Saturday 21 July 2018

Mexico's veteran Marquez walking tightrope in Russia

Mexican defender Rafael Marquez. Photo: Getty Images
Mexican defender Rafael Marquez. Photo: Getty Images

Ed Malyon

Rafael Marquez has to be careful. In the bowels of the Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow, the Mexican veteran is happy to speak, as you might expect for a player who had that afternoon ascended to the Mount Olympus of World Cup footballers.

It was only a brief cameo, fleeting minutes where his coach, Juan Carlos Osorio, had needed an old head to calm his team that had - to that point - managed to stun world champions Germany with a strategy of barely-organised attacking chaos.

The clock was ticking down and so Marquez (below) was summoned by the boss, and as soon as he entered the field he became only the third player ever to play in five World Cups, joining German legend Lothar Matthaus and his own countryman, Antonio Carbajal.

But as the final whistle blows and Marquez's team-mates celebrate, he must remember the rules. His own water bottle is passed to him while colleagues drink indiscriminately and squirt wildly from those given to them. Marquez strolls towards broadcast backdrops bedecked with the names of Fifa World Cup sponsors - Budweiser, Visa, McDonalds - and after achieving such a feat in a momentous result for Mexico he will surely be interviewed by television crews, you would think. But he carries on.

This is how it must be for Rafael Marquez, named on a United States Treasury Department blacklist of people that it says have helped drug cartels, the scourge of Mexico, to launder their money. He is accused of links with suspected trafficker Raul Flores Hernandez, an infamous 'narco' with links to the Sinaloa and Jalisco cartels.

Simply being on the blacklist is a hugely limiting experience for a man desperately trying to clear his name. Marquez, for all his profile and success back home, now walks a daily tightrope that, with assistance from the Mexican Football Federation (FMF), is designed to keep him from violating the strict guidelines.

Marquez has not been criminally charged with anything but his assets in the US, where he played for the New York Red Bulls between 2010 and 2012, have been frozen. These include a soccer school and a charitable foundation.

The 39 year-old is prohibited from having anything to do with American individuals, banks or businesses, the latter becoming a significant issue at a sponsor-laden event like the World Cup.

It is why Marquez wears different training apparel to his team-mates, drinks from different water bottles and, sometimes, stays in different hotels, according to a non-exhaustive list published in the 'New York Times'. His lawyers are cooperating with American authorities to try and get their client removed from the list but in the meantime his World Cup participation had been in doubt, with the veteran unavailable for selection for his club side, Atlas.

Only at the last minute was Marquez finally added to Mexico's World Cup squad before the deadline in early May, and he still had to miss the pre-tournament friendly against Wales in California for obvious reasons.

Perhaps understandably given his current situation, Marquez speaks largely in platitudes. Keen not to offend, desperate not to attract too much attention.

"We have been training for this for weeks… it is great for the team… for us the coach is our leader and we trust him."

It is a complicated legacy for Marquez, a day on which he might have been the big story he is reduced to a soundboard for praise about others. There are few questions about his fifth World Cup, a sense of awkwardness perhaps at his very presence in Russia, considering the circumstances, but his achievement of 19 major international tournaments despite it being a decade past his prime is the sort of thing you only usually hear about in golf. For modern football it is nigh-on unthinkable.

"Oh football has changed a lot since 2002," he says, thinking.

"It has evolved, with much faster players, players with better technique. But they are also players who think faster now and they are so much more athletic. It's totally different."

Today, Mexico can seal progression from the group stage with victory and eminently beatable South Korea side in Rostov. Then they face Sweden in Ekaterinburg before, they hope, extending their stay in Russia.

Marquez will be along for the ride, the veteran presence his squad needs but also a man walking a tightrope - a record-breaking career ending with an uncomfortable, unprecedented World Cup experience. (© Independent News Service)

South Korea v Mexico

Where: Rostov Arena

Capacity: 43,472

When: 4.0, live RTé 2 and ITV

Key stats: Mexico coach Juan Carlos Osorio has fielded 49 different line-ups in his 49 matches as coach.

  • lSouth Korea – who have only four members of their squad playing in Europe – have qualified for every World Cup since 1986, making it now nine in a row, with their best performance reaching the semi-final when they were co-hosts of the 2002 tournament with Japan

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