Cuauhtemoc Blanco is one of the most colorful characters in Mexican soccer history and even after moving to the United States, he still attracts magnified levels of adulation and controversy south of the border.
Yahoo! Sports followed his three-day trip to Los Angeles – the USA's biggest Hispanic market – as Blanco's Chicago Fire took on Chivas USA, the only Mexican-owned team in Major League Soccer.
The result: plenty of fireworks, verbal battles, accusations, a magnificent free kick – and a telling insight into the life of one of the league's genuine superstars.
Thursday, Sept. 27, 5 p.m., Los Angeles Airport
Many of the travel-weary patrons have no idea what all the fuss is about. The area normally occupied by waiting taxi drivers, charity collectors or airport staff has been invaded by a cheering posse of 50 flag-waving soccer fans.
All the attention seems to be on a small and unassuming man in a navy blue polo shirt who's surrounded by well-wishers as he waits for his luggage. Some fans even clamber onto the carousel to get closer to the target of their affection. Several chanting supporters even follow him into the restroom.
Welcome to the surreal world of the Chicago Fire's Cuauhtemoc Blanco, a household name in the Mexican community, an unpronounceable one to most English speakers and the second highest-paid player in MLS at $2.49 million a year.
"Wherever we go, the Mexican community comes out to see him," Chicago captain Chris Armas said. "Every time we travel people support him and the team and it is great for us. Coming here to play Chivas USA is even bigger because of their Mexican heritage."
Many of the fans in attendance at the airport support Club America, the Mexican team where Blanco is still revered as a hero after spending all but three years of his career there prior to his move to Chicago at the start of this season. Chivas USA, the North American spin-off of Chivas Guadalajara, which happens to be Club America's fiercest rival, will play host to the Fire on Saturday night.
Eventually, Blanco forces his way through the throng to join his teammates on the bus. On the way to the hotel, he may see a familiar face – his own.
The Chivas USA publicity machine has been cranking into action, hyping up the match with a "Wanted" poster depicting Blanco as a fugitive and home captain Claudio Suarez as a sheriff, and plastering it around the city. The pair, who battled each other many times in Mexico, will meet eye-to-eye Friday – in a press conference.
Friday, Sept. 28, 12.30 p.m., Home Depot Center, Carson, Calif.
Two press conferences have been held at the Home Depot Center this year for security staff to be on hand. The first was for David Beckham's glitzy Los Angeles Galaxy unveiling back in June. The second is for Cuauhtemoc Blanco.
Instead of the dozens employed on Beckham's big day, only four rather bored stewards in bright red jackets are present, and they're looking about as threatening as the Spice Girls. Perhaps they are for show, as the only threat Blanco faces here is the bombardment of questions he receives from the assembled media.
Armas, Suarez, and Chivas's former Chicago striker Ante Razov are also seated before the journalists and cameramen, but during the 30-minute Q&A, 90 percent of the questions are fired in Blanco's direction.
The 34-year-old is at pains to insist that despite all the attention since he arrived in Southern California and the links between Chivas and Club America, this is just another game – not a clasico, or rivalry match.
"I don't know if it is the press or the people from Chivas who are trying to make this out to be a clasico," he says quietly in Spanish. "But clasicos take time to build. That kind of passion is not invented overnight."
Blanco is a man who does not seem to enjoy talking to the media, even though he has a reputation as a controversial figure in his homeland. He exchanges the occasional joke and some playful verbal sparring with Suarez, who's seated across the stage, but many of his answers are brief and often bear little relation to the question asked.
Where is the outspoken figure who polarizes opinion in Mexico? The one known for explosive fallouts with coaches, fights with television reporters and bizarre goal celebration routines that include pretending to urinate on an opponent? Will the real Blanco come out to play Saturday?
His most interesting comment is not even about soccer. It is a response to being asked for his perception of his fellow countrymen and their role in life in the United States.
"People are here not to steal, but to be able to work hard for a better life and send money to their families," he says. "Even if they put up a wall, we will find a way to get over it or under it. We Mexicans are very smart."
Smart is a perfect way to describe Blanco's game. He has not made a career out of being an imposing athlete or boasting superior physical attributes. His brain is his greatest strength, allowing him to feel the flow of the game split seconds ahead of his opponents and make dynamic runs or defense-splitting passes.
Skills at his elevated level are a rare and precious commodity in MLS and, on Saturday, Chivas USA, one of the toughest and best-organized clubs in the league, will do whatever it takes to shut him down.
"It is tough to get inside Cuauhtemoc's head," Suarez says. "He is becoming more difficult to play against and we will have to do some things to stop him. Maybe even by grabbing his shirt."
Saturday, Sept. 29, 7:30 p.m., Home Depot Center
In Mexico, Cuauhtemoc Blanco is often known as jorobado, or hunchback, due to his unusual, crouched style of movement.
As he shuffles onto the field to start his warm-up routine with the rest of the Chicago squad, the stadium erupts into a massive roar. Apart from five games against the L.A. Galaxy, this is the first time a Chivas home game has sold out all 27,000 tickets.
Thousands of fans sprint from the various promotional stalls that have been erected on the Home Depot Center concourse to get a glimpse of Blanco. Around the stands, the yellow inflatable sticks handed out by a sponsor are smashed together to create a deafening beat.
Blanco allows himself a brief smile, shrugs once and focuses on his low-key preparation. For all the talk of the significance of his arrival in L.A., the Fire need points to maintain their playoff momentum. They precariously sit in the eighth and final postseason spot.
Once the pre-game festivities are complete, Blanco sets about making his mark. Some sublime early touches signal positive intent, but it is with a 24th-minute free kick that he shows his full ability.
Lining up from 30 yards out, Blanco takes a long run at full pace, travelling at such a speed that it looks inevitable that his strike will crash against the defensive wall. However, a split second before he makes contact with the ball, he slows his pace a fraction and places his shot perfectly into the top corner of Brad Guzan's goal.
Thanks to that piece of artistry, Blanco can cruise the rest of the night. Much of the crowd have seen what it came for. But he doesn't ease off. If anything, his performance becomes even more entertaining.
He is not the sort of player who is going to find himself on referees' Christmas card lists anytime soon. His relationship with officials is, at the best of times, finely balanced and programmed to ignite at the screech of a whistle. After a challenge towards the end of the first half, Blanco tumbles to the ground and theatrically claps his hands above his head while lying on the turf when ref Tim Weyland fails to rule in his favor.
As Chicago tries to hold onto its lead, the second half is filled with instances of Blanco being kicked mercilessly (his point of view) or diving in an attempt to win free kicks (Chivas' point of view). His frustrations eventually boil over with five minutes left – just after Suarez's coolly-taken penalty kick ties the game.
Blanco is booked after sarcastically applauding the referee following one run-in too many. Things really escalate in the final seconds. Finally, the real Blanco emerges, the slightly demented character who leaves his heart and soul on the pitch and thrills and angers fans in equal measure.
After going down in the penalty area but being denied a spot kick, Blanco jumps around deliriously in protest – right in front of Chivas's most ardent supporters. Missiles are hurled onto the pitch, one of them striking Blanco on the hip. More projectiles narrowly miss him as he heads over to take a corner. All eyes remain fixed on Blanco to see what he does next.
He repeatedly raises his arms aloft. Then pretends to cry on the corner flag. He eventually takes the corner kick a full yard outside the circle. Tempers boil on the pitch and in the stands … before the final whistle ensures a point in the standings for each team.
Saturday, 10:30 p.m., Home Depot Center locker rooms
The end of the game does not mean the end of the battle. Some parting shots are fired back and forth through the media.
Chivas coach Preki uses his postgame press conference to allude to Blanco's "diving," calling it "ridiculous" and blaming the referee for not imposing tighter control. Suarez was not surprised by any of Blanco's antics, or his performance.
"Cuauhtemoc has always been controversial," Suarez says in a quiet corner of the Chivas locker room. "He has always complained about fouls against him. He really created the problems against us and showed he can take a great free kick."
Across the corridor, the visitors' locker room shows a much busier scene. Television crews and reporters surround Blanco, and he seems to be warming to his role of victim.
"Look at the video to see if I was diving," he says. "Look at the game, look at the tapes, see how much people were kicking me. They fouled me a lot."
Blanco mutters his way through 10 minutes of press grilling, including a barrage of questions from an over-enthusiastic Mexican reporter who refuses to be silenced. Finally, with some footwork as classy as the moves he showed on the field, he wriggles free, heading off to the team bus and out of Los Angeles – with his back stooped, head held high and pride firmly intact.
Love him or hate him, on this night, the hunchback stood tall.