Last August, Rafael Marquez’s high-profile life as one of Mexico’s greatest ever footballers unfortunately turned into an episode of Narcos. The 38-year-old veteran defender had been named among 21 other Mexican nationals accused of abetting and assisting Flores Hernandez, an alleged drug trafficking kingpin. The USA’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) had even gone ahead and sanctioned or “designated” Marquez under the Kingpin Act — which is in place to prevent drug trafficking — for being a “front person” for Hernandez and also “holding assets” on his behalf. It indirectly linked him to two of the most dangerous drug cartels in Mexico. Even though he wasn’t charged with any crime, the designation meant that all of the former Barcelona defender’s assets and bank accounts under US jurisdiction were frozen. His visas to the USA, where he had played for New York Red Bulls, were also immediately cancelled which meant Marquez, who has denied all charges vehemently, couldn’t enter the country.
The investigation brought his football career — he presently plies his trade for his childhood club Atlas back home in Guadalajara — to a halt briefly and even cast shadows over his participation in the 2018 World Cup. Ironically, though, while the USA wouldn’t be playing in Russia next month — as a result of not qualifying for the big event — it looks like Marquez will be. That will make him the third player in history after Lothar Matthaus and Antonio Carbajal to play in five World Cups, but the first-ever to captain his country in all five of them — he already holds the record of having done so in four. Marquez, who is popularly known as El Kaiser or the Emperor back home, has expressed his desire for a dream farewell in Russia for some time now but wasn’t picked in the national squad after he appeared in the Confederations Cup last year in the wake of the drug-trafficking allegations. His inclusion in the preliminary Mexican squad for the World Cup was met with overwhelming excitement from everyone including coach Juan Carlos Osorio, who insisted that Marquez’s “experience and leadership” will be great assets for his team. Striker Carlos Vela in fact even volunteered to give up his own spot in the squad for Marquez to go to Russia. El Tri have been extremely consistent in making the round of 16 since 1990 but painfully regular, too, in not making it past that stage.
In addition to being Mexico’s talisman for over two decades, Marquez earned his reputation during a seven-year run with Barcelona, winning two Champions League titles and eventually appearing in more matches than any non-European player for the La Liga giants. (That record has since been broken by Leo Messi.) He had stints for Monaco and with Verona in the Serie A on other side of his Barcelona stint. But his first move was to the USA in 2010 where he spent two unhappy seasons in New York. Ironically he was their third “designated” player — which in the MLS stood for a high-profile player whose pay-package would be considered outside the team’s salary cap. The lower standards of American soccer frustrated Marquez and he would go on to say, “In that moment, I did regret going to the United States,” in an interview to ESPN. Perhaps, he and the USA were simply never meant to be.