My Football Journey: The Road to 2026 is a series following some of the most exciting young footballers in the world through a key moment in their careers.
It will follow the highs, the setbacks and the hard work they and their clubs are putting in, and show how different their journeys are as they dream of making it to the 2026 World Cup. Links to all of those featured can be found here, with this being the second in our interviews with young Mexican midfielder Salvador Mariscal.
Salvador Mariscal warmed up on the sidelines, waiting to hear his name called.
It was mid-January and the Club Santos Laguna midfielder was in the squad for a Liga MX match against Pumas. The chants and vuvuzela-like drone echoed in his head as he neared his much-anticipated professional debut.
Mariscal’s parents were in the stands at Santos’ Estadio Corona in Torreon. In between stretching, he glanced over his shoulder and saw his mother and father. Their pride and emotion were evident as they watched their son.
Santos were ahead 2-0 in the second half and Mariscal could feel the biggest moment of his young career was close. “I was warming up for 20 minutes,” Mariscal told The Athletic. “It felt like forever. I told myself, ‘OK, this is it. I’m going to get my chance’. I heard the coach yell my name. I was going to play. So many things went through my mind.
“I was so excited.”
Mariscal removed the neon-coloured bib and jogged towards his manager. He could feel the nerves. He looked up and saw the capacity crowd there to witness the debut of another Santos youth product.
His number, 193, was now clearly visible to those in attendance. Mariscal laughed when reminded of that, but this is normal practice for academy players in Mexico. Youth players are registered by the Mexico Football Federation with a number that is not part of a first-team roster. It is an odd tradition, but Mariscal’s No 193 shirt now has a special significance.
As the manager relayed his instructions — stay central, help build play and provide balance in midfield — Mariscal took one last look at his parents, who were seated near the Santos dugout. His father, also named Salvador, is a former Santos defender. The two also share the nickname ‘Chava’.
“I looked back and he was crying,” said Mariscal. “Both of my parents were very emotional. I really felt that. After the game, I went to them, took off my shirt and gave it to my dad. I cried. I got emotional because I remembered everything that I did to get to this point.
“It was one of my objectives. It was a dream come true.”
Back in December, Mariscal had confessed, with a hint of innocence, that debuting for Santos was what he most desired. European football is a long-term goal for him, but starring for his childhood club was pulling at his heartstrings. “I checked that box, that first step,” Mariscal said. “It was a big one, but there’s still so much more ahead of me.”
His debut performance proved the young Mexican was ready for top-division football.
His first 15 minutes of play were mistake-free. He played simple. Mariscal’s intelligent positioning and ball-recovery skills led to a third goal for Santos that night against Pumas. “Once I complete a good pass, I start to loosen up,” he said. “A good first tackle always motivates me, but getting on the ball is what gives me the most confidence.”
However, Mariscal’s professional life has radically changed since he made a permanent move from the under-20s Santos side to the senior setup.
Gone are the days where an afternoon jaunt home for a midday meal with his family was part of his routine. He now eats every meal at the club’s training facility. The sessions are more intense and the margin for error has been dramatically reduced.
The 20-year-old continues to study business administration via online classes at night but his free time has been drastically reduced. The demands placed on his mind and body have increased — such is the life of a professional footballer.
“There’s more time spent in the gym, recovery sessions, massages and things you have to do,” Mariscal explained. “I no longer just shower and go home. Nutrition is a priority at the club. We can go home after dinner. Overall, you have to take better care of yourself. I’m starting to see what it means. There are a lot of changes.
“I’ve adapted and I feel more confident playing at this level.”
Santos play an aggressive, pressing style of football that prioritises clean possession play and purposeful tactics. But the team have been inconsistent this season under manager Eduardo Fentanes. The 45-year-old Mexican was dismissed last month after Santos failed to qualify directly for the Liga MX play-offs. Fentanes was replaced by Uruguayan Pablo Repetto, who will lead Santos against Pachuca on Saturday in a one-match play-off game.
As an under-20s player, Mariscal featured as a box-to-box midfielder with the freedom to roam the pitch. With the first team, Mariscal’s responsibilities mirror that of Mexican international and Ajax star Edson Alvarez.
“My role has changed — now I’m definitely a holding midfielder,” he said. “I try to cover as much ground as I can, but I’ve been asked to play as a No 6 and to provide the team with balance in the middle. On the ball, I have to own the middle and be that player who progresses the ball forward and circulates it throughout the pitch.”
Under Fentanes, Mariscal’s outings became more regular after his first taste of Liga MX football in January. His composure on the ball stood out and his innate football awareness began to show. Even as Santos underperformed, Mariscal grew in confidence, with his profile rising within Mexican football. Suddenly, local pundits were demanding he played more of a role — calls answered with five consecutive starts to end the Clausura season. Four of those were 90-minute performances.
The youngster has endured a whirlwind but he remains grounded.
“I’m getting used to it,” Mariscal said. “Now when I go to my Instagram, I’ll see stories about me — saying ‘Chava should start’ and things like that — but I don’t pay too much attention to it. Honestly, all I do is train and do what the coach tells me to do. I’m staying focused on my job.
“Now I’m playing against guys who I watched play on television on the weekends. To now be shoulder-to-shoulder with them is, honestly, incredible. I was standing right next to Andre Pierre Gignac against Tigres.”
Mariscal earned his first yellow as a professional in a heated match against league leaders CF Monterrey. Six yellow cards were handed out and both sides had a player sent off. The new kid on the block has had to grow up quickly but that expectation is part of the Santos philosophy. The club’s reputation for developing academy players is well-established in Mexico.
Santos prepare the players thoroughly with a focus on maintaining schooling in case life as a professional does not pan out. Social media training, cognitive learning courses and emotional and mental workshops are part of an academy player’s early life at the club. “It’s been so important for me,” Mariscal said in reference to the club’s holistic approach.
Santiago Munoz was once the poster boy of the club’s professional pathway. In the summer of 2021, Munoz was signed by Newcastle United on an 18-month loan. He was integrated into the Newcastle reserves but was unable to establish himself in Tyneside. Munoz is now back in Torreon, as Mariscal’s team-mate — a precautionary tale.
The two are close and Mariscal was keen to know what life in England was all about.
“(Munoz) told me that it’s very different. That England was simply top — it’s another level,” said Mariscal. “The players are very professional. They’re at the club for eight, nine hours working on their game. They’re all very dedicated to the sport. He said that adapting to all of that was his biggest challenge. It’s something to consider because those who adapt faster will have a better chance to succeed. Professionalism is everything.”
Mariscal is adjusting to top-division football and yet making his family proud is what motivates him on a daily basis. The nerves are still there on match days and, this Saturday, Mariscal will experience his first elimination game with Santos, representing another step towards his next big dream.
“I want to play as many first-team minutes as possible and earn a starting role,” he said. “I want to begin to establish myself as an important player on the team, a leader in the starting XI. That’s my first goal.
“And then my dream of playing in Europe will always be there.”
(Top Photo: Club Santos. Designed by Eamonn Dalton)
Leave a Reply