MEXICO CITY -- As Guillermo Ochoa eased his way through the throngs of Club America fans waiting for him at Mexico City's international airport last Tuesday, it felt more like a celebrity's homecoming arrival rather than a new summer signing for a Liga MX club.
Fans had begun preparations, without much hindrance from security, a couple of hours beforehand, meticulously carving out a yellow-and-blue clad path for the Mexico goalkeeper to exit the airport and reach his transportation. Drums and chants echoed around the Terminal 2 arrivals hall as news filtered through that his delayed plane from Madrid had landed. Foreign tourists, unaware of Ochoa's achievements, looked like they had landed on Mars by mistake.
The 34-year-old knew his move back "home" to first club America from Standard Liege would be a popular one, but he couldn't have expected such a welcome. The beaming smile on his face, as someone from the 500-plus crowd put a tall yellow hat on his famous curly hair, showed just how much he was enjoying it. Even when fans jumped on top of the car taking him away and chanted his name, he kept the door open and waved the Club America flag to wild cheers.
The scenes went viral in Mexico and beyond, with Ochoa a trending topic on social media alongside "El Perro Rabioso" (The Rabid Dog), who has become something a celebrity fan of Las Aguilas and was at the airport giving his thoughts about the signing to the masses of media present.
Ochoa himself told Club America's media on the drive from the airport: "The affection and love from the people is incomparable. From a distance you hear things, but to live it is something else."
The top European leagues are clearly the pinnacle of the world game but nowhere else on the planet would Ochoa have got the reception he did on arrival back in Mexico. And now, with fellow El Tri hero Giovani dos Santos at Club America, the pair are expected to elevate the club beyond its record 13 Mexican first division titles.
The great regret from his time in Europe is that Ochoa was never able to play in the Champions League. It's fair to say that by featuring for Ajaccio, Malaga, Granada and Standard Liege, he didn't live up to the expectation created by his incredible World Cup performances in 2014 and 2018, even if the Guadalajara-born native was the first Mexican goalkeeper to establish himself on the continent. But Ochoa, who debuted in 2004 for Las Aguilas before leaving in 2011, is well aware how America dwarfs the vast majority of European clubs in terms of stature. This is an institution that boasts more followers on Facebook and Twitter than NFL giant Dallas Cowboys.
"Everyone will have their point of view, but sometimes when you don't live through it, it is difficult to give an opinion," Ochoa said in an interview with TUDN, which is part of the Televisa corporation that owns Club America.
"For me, coming to America at this time and in this moment is a big step in my career, a great choice and I consider my career to be totally successful."
Crucially, perhaps, nowhere else would Ochoa be able to command the $4 million contract he will reportedly be earning. A MLS club would've been unlikely to match it, while those wages should help ease any security concerns the goalkeeper may have had. After all, Ochoa wasn't originally planning to come back to Mexico at this stage of his career, but a unique set of circumstances combined to make it a no-brainer for both the player and club.
Ochoa's situation at Standard Liege had become slightly awkward. He clearly wanted out, but an automatic one-year renewal of his contract was making it difficult. Add into that the lack of interest from a truly big club -- although there were plenty of inquiries from good teams in Europe -- and the choice to return to Mexico was made easier.
"If Memo would've had an important offer in Europe, from teams with bigger names, without doubt I think he'd have stayed there," Club America coach Miguel Herrera told ESPN. "We wouldn't have been able even to start negotiations or talks to bring him here."
America is Liga MX's most hated club, as its fans like to remind everyone with their "hate me more" slogan, but the major signings that fuelled the club's popularity in the 1970s and 1980s have recently made way for a new philosophy. Perhaps because of the costs associated with bringing in big names, America has signed lower-profile South American players to develop, aimed for established Liga MX names and also produced young players to export for significant profits like Raul Jimenez, Diego Reyes, Diego Lainez and Edson Alvarez.
The sale of Argentine international Agustin Marchesin to Porto for a reported fee of over $8 million meant America's No. 1 spot was vacant, while the transfers of Alvarez to Ajax ($17m) and Mateus Uribe to Porto ($10.5m) ensured the club weren't short of money. Yet with three international players leaving, America had to react to appease fans. Bringing back Ochoa was the popular choice.
Outside Estadio Azteca on Saturday, ahead of Club America's 1-0 win over Morelia, was a huge advert of Ochoa and the slogan: "An idol is built in-house." The following day, a signing session at the club shop was well received.
In signing Ochoa, the club doesn't just get Mexico's No. 1 goalkeeper, but also the most marketable player in Liga MX. Herrera has even been getting annoyed by the question of when Ochoa is going to make his debut, which seems unlikely to be in the Leagues Cup semifinal on Tuesday in Houston against Tigres (8:30 p.m. ET, ESPN2).
Having Ochoa in goal guarantees headlines, but it isn't the only signing that has seen Club America horde media coverage so far this summer. There's also the matter of the former Barcelona player Giovani dos Santos, up there with Ochoa as one of North America's most recognizable players.
LA Galaxy exercised their option to buy out the contract of the 30-year-old on March 1 and left his career in limbo. Rumors saw Dos Santos linked with moves to Brazil, China and Qatar, so it was something of a surprise that a player who has had a difficult relationship with the Mexican press chose to return.
But then Dos Santos is from Mexico City, his Brazilian father Zizinho played for Las Aguilas and the family -- including brother Jonathan dos Santos -- have long been fans. The fact that former Mexico coach Herrera, who started Dos Santos at the 2014 World Cup, is coach was an attraction, while America had money to spend after the sales and though his reported wages of between $2.5m-$3m-a-year are a step down from what he was on at the Galaxy, this is a player who has done very little since the 2016 MLS season.
It's been a tentatively positive start so far for Dos Santos, whose presence has been slightly overshadowed by the signing of the more dependable Ochoa. The forward scored the winning penalty for America in the Leagues Cup quarterfinal victory over Houston Dynamo in a dream debut before enjoying a stand-out performance against Tijuana off the bench.
"I don't know who doubted [whether he could produce]. I know him well, I know what he can do and today he showed it again," Herrera said after the Tijuana game. "Nobody in this club doubted Gio's ability, that's why I put him on."
However, in his first start in almost exactly a year, Dos Santos went missing in the game away at Toluca before being hauled off after an hour. Herrera is being particularly protective over the player's fitness, giving strong hints that the reason why Dos Santos hasn't hit his expected heights is because of fitness issues. Dos Santos wasn't in the squad for the Campeones Cup loss against Atlanta United and also missed out against Morelia, although he should be ready for Tuesday's game against Tigres.
The jury is still out on whether Ochoa and Dos Santos will be able to make up for the outgoing sales of established internationals, although bringing in two big-name players has guaranteed that the concept of Americanismo (the big, brash, arrogance-tinged club identity) is alive and well.
America needed signings like Ochoa and Dos Santos, not so much to re-establish itself -- Las Aguilas are Mexico's most successful club and won the 2018 Apertura -- but to remind its rivals that it still has the inclination and the power to make big moves when it wants.