Rafa Marquez, celebrating 20 years on El Tri, is a damn freak

Rafa Marquez
Marquez played in Mexico’s 1-0 friendly win over Iceland in Vegas. (Getty Images)

To most American fans, he’s merely that guy. The fiery, red card-prone villain on the other side of the fierce rivalry with Mexico, embodying its intensity. The one with the cheap shots, who somehow always finds himself in the middle of the scuffles after some hard tackle or flying elbow.

But let’s set that aside for a moment, and appreciate Rafa Marquez for the marvel that he is. On Wednesday, he started for Mexico against Iceland in a friendly of diluted teams in Las Vegas – which Mexico won 1-0 while Marquez was as cool and imperious as ever. But never mind that, his 136th cap meant that Marquez was embarking on his third decade for El Tri.

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He made his debut for Mexico on Feb. 5, 1997, days before his 18th birthday. He turns 38 on Monday and he’s still going strong, running Mexico’s back line and dispatching laser-guided long balls. You may well recall that, in November, he scored the 89th-minute winner against the U.S. in the World Cup qualifying victory in Columbus that snapped Mexico’s 15-year losing streak there.

Remarkably, a viewer poll by Unimas conducted during Wednesday’s game found that about 85 percent of voters believed Marquez will appear at the 2018 World Cup in Russia. That would make him just the fourth player in history to play in five World Cups, along with countryman Antonio Carbajal, the longtime Mexico goalkeeper, Germany’s Lothar Matthaus and Italy goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon.

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His endlessly long career took Marquez from Atlas to Monaco to Barcelona, where he was a regular for seven years, winning La Liga four times and the Champions League twice. He had a controversial spell with the New York Red Bulls in Major League Soccer, where he signed in favor of an alleged offer from Juventus. But stateside, he mostly missed a lot of games through injury and was regularly suspended for acting out.

But then he returned home to Mexico. At Leon, he summarily won the 2013 Apertura and the 2014 Clausura. After a season and a half back in Europe with Verona in Italy, he went back to his roots, to Atlas at the start of 2016.

Remarkably, Marquez first became Mexico captain at 23 and has served in that role off and on for 15 years. And with El Tri, he won the 1999 Confederations Cup and the 2003 and 2011 Gold Cups.

It’s time to give the bogeyman his due and recognize that he’s had one of the best careers in CONCACAF history.

Let’s celebrate the fact that his Mexico career is almost old enough to legally buy beer by watching this mesmerizing video of a remarkably skilled defender.

Leander Schaerlaeckens is a soccer columnist for Yahoo Sports. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderAlphabet.