With his bleach-white beard, piercing blue eyes and sturdy frame, Mexico's "mental coach" Imanol Ibarrondo wouldn't look out of place auditioning for the part of the wizard in "Lord of the Rings."
The borderline mystical aura almost encourages the speculation about what Ibarrondo actually does with El Tri. After all, employing someone to coach the mental side of the game is still relatively new to professional soccer. In Mexico, Ibarrondo's presence has seemed to cause both intrigue and confusion in equal measure -- though he shares some insights on Twitter -- but the win against Germany last Sunday has certainly put his work under the spotlight.
Ibarrondo floats around the camp, watching training with a keen eye and sitting in on press conferences. He doesn't give many interviews, making it clear that he is just another member of the coaching staff of which Juan Carlos Osorio is very much the boss. But speak to him and one thing becomes very clear: This is not some kind of wizard casting spells onto the group. Ibarrondo's job is one of meticulously planned steps, has rationality at its core and is done mainly behind the scenes.
"My job has had different phases," Ibarrondo told ESPN FC at Mexico's media day head of the World Cup. "In the initial phase in which we didn't know each other it was collective work, to get to know the group."
Ibarrondo came into the job on Oct. 2, 2016, and his immediate task was to restore confidence in a group that had been bruised by the 7-0 battering by Chile in the quarterfinals of the Copa America Centenario. Then came the famous 2-1 victory in Columbus, Ohio against the United States on Nov. 11. It was the first time since 1972 that El Tri had defeated its archrival in World Cup qualifying in the United States.
"Little by little I earned the trust of the players, generating a bond of trust that allowed me to work more individually," stated the Bilbao native and author of "La primera vez que la pegue con la izquierda" ("The first time I kicked it with my left foot").
You get the feeling that Ibarrondo, who played professionally in Spain's first division, didn't burst into the Mexican national team screaming about the importance of his role. His work is more subtle and complements the on-field preparation. The fact that Osorio has long been interested in the workings of the brain and how different teams -- including the New Zealand rugby team -- have forged winning mindsets will have smoothed Ibarrondo's arrival.
"Mental performance is not a substitute for sporting performance," admitted Ibarrondo. "First, work what you have to work: be strong, train well, eat well, rest, make sure your body is in top condition. Then we will talk about giving you that little extra security of confidence and mental work."
Ibarrondo visited Mexico's Europe-based players ahead of the World Cup camp and a common language has developed internally among the group, which manifests itself in interactions with the media.
For example, everyone involved with Mexico knows that the "quinto partido" (or "fifth game") is an issue that won't go away. But Sunday's victory over Germany has renewed hope that El Tri can get past the round of 16 stage for the first time since 1986. Stories have been written in many different languages ahead of Russia 2018 about Mexico going out at the round of 16 in the past six World Cups, but it hasn't been on the agenda inside the camp and is a topic the players haven't talked about.
"Honestly, if I tell you that we haven't ever discussed the fifth game, I don't know if you'd believe me or not," said Ibarrondo with a wide smile. "I think that it is a topic that's discussed outside more than inside the group.
"This group is very mature. We are very focused on becoming a team that deserves to achieve extraordinary results."
"The demands are that we don't think about a fifth game but each day, each training, each conversation, about group relationships and each tackle. [We strive to] really work personally to become the best possible version of ourselves and to be able to add something to the team."
Also of note has been the Mexican players' insistence on El Tri going to Russia to lift the World Cup trophy, even though Mexico is a distant favorite with the bookmakers and has never seriously challenged for the title. Ibarrondo would be more concerned if this group of Mexican players didn't believe it was possible.
"I imagine that the Iranian national team will be dreaming about winning," stressed Ibarrondo. "I can't imagine a young person anywhere that doesn't dream about winning and it is fair, it's legitimate, I would say it is necessary, it's essential."
Como deportista jamás me alcanzó para participar en eventos tan extraordinarios, pero la vida, a veces, nos sorprende con "regalos cósmicos" (inesperados, inolvidables e irrepetibles):— imanol ibarrondo (@energizol) June 4, 2018
2016: JJ.OO. (ESP)
2017: Copa Oro y ConfeCup (MX)
2018: World Cup (MX)
¡Muy agradecido! pic.twitter.com/b9DiW1PmtA
That ambition extended in spectacular fashion to going toe-to-toe and defeating the reigning world champions. The confidence and openness of the Mexican side was shown from the very first minute of the game. El Tri betrayed no nerves as it stroked the ball around and create a good chance before Germany had even touched the ball; even World Cup rookie Jesus Gallardo was confident enough to employ some trickery in defense.
"When I work with the group I like to create spaces with a lot of tension so people really dare to show vulnerability," explained Ibarrondo. "Showing vulnerability is sharing fears, worries, desires, dreams, longings, objectives, challenges, saboteurs.
"I think that when a team is capable of sharing that internally, when it shows vulnerability inside, it portrays invulnerability on the outside."
But while the goal of the Mexican side is naturally to succeed in Russia, there's another phrase that is common when you talk to Osorio and El Tri's players. The group talks about "deserving to win" and it doesn't appear to be a coincidence that Ibarrondo also uses it often.
"Winning doesn't depend on you. It also depends on the opposition," said Ibarrondo. "If you only focus on winning, it may generate a lot of anxiety and anguish but deserving to win depends 100 percent on you. To deserve means transforming yourself into a person or team that deserves to win. That is 100 percent focused on the performance and work of everyone and I believe that gives you confidence, security and strength."
(You can watch a lengthy breakdown of his principles for success here.)
Mexico striker Javier Hernandez perhaps summed it up best when he pointed out that El Tri's success in Russia will not be down to Osorio, himself, Hirving Lozano, Ibarrondo or any other individual.
"What we want is to do everything possible so that the universe conspires in our favor so we are able to deserve to win," said Hernandez on that same pre-tournament media day. "And even knowing we deserve to win, the beauty of football is that it isn't guaranteed."
If Mexico is to continue to "deserve victory" and achieve success at the World Cup, Ibarrondo will be an important cog.