Carlos Vela has found himself in a minor predicament – will he follow in the footsteps of Hugo Sanchez or Thierry Henry? Depending where your loyalties lie, Mexicans have resembled him to their great legend and former manager, while the Arsenal faithful have gunned Vela as their next club legend. Can the former U17 World Cup Golden Shoe winner truly live up to the summit of expectations being levelled against him? Is he potentially Arsenal’s all-time leading goalscorer like Henry?
Parting company with £2.5m for a sixteen year-old would, in most cases, leave many questioning the management’s decision. Nevertheless, when Arsene Wenger decides to bid substantial money for a Mexican starlet it raises few questions - it is almost a guarantee to be another masterstroke of genius in the transfer market. A move to North London with Arsenal appears to have been the perfect linkup for both player and club, but his rise to prominence came when he donned the Mexican jersey.
Carlos enjoyed the company of his older brother Alejandro at Mexican outfit Guadalajara, who has also gone on to play professional football. 2005 proved to be the breakthrough year for Vela at the FIFA U17 World Cup held in Peru. Five goals, including the opener in the final against Brazil, resulted in Vela claiming the impressive status as the tournament’s leading goalscorer and sparked a frenzy of interest from across the Atlantic in Europe. Although he may not have been aware of it at the time, Vela’s talismanic performances shot him to stardom as one of the most promising young players in world football. Amid constant speculation, a move to Arsenal was confirmed in the latter months of 2005 but Spain was to be his temporary home.
At the tender age of sixteen, Vela was loaned out to Spanish second-tier club UD Salamanca – the reason being that he would fail to obtain a work permit until he was 18 and so a spell in the sun beckoned. During the 2006/2007 season, Vela transferred potential into substance by scoring eight goals in 31 appearances, but more significantly setting up a much larger number of goals. Expectedly, Hugo Sanchez – the head coach of the Mexican national team at the time – was caught by his impressive form and indicated a senior call-up was on the cards in the near future. Sanchez said “It is difficult to forecast the future, but I want any Mexican who plays here or abroad to have the success that I had in Europe. I saw him very little of Vela, mainly at youth national level. But I know that he has talent and goal-sense, two important things for his career."
September 2007 arrived with Vela’s first call-up to the international team and his successful stint in Spain was extended, this time in the nation’s domestic pinnacle of La Liga with Osasuna. He made his Mexican debut against the country he scored the winner against in the U17 World Cup final, Brazil, and only one month later he opened his goalscoring account – this coming against Guatemala. Three goals and four assists for Osasuna during the season secured a much coveted work permit, finally allowing Vela to join up with Arsenal and the opportunity to play in the Premiership and Champions League. His ‘break’ in Spain convinced Wenger he was ready to grace the first-team and opted against another loan spell. “I like his intelligence and his pace. He scores goals but he can also create them. He's a special talent and I believe 100 per cent that he will make it at the highest level." Indeed Wenger stood by his word and Vela made his competitive debut with a substitute appearance against Newcastle in their 3-0 victory. The faith to start Vela in the Carling Cup match against Sheffield Utd was fully repaid as he played the starring role in a 6-0 victory, leading the headlines with a hat trick. His reputation as a rising talent was asserted with two goals against minnows Belize in Mexico’s bid to qualify for the 2010 World Cup, thus cementing his starting berth under Sven Goran Eriksson.
Arsenal’s incredible success in integrating youth means Vela is in the perfect environment to develop. Making an impact in European football to the same extent as Sanchez is more than possible - but Carlos will be his own man, and rightfully so.