Rafa Marquez DL image

Rafa por vida: Ageless Marquez the ultimate heel in US-Mexico rivalry

He's lifted the Liga MX, Ligue 1, La Liga, UEFA Champions League, Club World Cup, Confederations Cup and Gold Cup championship trophies. He’s played for one of the best club teams in world soccer history (FC Barcelona’s golden era in the late ‘00s) and appeared in nearly 300 matches in three of Europe’s top leagues. He’s made 139 appearances for his country and captained them in a record four World Cups, with a fifth one beckoning next year.

Rafael Marquez is quite possibly the top player in Mexican soccer history, and naturally, that’s embroiled him in the heart of El Tri’s biggest rivalry, their eternal fight for CONCACAF primacy with the United States.

Marquez has been present – and often a prime antagonist – in many of the border showdowns with the Yanks over the past two decades. And at the ripe old age of 38, he appears set to feature centrally again as the USMNT visit mighty Estadio Azteca for Sunday’s World Cup qualifier (8:30 pm ET | FS1, Univision, UDN).

“He's still playing, he's going to go on to his fifth World Cup, he's going to captain his fifth team in a World Cup, which is nothing short of amazing,” former US international turned ESPN analyst Herculez Gomez said this week.

“It's how important he is for that team tactically, the functionality of that team going forward, the way they build out of the attack, the way he organizes, whether he's playing as a center back or in that [No.] 6 role. He's extremely crucial to their system, to the tactics of [head coach] Juan Carlos Osorio. He's a leader on and off the field, and he's not a bad guy to have.”

If there’s a walking embodiment of this matchup, it’s Marquez. He’s played the villain and the goat when things go badly for his side, especially in the five “Dos a Cero” losses to the US in which he’s been involved. Most memorable are the straight red cards he earned for violent challenges in a 2009 qualifier at MAPFRE Stadium in Columbus, Ohio – and of course, in the 2002 World Cup quarterfinals.

“The incident with Marquez was a pivotal moment,” USMNT great Cobi Jones, the recipient of the karate-kick-cum-headbutt that prompted that ejection in the Yanks’ victory in Jeonju, South Korea 15 years ago, told The New York Times in 2011. “Bitter rivals on the biggest stage. With me and Mexico, it seemed to be a personal thing, and there was more to it with Marquez. He always seemed to pick on me, but I always liked the battle. In that game, he just lost his head.”

“You know, I still haven't gotten an apology,” Jones wryly said in a GQ interview three years ago. “He knows where to find me. He can send me a card.”

Marquez has been the hero, too, most recently by bossing the midfield and heading home the game-winner in November’s shock 2-1 victory at MAPFRE, breaking Mexico’s Columbus hex and helping to bring an end to Jurgen Klinsmann’s USMNT tenure.

“I was happy to have the opportunity to make some new history tonight,” Marquez said after a performance that had Osorio comparing him to all-time greats like Peter Schmeichel. “This is more than just a reward [for me], it’s for the entire team.”

Even when he came to ply his trade in the US, signing a lucrative Designated Player contract with the New York Red Bulls in 2010, Marquez managed to put the boot in on the neighbors to the north.

Sleepwalking through a disastrous two-and-a-half-year stint in MLS, he antagonized friends and foes alike – criticizing teammates, underwhelming with his play on the field and starting a melee with Landon Donovan and the LA Galaxy after a disappointing playoff loss. It later earned him the title of “most polarizing player in league history” from ESPNFC.

Marquez himself has called his MLS move one of his greatest regrets, delivering a few sideways insults with some venom in a 2014 interview with ESPN Deportes.

Marquez would return home to Mexico and resuscitated his career with Club León, leading “La Fiera” (“The Beast”) to back-to-back league championships in the Apertura 2013 and Clausura 2014, barely a year after their promotion to Liga MX from the second division. He then added Italy’s Serie A to his resume with a stint at Verona before rejoining Atlas, the club of his youth, where he continues to defy both Father Time and the expectations of most observers.

He has a marked calming effect on El Tri whenever he’s in the lineup, compensating for his aging legs with sharp passing and superb tactical instincts, and if the US are to have any chance of pulling off their first-ever qualifying victory at Azteca this weekend, they’ll have to plot a way past “El Kaiser del Michoacan.”

When it comes to Hollywood heels, this rivalry could hardly ask for more.

Series: 
Topics: