Tom Marshall: End of the road with El Tri for Rafa Marquez?

Not earning much playing time with Leon, the 34-year-old defender may find himself on the outside looking in when Mexico makes its way to the 2014 World Cup in Brazil
Rafa Marquez’s return to Mexico with Leon in mid-December was announced with much fanfare and intrigue about how he would fare back in his native land after over 13 years playing in Europe.

Like much of his recent career, there was controversy. Atlas fans were not happy that he didn’t return to the club where he made his name, with conflicting reports of why that was.

Then there were those initial statements from the Michoacan-born player about his dream of playing one final World Cup in Brazil to cap of one of the greatest careers any Mexican player has enjoyed in Europe. Everyone sat up and took notice.

But since those first couple of rusty games back in January, that initial intrigue has died down. Marquez has not had the season he wished for to catapult him into the thoughts of Jose Manuel “Chepo” de la Torre.

Yes, there have been injury problems, but nothing serious and Marquez has featured in 10 of Leon’s 14 games this season. The problem has been that Marquez hasn’t been good enough to lift Leon any higher than a dire last position in the Liga MX – and this from largely the same side that enjoyed a fantastic first season in Mexico’s top division, very nearly making the final of the Apertura.

It was therefore not really surprising that Marquez was not on the squad list for El Tri’s game Thursday against Peru, despite Monterrey’s Hiram Mier missing out due to a back-log of games and none of the European contingent being involved.

In light of not being called up, Marquez seems relaxed and intent on working hard to get back in the squad.

“Honestly, it doesn’t worry me a lot,” he said in a press conference in Leon Tuesday. “If they call me up, great and if they don’t, it’s the same. I’ll keep training as I always have done to fight for a place (in the national team).”

He also stressed that the quality of Mexican players has increased.

“Now there are more players at a better level, there’s more quality, more players playing in Europe, more players that want to play in Europe,” said Marquez. “The mentality is changing.”

While Marquez might not be the most popular among Mexico fans with his statements and attitude, no one can take away the experience, pedigree and winning mentality the Kaiser of Michoacan can bring to the Mexico squad.

And with El Tri set to fight for both the Confederations Cup and the Gold Cup this summer, the door may not be completely closed. Perhaps he just might squeeze into that Gold Cup squad to give him one last opportunity to shine for El Tri? He may be 34, but there is little doubt that his former defensive partnership Carles Puyol will be in Brazil with Spain, and he’s a year older than Marquez.

The one thing that is for certain is that returning to the national team from where he is now represents by far the biggest challenge he has faced since leaving Barcelona.

Francisco “Maza” Rodriguez, Hector Moreno, Diego Reyes, Hiram Mier, Hugo Ayala, Jonny Magallon and even, perhaps, Joel Huiqui seem to be ahead of him at present in the pecking order at center back.

Even with Leon not playing for anything, it’s a vital last few weeks of the season for Marquez. He’ll need to improve his form to get in that Gold Cup squad and it’ll be an uphill struggle, but he says he has overcome those before.

“I failed in Atlas some of the time and with Monaco in some years, but life gives you more opportunities and you have to look at it like that,” stated Marquez. “Fortunately, I’ve achieved things that others haven’t.”

Whether he can continue to achieve, and get back into the national team, may well be one struggle too many at this stage.

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