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Cuauhtemoc Blanco: The reluctant star whose trademark trick wowed the world at France 98

15:00 SAST 2022/11/30
Cuauhtemoc Blanco Mexico Cult Hero HIC 16:9
The Cuauhtemina may be a semi-comical piece of skill but it made its creator famous, even appearing in the FIFA video game series.

Mexico certainly made an impression on the 1998 World Cup.

In their spectacular Aztec-design strips, El Tri pulled off three dramatic comebacks in the group stage, while Luis Hernandez scored four times before the curse of ‘El quinto partido’ kicked in.

However, by that stage, Cuauhtemoc Blanco had left an indelible mark on the tournament – with an outrageous, audacious and semi-comical 'trick' that became his trademark.

Having been drafted into the squad following Mexico’s disappointing round-of-16 exit at USA 94, the then-25-year-old Blanco was a little-known name on the global stage, having just returned to Club America from a loan spell with Necaxa.

However, he made himself famous in El Tri’s opening game at France 98, introducing the tournament to the 'Cuauhtemina' – or the ‘Blanco Bounce’ as it became known in certain parts of the English-speaking world.

You may not know it by either name, but you are almost certain to have attempted or fallen victim to this ridiculous manoeuvre on the playground or in the park if you have ever so much as kicked a football.

To set the scene, Mexico had levelled against South Korea early in the second half at Lyon’s old Stade Gerland following an early red card for goalscorer Ha Seok-Ju – who was dismissed literally one minute after sticking a free-kick into the back of Jorge Campos’ net.

El Tri were growing in confidence and smelled blood, epitomised by Blanco throwing out his Cuauhtemina not once, but twice.

With two defenders converging on him on the left flank, he waited until they were close enough before trapping the ball between his ankles and leaping between his bemused opponents and into space.

The name Cuauhtemoc translates as ‘descending eagle’, which is apt when you see footage of Blanco touching down, arms spread wide, prey (the ball) locked between his custom Mexican flag-design Reebok boots.

Mexico would go on to beat South Korea 3-1, with Blanco providing the assist for Hernandez’s sealing strike, and they would be forced to come from behind twice more in their remaining group stage games to qualify for the knockout stage, with Blanco making his most telling contribution from a footballing perspective against Belgium.

Having gone two goals and one man down, El Tri produced a stirring seven-minute comeback to level after their opponents were reduced to 10 men themselves.

It was Blanco who netted the all-important leveller, hurling himself at a deep cross and expertly squeezing the ball inside the back post on the volley with the outside of his left boot.

Another creditable comeback draw from two goals down would follow against the Netherlands, courtesy of an injury-time Hernandez equaliser in spite of a last-minute red card.

Consequently, El Tri edged through to the last 16 alongside the Dutch on goal difference.

Having held his signature move in reserve since the opening game, Blanco decided the time was right once again against Germany in Montpellier, taking to the air and soaring between Christian Worns and Jorg Heinrich.

However, while he did provide a silky assist for another Hernandez goal to open the scoring, Blanco and his Cuautemina were unable to carry Mexico to a famous victory, as strikes from Jurgen Klinsmann and Oliver Bierhoff saw El Tri finally end up on the wrong side of a come-from-behind win.

There was disappointment that Mexico had failed to make the most of what was a talented group of players mainly in their prime, but Blanco had, at least, written himself into World Cup folklore.

He became one of the founding members of an exclusive club of esoteric, mercurial footballers who are synonymous with one outrageous piece of skill – like Ricardo Quaresma and the 'Trivela', Kerlon and his ‘Seal dribble’, Rodrigo Taddei and his dazzling 'Aurelio', and Jay-Jay Okocha with his eponymous turn.

Indeed, the Cuautemina has even been immortalised in the FIFA video game series (hold L1 and press R3, if you’re wondering).

It's worth remembering, though, that Blanco achieved great things in a Mexico shirt. His performance in the 1999 Confederations Cup final win over Brazil is the stuff of legend in his homeland.

Indeed, he is widely regarded as one of the best footballers Mexico has ever produced, renowned for his brutish forward play and deceptively quick feet, while he played the game with a take-no-prisoners physicality and had a fiery temper (he was once banned for eye-gouging an opponent) – all of which led to him becoming a star in both Liga MX and MLS.

However, while he never shied away from the limelight on the field, often courting controversy by taunting opponents with over-the-top goal celebrations, he never truly aligned with the notion of celebrity, believing himself to be the archetypal everyman.

In an interview in 2004, he said: “I don't feel famous. I am the same as a waiter, a [street] sweeper, like any person who works in the maintenance of the club.

"There are people who have fame and money, but they don't have feelings, which is the most important thing.”

Asked if he felt he was gifted, he added: “I don't know... I would like there to be three or four like me, I wouldn't envy them.”

Never one to shy away from a war of words, though, Blanco would perhaps unsurprisingly move into politics following the end of his playing career as he sought to represent those normal people with whom he felt such a connection.

Initially joining the left-wing Social Democratic Party, he would switch allegiances to the right-wing Social Encounter Party in 2017, having battled allegations of corruption and even murder while municipal president of the city of Cuernavaca in the state of Morelos.

Blanco was elected governor of Morelos in 2018 by a landslide and remains in the post – still making a huge impression on the Mexican landscape to this day, but as a politician now, rather than the eagle that descended upon France in 1998 and wowed the world with his signature skill.