When Mexico’s Rafa Marquez stepped onto the pitch at Moscow’s Luzhniki Stadium Saturday as a 74th-minute substitute for Andres Guardado, the veteran defender joined an elite group of just four players to have appeared in five World Cups. The historic milestone for Marquez and Mexico, who by the way dealt Germany a shock 1-0 loss, is even starker in light of the off-field turbulence Marquez has had to shutter out to make it to Russia as part of Juan Carlos Osorio’s 23-man selection for El Tri.
For starters, at 39, the native of Zamora is the oldest outfield player at the 2018 World Cup. That’s an accomplishment in itself in a game where very few players other than goalkeepers extend their careers past their mid-30s. But to be called up for a World Cup at that age, and to actually be brought on to close out a vital win in a game against the defending champions, illustrates just how integral to Mexican soccer Marquez, or “Rafa” as he’s known affectionately among fans, is.
And yet for the player who is widely regarded as one of the greatest to ever don the iconic green jersey of El Tri, it could very easily have not happened for him this time.
Marquez’s life was completely upended last August, when the player, along with Mexican pop singer Julion Alvarez, was accused by the U.S. Treasury Department of acting “as front persons” for a Mexican drug trafficking network.
Marquez had bank accounts, both in Mexico and in the U.S. where he lived for two years while playing for New York Red Bulls, frozen. His U.S. visa was revoked and his career and reputation hung in tatters. For Marquez, who has always maintained his innocence, the prospect of joining Antonio Carbajal (MEX), Lothar Matthaus (GER), and Gianluigi Buffon (ITA) as one of the few players to make it to five World Cups, seemed virtually impossible.
A few days after the sanctions were brought, the veteran defender announced he’d be putting his club career with Liga MX side Atlas on hold to fight the allegations. Many thought he would simply retire, but in October of 2017, he made a surprise return to action for Atlas and focused on the objective of playing well and convincing Osorio that he should be part of Mexico’s plans for Russia.
Marquez has since brought down the curtain on his club career. And even as fans chanted his name at a warmup match at Azteca Stadium earlier this month, many were nonetheless surprised he made Osorio’s final cut of 23 players. Not only did he add the 2018 World Cup to a list of career accomplishments that includes the 2002, 2006, 2010 and 2014 World Cups, as well as two Champions Leagues and four La Liga titles with Barcelona, but when Osorio needed to add experience, leadership and defensive resolve to close out what could be regarded as the most significant result for Mexico in World Cup history, the player he called on was Marquez.
Marquez will be hanging up his boots for good when Mexico’s World Cup ends. Based on previous World Cups, the expectation is that that’s likely to be at the conclusion of Mexico’s fourth game. But Mexico has already smashed expectations in this World Cup by overrunning the defending champions in its opening game. So who knows? Perhaps we’ll have a few more opportunities to catch Rafa in action this summer before the final whistle is blown on his historic career.
More World Cup on Yahoo Sports:
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• Brazil struggles to break down Swiss, settles for draw