With the World Cup just a day away, MLSsoccer.com is taking a looking at some of the brightest stars, best young players and toughest group-stage matches to keep an eye on as the tournament unfolds in Brazil. Today, we’re giving the old guys some love – five legends who are likely making their swan song on the world’s biggest stage after legendary careers.
Rafa Márquez, Mexico – He is a loathsome brute, and yet we cannot look away.
When it comes to the short list of all-time villains for American audiences, it probably starts and ends with Rafa. Whether you remember him best for his red cards for cleaning out Cobi Jones in 2002 and Tim Howard in '09, or his lamentably forgettable two-and-a-half years as a New York Red Bull, admit it: There’s no one you would rather hate on than “El Kaiser de Michoacán.”
Rafa has always saved his best for El Tri – which frustrated RBNY fans to no end – and he’s not just back for his fourth World Cup, he’s wearing the armband for Miguel Herrera in Brazil. At age 35, this is certainly Márquez’s last stand. So let’s enjoy it and remember him at his finest. You know, stuff like this:
Xavi, Spain & Andrea Pirlo, Italy – Alright, we’re cheating a bit here. But these two class acts do share a pretty nice distinction that will forever link them: They are perhaps the two best playmakers of their generation and were the architects of the last two World Cup-winning teams.
Pirlo, who at 35, still defines what a “regista” is, will quarterback the Azzurri perhaps for the last time on a big stage and may end up carrying Italy on his back after being severely limited in 2010. Is he the Most Interesting Man in the World?
USA fans feeling like this right now after the Jozy double pic.twitter.com/sAtuvPzR1o— Abner H. Aceves (@abnerha) June 7, 2014
Xavi is a year younger and plays such a slick passing game that you wonder if he might have one more go in him at Russia 2018. If he can replicate the form that has unlocked hapless defenses to the tune of two Euro titles and one World Cup, La Furia Roja may cement their place as one of the best teams in history.
Go ahead and marvel:
Didier Drogba, Ivory Coast – He’s long been the face of one of Africa’s strongest teams – and the continent’s biggest underachievers.
Les Elephants are appearing in their third straight World Cup, thanks in large part to their goal machine captain, who has 65 goals in 101 international appearances. But Drogba, now 36, has never been able to lift Ivory Coast out of the group stage or to African Cup of Nations glory in four tries.
They’re not going to win the World Cup, but Ivorians would like nothing more than to see a cultural icon – he has singlehandedly halted civil war and donated millions in aid to his homeland – make one last meaningful charge.
Tim Cahill, Australia – Alright, Red Bulls fans. We’ll throw you a bone. Here’s a guy who wears those colors proudly – as he does the green-and-gold of the Land of Oz.
At 34, his third World Cup appearance will surely be his last. And the all-time leading scorer in Australian history is going to have to lead his side to a miracle showing to make waves in a Group B that also includes (gulp) Spain, the Netherlands and Chile.
But the Aussie legend is, as usual, up for the fight.
“Being up against it is something every Australian footballer is used to,” he told The Sydney Morning Herald. “We’ve done it the hard way and that’s taught us to fear nobody.”
Mario Yepes, Colombia – Alright, maybe center backs don’t move the needle for you. But what about a sweet sentimental story? Yepes has been one of the better defenders in Europe over the past decade, collecting trophies for Paris Saint-Germain and AC Milan. But he’s also had to suffer while the Colombian program’s finances went to pot along with the talent pipeline.
With Yepes on the backline, los Cafeteros came agonizingly close to reaching their first World Cup since 1998, finishing a single point behind in South American qualifying for both 2006 and 2010.
This time, the kids made good. Yepes is now 38 – not quite the oldest guy on the roster (holy crap, is that soon-to-be 43-year-old Faryd Mondragón over there?) – but at long last, Colombia’s hero and captain is going to his first big dance.