By FRANCO PANIZO
RECIFE, Brazil — Rafa Marquez is not the most well-liked guy among soccer fans. Not in his native Mexico and certainly not in the United States.
Listen to Marquez’s Mexico teammates talk about him, however, and you get a real sense of just how much fondness and admiration they have for him.
That was the case on Monday night at Arena Pernambuco, where Marquez led El Tri to a 3-1 win over Croatia that secured the Mexicans’ passage into the World Cup’s Round of 16. He scored the opening goal with a header in the 72nd minute that jump-started a late offensive surge, and assisted on Mexico’s final goal 10 minutes later by showing his veteran savvy and flicking a corner kick to Javier ‘Chicharito’ Hernandez at the back post.
It was a solid overall performance that showed that the 35-year-old Marquez is still capable of getting the job done, and one that should silence his critics at least in the short-term.
“He has capabilities that he has demonstrated over a long period of time in his career and it doesn’t surprise me because he’s always done it like that,” said Mexico goalkeeper Guillermo Ochoa. “From Monaco to Barcelona, all the trophies he’s won. Rafa has always shown that quality. Maybe Mexico undervalues or depreciates that, but Rafa is the Mexican player that has won the most things and he always shows his face in tough moments. I’m glad he was there to score that goal.”
The goal itself was nothing spectacular. Marquez did not make a great run to find the ball nor did he thunder it home with incredible power.
What he did do was tap into his years of experience, standing in the same position as the corner from the left was kicked and reading its trajectory. When Marquez realized where it was headed and that he had a chance to get to it, he took a couple of steps forward and timed his jump perfectly to meet the ball and nod it over Corluka.
Marquez celebrated by running over to the right flank, where his teammates bombarded him in a sign of unity that was rarely prevalent for Marquez or El Tri during a bumpy World Cup qualifying campaign.
“From the beginning (of the time under head coach Miguel Herrera), there was a camaraderie between the officials, technical staff, players that is very important and has demonstrated on and off the field,” said Marquez. “I think that has given the team the solidity that it has right now. We get all along very well, from the coaching staff to the officials. They’ve unified to us and us to them.
“That makes you work with a level of comfort and happiness and a level of consciousness and responsibility that unified we can all place objectives and goals that we are achieving step by step. I haven’t experienced that in previous times.”
Most observers will talk about the goal and the 82nd-minute assist in which Marquez once again used his guile to find Hernandez alone at the back post, but his defensive performance was also key in helping Mexico oust Croatia.
He delivered some key tackles – including a sliding professional foul that stopped a dangerous Croatia attack and earned Marquez a yellow card – and was good in his positioning. There were times in the chippy match when it looked like he would lose his cool as he has done so many times in the past, but he never did and enjoyed a strong game on both sides of the ball.
“Rafa is a very intelligent player, he manages the game well, he’s always attentive to his mark, aerial balls,” said Ochoa. “He breaks up plays against forwards and he knows how to read the game and when to accelerate and join in on the attack. He has so much experience and that helps us tremendously because it gives security to the back line.”
As much as some fans might hate to admit it, the much-maligned Marquez is still capable of making an impact at the international. Not just on the field when he is scoring goals and defending, but also off of it by leading an El Tri side that is off to knockout phase of the World Cup.
“He’s a great character,” said Hernandez. “Now he has a very good record in three World Cups he scored consecutively. He’s a very important player for us and I think a lot of people criticize him because of his age and a lot of things, but he went to Mexico and won two leagues over there and now he’s the captain here, scoring goals and supporting us in the best way possible, inside and outside the pitch.”