I still very clearly remember the moment Cuauhtémoc Blanco suddenly became an important person in my life.
He was an outsider in the meat-and-potatoes sports landscape of Chicago when the Fire signed him in 2007, and the first call I got was from an editor who wasn’t remotely interested in trying to pronounce Blanco’s first name. I countered with the guy's front-page curriculum vitae: two World Cups, most popular player in Mexico, telenovela actress for a girlfriend, allegedly punched a fan seeking an autograph in a bar in Houston.
“Wait, what?” he asked, suddenly interested.
“Honestly,” I said, “I think the Fire just signed Ron Artest.”
Of course it never turned out to be that good, to the Fire’s delight and probably much to my editor’s chagrin. Yes, Blanco was at times a pest and a pain over three nearly three seasons in Chicago and he eye-gouged D.C. United’s Clyde Simms during a 2008 US Open Cup game, but he was generally worth the Fire’s healthy investment both on and off the field.
And in the wake of the email that quietly slipped into my inbox around 8 am on Thursday morning, I’d still rather ask Blanco to autograph my face than spend another minute thinking about Rafa Márquez.
The Red Bulls officially cut ties with the embattled Mexican icon earlier Thursday and, with a brief, two-sentence quote from freshly minted sporting director Andy Roxburgh, that’s that. Rafa’s tenure in the league reached its merciful end. He’ll return to Mexico a bit richer in the pocket and with a few more stories to tell about some kid named Tim Ream or maybe Shea Salinas, but I doubt he cares about any of that. In the end, it seemed, he just wanted to get out of MLS.
I bring up Blanco because the similarities here are obvious: celebrity Mexican personalities, world-class soccer players, absolutely fierce competitors. And perhaps most importantly here, both came into the league ready to give the people what they wanted: a villain.
WATCH: Márquez takes down Salinas
The difference, though, is Márquez was the one who played the role perfectly.
I’m not interested in making a cultural comparison or questioning the ethics and ethos of Mexican soccer players and their global counterparts. Every nation creates athletes who need plenty of lessons on how to avoid ethically challenging situations like, say, when it’s not a good idea to punch each other, choke a coach or suddenly start wailing on their fans. The United States does it every sport, seemingly every season.
And I’m not really interested in skewering Márquez for anything he did outside of his two-and-a-half seasons in MLS. I don’t care if he cracked skulls with Cobi Jones in 2002, because sports really are the one path in life where your past, no matter how bad it is, seems to stay there. We’ll give an athlete a pass on almost anything, including having someone else take his SAT, maybe having a few more drinks before he drives home or if he feels like lying to his wife or even in front of the United States Congress.
I only really care about what Márquez meant to MLS during his time in the league: 44 regular-season games, six playoff games and a whole lot of headaches.
This isn’t about skill, because it would be tough to make a strong case against the playing ability of a guy who spent eight years with Barcelona and was the unmistakable captain of the Mexican national team. There was a constant debate about whether the Red Bulls were actually better or worse with Márquez in the lineup (he missed 19 games this season because of injury or suspension, so there was a healthy sample size), but I wonder if there is a team in MLS who wouldn’t have taken him for 90 minutes every week if they could afford him. I doubt anyone would have passed.
This is about his legacy, which will probably revolve more around the episodes that showcased an almost self-destructive personality that constantly thrust him into his critics’ crosshairs. Pick your favorite Rafa moment: calling out Ream during a 2011 interview, a postgame meltdown against the Galaxy later that year, breaking Salinas’ collarbone in the spring or maybe getting a silly red card against D.C. United in the playoffs last month.
WATCH: Márquez incites flare up against LA
Mine is that 2011 incident against the Galaxy, when it suddenly became very clear that Márquez was entirely expendable for the Red Bulls and the league. He flung a ball at Galaxy midfielder Landon Donovan, clumsily tried to head-butt and then punch LA’s Adam Cristman, and promptly dropped to the ground with a flop even Blanco would abhor. He jawed a bit before it was over, picked up a no-brainer red card and a one-game suspension for the series finale, which the Red Bulls lost.
The biggest problem with Márquez was that any individual moments of brilliance on the field were overshadowed by his periodic willingness to undercut his teammates, incite a childish physical altercation on the field and effectively undermine what the league has tried to build for 17 years.
It’s naïve to think that being a Designated Player in this league carries with it some sort of moral obligation, or a requirement to be a cheerleader for MLS. I’m guessing that nowhere in that contract does it state that Márquez, Blanco, David Beckham or any other Designated Player must be a squeaky clean ambassador for the league. The Red Bulls didn’t necessarily pay Márquez to show up at the hospital and hand out gifts or make a Public Service Announcement about fair play.
Of course, wouldn’t it have been nice if the guy could have toed the line a bit more? Even Blanco did his part the best he could, when most people expected him to fail. I can’t remember how many times he threaded a gorgeous pass into the open to a Fire striker only to watch the chance rocket into the stands, and I waited for Blanco’s head to explode as he railed his teammate with expletives. But then when the media asked him about it after the game, he always referred to “nosotros.”
We. We missed our chances, we looked wonderful. We win together, we lose together.
Márquez, meanwhile, exhibited behavior each of the past two seasons that made me wonder if he really wanted to be in MLS at all. A player appreciative of his multimillion-dollar contract would probably understand the potential consequences of calling out a teammate in the press, or what happens to your public image when you’re throwing punches or slamming a dude shoulder first into the turf.
Márquez, though, never really seemed to care about all that. Image was secondary and, it certainly seemed at times, so was his team.
There is an incredible amount of pride involved in titanic deals like the Márquez one when it comes to MLS, and both the Red Bulls and the league are still a bit reticent to admit they’ve done what every soccer club in the world has done at one time or another: they whiffed. But do you think a European team would hesitate to send a similarly mischievous or destructive American player out the door? Not a chance. They would pack his bags for him if meant he could catch an earlier flight.
But that move is a tough one to make for a league still carving out its credibility on the global scene, which MLS is methodically doing every day. The big signings like the Beckhams, Blancos or Henrys are colossal leaps instead of baby steps, and they earn deserved worldwide attention for the league. But what if one turns sour, and the guy is a bust? Was it his fault, or was he too good for MLS? Will that hurt the reputation of a league still trying to be recognized in the world?
Fortunately, that’s not a question the league has to answer this time. MLS has already asserted itself as a league where top-level players can thrive if they’re not selfish or self-destructive. There’s stability now that the league may not have had in when Blanco arrived in 2007, and there’s proof in expansion, soccer-specific stadiums and the likes of top-level players like Henry and Robbie Keane committing themselves not only to the league's reputation, but to their teams’ output on the field.
We’ll see what Roxburgh says in the coming days about what finally brought about the end of the relationship, but here’s hoping he says what’s clear: The Márquez experiment had great intentions and wonderful promise, but it took a dramatic turn for the worse, because one individual steered it right into the ditch.
MLS didn’t screw up, Márquez did. Even my old editor would print that story.