Rafa Marquez’s past, future at Atlas more important than Friday send-off

Rafa Marquez Atlas
Ulises Ruiz
The Kaiser de Michoacan will play his last match at the Estadio Jalisco on Friday, but how he guides Los Zorros going forward will be more important

A great will say goodbye Friday.

Rafa Marquez will take the field at the Estadio Jalisco for the final time, more than two decades after he made his Atlas debut in 1996. In between, he's won seven league titles, multiple domestic cups and two UEFA Champions League with stops at Monaco, Barcelona and Leon producing silverware.

"It's my last match in the Jalisco," Marquez said of Friday's Clasico Tapatio. "We still have one more game in Pachuca. Maybe this will be the farewell from my fans, from my home, but with the commitment of still ending the tournament in Pachuca."

That's how the 39-year-old's farewells to the game has gone. Just when you think it's coming, when it feels like it's time to find the old photos and look back on all his accomplishments, he taps the brakes. One more European season. One more tournament with Atlas. He hopes one more World Cup.

"I'd like to finish things the best way possible, and obviously have the dream of being able to go to a fifth World Cup. It's right around the corner, and playing in these two final games would help me get better physically. I've been feeling really good in these last few matches and am hoping this can happen as well."

All that depends on Mexico manager Juan Carlos Osorio, with Marquez's designation by the U.S. Department of Treasury as a frontman for a drug cartel kingpin complicating matters in August. Now that more and more of his accounts have been unfrozen and restrictions loosened on his travel, the path may be clear for him to go to Russia. "I think it'd be the perfect culmination, the cherry on the cake to go to the World Cup, but even so if I don't go to the World Cup I'm very proud, very happy and very satisfied with the career I've had."

He should be proud. It's been an incredible career, and Marquez closes it out as the most successful Mexican player ever on the world stage. He could have a big-second act as well.

While Marquez hasn't said definitively what the future holds, Atlas president Gustavo Guzman confirmed rumors that Marquez has been offered a boardroom position as a director with a possible tandem duo of Marquez and fellow ex-Atlas and Mexico great Pavel Pardo calling the shots in the sporting department.

It's an opportunity Marquez must take if he thinks it would fulfill him. Atlas is a total mess with relegation a real worry, at least in the current pro-rel format, which represents a drastic fall from grace for a club that produced players like Marquez, Pardo, Andres Guardado, Oswaldo Sanchez and Jared Borgetti. 

That production line is no longer in operation, and an overhaul is needed for the machinery to whir back into motion. With interim manager Gerardo Espinoza giving playing time to teenagers Ismael Govea, Edyairth Ortega and Ulises Cardona over the last few weeks, the raw materials may be there. But Atlas needs a guiding hand to see the project out. Who could buy more time than Marquez, a club hero who already has shown with his leadership in the national team that he can have an outsized influence on developing players?

"I think there's an important generation of players coming who can once again give this club a respected name," Marquez said. "They're working on this to be able to get great players out of (the academy)."

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Marquez's past is significant. Coming out of the club after a successful start as a young man gives Atlas something to point to and be proud of. His return has been filled with disappointment, with the team failing to put anything around him able to compete for a league title.

The third stage may be the most important of all as Atlas looks to bounce back and recapture the identity of the club it once was. Atlas fans will give Marquez a deserved ovation Friday, but their cheers of affection may lead to cries for help in hopes he'll commit to turning the club he loves into a contender once again.