Ajaccio get more than they bargained for in Guillermo Ochoa

The red light flashed. The Blackberry vibrated. Another email. Another message. Another Facebook status update. “We receive hundreds on a daily basis,” revealed Ajaccio President Alain Orsoni.

Under the pressure, the club’s website has gone down. It just can’t handle the traffic. Before June 29, an average of 8,000 users logged on per day. Since that date, the number has jumped to 30,000, an increase of 275 per cent. The source of the hits isn’t Corsica, but cities in Mexico and the United States, from Guadalajara to Los Angeles. So why the sudden interest in Ajaccio?

Is it the fairytale of their unexpected promotion to Ligue 1? No, unfortunately not, though that too deserves a mention. After all, Ajaccio, the club with the fourth smallest budget in Ligue 2, were 15th in mid-October and had to overcome the trauma that followed their vice-president Antoine Nivaggioni’s assassination later that month.

Olivier Pantaloni, the Ajaccio coach, managed to rally the players and to everyone’s surprise, not least their supporters, they finished second, in part because of a fine record at the Stade François-Coty where they lost just once all season and collected 44 points.

Back in the top flight for the first time in five years, little was expected of them. That is until Orsoni pulled off a real coup in the transfer market.

Forget Javier Pastore to Paris Saint-Germain or Joe Cole to Lille. Perhaps the most incredible move of all in France this summer saw Ajaccio come from nowhere to sign the highly regarded Mexico international goalkeeper Guillermo Ochoa on a free transfer from Club América.

With a shock of frizzy hair, the like of which hasn’t been seen between the posts since René Higuita hung up his gloves, he is second only to Javier Hernandez in popularity back home. Featured on the cover of FIFA 2008 and 2009 in North America along with Ronaldinho and Maurice Edu, ‘Memo’ as Ochoa is known has over 235,000 followers on Twitter

To say he’s more than a footballer is no exaggeration. He’s a bona-fide media phenomenon, as Duarig, the French sports apparel company that provides Ajaccio with their red and white shirts, has recently found out. 

“People did not foresee such a craze around Memo’s arrival,” their chief executive Alexandre Audry admitted. “We are now reflecting on how best to supply the Mexican market.”

As the cash registers keep singing, Orsoni has hardly stopped rubbing his hands together. “You know that Messi sells six million shirts a year,” he grinned. Ochoa isn’t at that level, but in relative terms his impact has been huge.   

All of which begs the question: how did Ajaccio do it? Even the Mexicans are aghast.

Edgar Martínez, a journalist for the Mexican television channel TDN, went to Corsica to find out. He left scratching his head. “Ajaccio are an even smaller club than I imagined and below the standard of most clubs in our league,” he complained.

Capped 45 times by his country, Ochoa had bigger and better offers from more established clubs in Europe. “I was in contact with Paris Saint-Germain, Olympiacos, two Spanish clubs and a few others in Turkey and in Greece,” he told L’Équipe. Fulham were also reportedly interested at one stage.

But in June everything changed. Five players on Mexico’s team at the Gold Cup, including Ochoa, tested positive for the banned substance clenbuterol. His world caved in.

Decio de Maria, the secretary general of the Mexican Football Federation [the FMF], claimed the results came after the players ate contaminated beef, a defence used by Tour de France winner Alberto Contador a year earlier when he found himself in the same situation.

The FMF later cleared Ochoa and his teammates, but in August the World Anti-Doping Agency [WADA] filed an appeal with the Court of Arbitration for Sport requesting a ban. 

“After this doping business, all the teams broke off negotiations. They didn’t know when a resolution would arrive,” Ochoa lamented. “Ajaccio were the only club who supported me and made me an offer and with the season about to start, I didn’t want to wait, so I said ‘yes’. I understand the position taken by the other clubs.”

Joining Ajaccio sure felt like a fait accompli but in the end it was a deal that suited everyone.

Club América, the team with whom Ochoa had played since the age of 12, are owned by Televisa, the largest mass media company in Latin America, who incidentally have the TV rights to show Ligue 1. They therefore had a clear interest in letting their star go to France in an effort to make one of the business’s products more appealing to its audience.

Ajaccio, on the other hand, got a top class `keeper, the kind of upgrade on veteran Thierry Debés that they could never have imagined, not to mention great exposure in return.  It was a win-win scenario, although it must be said Ochoa has made no secret of the fact that to him this is but a staging post on the way to a position with one of Europe’s elite teams.

Orsoni isn’t disappointed by that attitude. Far from it. He accepts the reality of the matter and is happy to help. “We can be the trampoline that he needs,” the persuasive Corsican explained. “When Memo wants to go, he can leave.”

To his credit, Ochoa didn’t arrive with ideas above his station. This isn’t the case of a player who thinks he’s bigger than the club, even when there’s every indication that he is. Ajaccio goalkeeping coach Enrico Pionetti has been impressed with his work ethic. “Memo is very talented but he’s also a very professional player,” he beamed. 

At 26, and with his career at a crossroads, Ochoa is simply grateful for the opportunity, so much so he has made great sacrifices. A strict wage structure means that he has taken a pay cut of more than half to try himself in Europe.

“I didn’t ignore that I was going to a promoted club whose objective is to stay up,” he confessed to France Football. “I told myself that it would be easier to draw attention to myself there… If I’ve moved here, it’s in order to play for a big club as soon as possible. I hope it’s in the near future. In a year, two years… we’ll see.

“I don’t earn as much as I did in Mexico and I would’ve had a much more favourable contract if I’d signed for a Paris or a Marseille,” Ochoa insisted.  “All that doesn’t stop me from being happy. I am proud to be the first Mexican goalkeeper to play in Europe. Money isn’t everything. It’ll come later.”

Following in the footsteps of José Luis Chilavert, the great free-kick and penalty taking Paraguay international goalkeeper who had a two-year stint at Strasbourg, Ochoa’s own extroverted playing style has delighted the crowds. His free-style approach, which includes catching the ball one-handed in a crowded penalty area and throwing himself here, there and everywhere has been one of the highlights of the season so far in Ligue 1.

“In South America, goalkeepers push the ball away more in their saves rather than catch it,” Ochoa revealed to L’Équipe. “Here, they stay on their line more too, they play less with their feet.” His technique, though unorthodox, has shown itself to be both aesthetically pleasing and effective.

When Ajaccio paid a visit to the Stade de Gerland in August, Ochoa kept Lyon at bay for much of the match and by doing so he earned the begrudging respect of Lisandro Lopez, the Argentinian gunslinger and scorer of the home side’s equaliser in the 83rd minute, who’d otherwise had a frustrating evening.

“He congratulated me at the end of the game by calling me a hijo de puta. It was affectionate,” Ochoa laughed.

If Ajaccio are to survive this season they need more performances like that from their star attraction. After six games, Pantaloni’s side lie 17th, one place above the relegation zone, with one win to their name. Their defence has already leaked 12 goals.

Ochoa has a fight on his hands. But like a Lucha Libre wrestler, albeit without a mask, he’ll strive to ensure Ajaccio are not out for the count.

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