it would leave him worn out when he returned from practice each evening. "It didn't work," she says with a grin. "Instead of coming home tired he arrived full of adrenaline."
Corona joined Fierro's side at the age of six and the coach was immediately struck by his close control when running with the ball across uneven dirt fields. "I started out playing him at right-back," Fierro says, "but he was a very hyperactive child and although I told him he was going to start in defense he'd always advance out of his own area and carry the ball all the way to the opponent's goal, leaving everyone open-mouthed."
Fierro believes the most important thing that Corona took from their eight years together was the confidence to hit the ball with his weaker foot. "There was a time when he was missing penalties and losing confidence so I told him to try hitting the ball with his left foot," he recalls. "He spent a long time practicing and now he's equally strong with both feet."
It was precisely this ability that led Manuel Guerra, the Sonora state youth team coach, to call up Corona at the age of eight after noticing how adept he was at taking corners with both feet.
"He was always joking around and I think he helped us as a team to enjoy ourselves on the pitch and not take things too seriously," Guerra says. "He was a very tricky, very cheeky player. He used to get kicked a lot but he'd always get straight back up again. He had great control and he was extraordinarily good at shielding the ball. He was also very quick and he had tremendous dribbling ability, moving the ball one way while his legs went the other way."
Guerra coached Corona for seven years, deploying him as an attacking winger and at times as a "nine-and-a-half" — part traditional center forward and part creative playmaker. "He never defended much, but that wasn't his job. The biggest problem I had with him is that he used to hold onto the ball for too long," Guerra recalls. "I think the biggest impact I had on Jesús was to make him understand that there are 11 players on the pitch and he has to share the ball with them."
"One time I had to take him off because he just wasn't passing the ball. I had to reproach him because if he reached a professional level playing this way his teammates simply wouldn't put up with him. Besides, when you play at a higher level you'll face opponents who'll either take the ball off you or give you a good kicking. I also told him that if he tried to dribble every time then he'd become a very predictable player and that's the worst thing you can be in any sport."
Reflecting on how Corona has changed throughout his career, Guerra notes that he's matured a lot since the birth of his 20-month-old son Jesús Gabriel. "Starting a family teaches you to work collectively instead of just looking out for yourself and I think that's really helping him to grow up on the pitch as well," Guerra says. "He still sometimes holds onto the ball for too long but nowhere near as much as before. He sometimes disappears from the game or loses the ball and I think he could be a bit more consistent, but he's still very young and this is all part of the learning process. I still think that releasing the ball in the right moment is the key to making that improvement."
Left out of Guerra's team too often for his liking, Corona decided he also wanted to play for his public secondary school side, despite his father's disapproval. "I didn't want him to play with them because he was already on the Sonora state team," recalls Narciso Corona. "I was always looking out for him and I didn't want him to get injured while with another team."
Undeterred, Corona went behind his father's back and with the tacit support of his mother he joined the school team ahead of their participation in the Copa Coca-Cola, a vast youth tournament played out across the Americas. Corona's decision paid off as he led his team to victory at the local, state and national rounds of the cup. Playing as a striker in a simple 4-4-2 formation, he was top scorer and MVP at every stage of the competition.
Ubaldo Villalobos, the physical education teacher who coached the team, believes his players benefitted from having grown up playing on concrete pitches with no shade in a city where temperatures regularly surpass 100 degrees. This meant they could run for hours when playing in cooler climates, and they were well prepared for the heat of the grand final at the legendary Maracanã stadium in Rio de Janeiro.
"Going to the Maracanã was an unforgettable experience," Villalobos says. "The changing rooms had separate showers and jacuzzis for each player and they had indoor goals and synthetic grass where the players could warm up. Some of these kids had never even been to downtown Hermosillo before and now they were in Brazil."
Back home, the players' friends and families — including Corona's dad, now fully supportive of his son's involvement — used to gather at Villalobos' house where his wife would serve up tacos and pozole while they listened to his live updates over a Nextel radio.
"Before the final I told the players to think of their families, friends and girlfriends back in Mexico and to dedicate the game to them," Villalobos recalls. His team delivered, with Corona scoring twice as they beat a side from Panama 4-1 in the final.
"We won the tournament thanks to Tecatito's ability," admits Villalobos, who keeps the enormous trophy on display in his office at the school. "I'd be lying if I said I taught him how to play because it just came naturally to him. He had it in his veins."
Corona's performances attracted widespread interest, including an offer from Brazil's Santos, but his family were reluctant to let him move so far away at the age of just 15. Instead, within days of returning to Mexico, he signed for Monterrey. It was here that he was given his nickname, as Monterrey were sponsored by one of Mexico's biggest breweries and they did not want Corona, the name of a rival brand, to appear on his shirt. Instead, they dubbed him "Tecatito" after their popular Tecate brand. The name has stuck ever since, despite his distaste for beer.
Having impressed in Monterrey's youth teams, Corona made his senior debut at 17, but only after experiencing the biggest disappointment of his career when we was not selected to represent Mexico in the 2009 Under-17 World Cup. "He was crying and he said he didn't want to play soccer anymore," Corona's mother recalls. His father drove hundreds of miles to personally comfort him and with the support of his family he resolved to keep moving forward.
By 2012, Corona had established himself as one of Monterrey's stars and he began to draw global attention after scoring twice in the Club World Cup and dribbling fearlessly against the experienced defenders of European champions Chelsea. Once again, the offers came flowing in, with Corona, now aged 20, eventually opting to join FC Twente in the Netherlands in 2013.
"We sat down and talked it through with his agent," his mother recalls. "Barcelona wanted him to play for Barça B in the Spanish second division but he wanted to play top-flight soccer."
While relatively few Mexican players prove willing to leave their comfort zone and try their luck abroad — and even fewer have become unqualified successes in Europe — Corona's parents say he was determined to make the most of this opportunity. Although he experienced some language difficulties and was briefly dropped amid concerns over his fitness, Corona responded well to the challenges of European football and excelled over the course of two seasons with Twente.
His performances earned him a move to Portuguese giants Porto last summer, where he had a solid if slightly inconsistent debut season playing alongside his international teammates Hector Herrera and Miguel Layún.
Having made his debut for Mexico in late 2014, Corona is now one of the first names on the team sheet. A genuinely exciting player to watch, he scored effortless wonder-goals in recent World Cup qualifiers against Honduras and Canada and has put in increasingly assured performances in each of Mexico's Copa América group games.
Corona recently fulfilled a childhood promise to buy his mom a new house in a nice neighborhood but his parents say he still has his heart set on another dream: to one day play for Barcelona.
"He wants to reach the highest level possible," his father says. "He always wants more."
If he keeps improving at his current rate it may not be long before that dream becomes a reality.