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A year ago, Rafa Marquez didn't even look like someone who would make El Tri's World Cup team. Today, he's captain of a Mexico team rolling to the round of 16.

RECIFE, Brazil — In the annals of sports, you'll have a tough time finding a player who generates more contrasting emotions on opposite sides of the same border than Rafa Marquez.

Reviled by U.S. fans for his cheap shots on American players and his disastrous stint in Major League Soccer, Marquez would top most lists of “Soccer player you hate the most” if American fans were polled.

The funny thing is Marquez wasn’t even fully embraced by his own countrymen until recently. Even after being captain of Mexico through the past three World Cups and enjoying success with Barcelona, there was still some detachment between Marquez and El Tri fans. Many never connected with him the way they had with past stars like Cuauhtemoc Blanco and Jared Borgetti.

That has changed considerably in recent years, thanks to a career renaissance few could have seen coming when he left MLS for Liga MX two years ago.

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He left the New York Red Bulls after two forgettable seasons, where red cards and invisible performances were far more the norm than anything positive. To most, it seemed as though age had caught up with Marquez and he would earn a few more paychecks in Mexico before fading into the sunset.

Marquez didn’t fade though, he thrived. He captained Club Leon to a pair of Liga MX titles and played well enough to earn his way back into the national team picture. The result has been a successful World Cup qualifying campaign, and now a strong run through the group stage of the 2014 World Cup.

CULT LEGEND
By Tom Marshall

GUADALAJARA, Mexico — Among all the usual “Cielito Lindo,” “Me-hi-co, Me-hi-co” and other chants that accompany important victories by El Tri, after which Mexicans pour out of their houses and offices and onto the streets to celebrate, there was a new one here this time around.

“Pi-o-jo, Pi-o-jo,” was the cry from the 5,000-strong crowd gathered at the Guadalajara's La Minerva roundabout, following Mexico’s 3-1 victory over Croatia on Monday.

It was in tribute to Mexico coach Miguel “The Louse” Herrera, who has not just managed to become an extremely popular figure in his home country, but is also garnering fame all over the world, both for the way he has turned El Tri around, and his maniacal celebrations.

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“Rafa is a person who, when I was given the possibility of being national team manager, I called him,” Mexico coach Miguel Herrera said. “I talked to him. I told him my plan of having him be a leader of the team. I could tell he was very committed to the game, a leader very tuned into the game. Talking to the young players, commanding them, yelling at them when they needed yelling at. Being a coach on the field, and a presence in midfield.

“He was the first name on my 23-man roster.”

Marquez has been a steadying presence in midfield, with his deep-lying role providing the link between defense and attack. While the team’s attackers maraud down the wings, Marquez controls the middle. He also gives the Mexico a calming presence on the field, as the first player captaining his team in a fourth World Cup.

On Monday, Marquez showed he can still be a factor in the attack, helping set up a goal with a flick and also scoring one himself, resulting in him joining Blanco as the only Mexican to score in three World Cups.

“He’s a very important player for us,” Javier Hernandez said of Marquez. “A lot people criticize him because of his age, but he’s gone to Mexico and won two leagues over there and now he’s scoring goals for us and supporting us on and off the pitch.”

“He’s accomplished a lot, has had many honors, and with us he has helped instill solidarity in the group and provide leadership,” Herrera added. “There’s a reason the young players call him the boss.”

For Marquez, who has captained Mexico at the World Cup since the 2002 tournament in Asia, he believes this current World Cup team is the best he’s been on, and being captain of this Mexico squad has been easier than any captaincy he has had before.

“Honestly, it’s been very easy because we all have the same mentality of wanting to make history and wanting to show well and wanting to push yourself and help your teammates,” Marquez said of his role as captain. “Once you’re on the field, it’s very easy to communicate with your teammates. It’s very easy to lead them and help as well with the work before games with Miguel and all the coaching staff, which they do a good job of. All that makes things easier on us and it’s something we’re all doing together to try and achieve these results.”

With Monday’s triumph behind him, Marquez can now focus on trying to help Mexico reach a milestone it has not reached in his previous World Cups: the quarterfinals. While Herrera talks about Mexico winning the World Cup and having Marquez lift the trophy, Marquez admits a similar goal, though not as brashly.

“From the beginning of this era under Miguel, we’ve listed some important objectives and I think the important phrase for the group is, ‘We want to make history’,” Marquez said. “We’re going to go step by step, game by game, working with humility. The team is working hard and we hope to continue playing at this level and we’re happy about being in the next round, but another tough game is coming.”

A date with the Netherlands awaits, and if the Mexicans are going to snap their streak of five straight losses in the round of 16, they are going to need Marquez to summon one more outstanding performance out of his 35-year-old body.

It might seem like a tall task, but Marquez and Mexico have been proving people wrong all World Cup. Given the many milestones Marquez has accomplished this World Cup, he just might be ready to help Mexico get over that difficult hurdle and reached the rarified air of the quarterfinals.

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