In the history of soccer, the nickname "The Kaiser" brings one person to mind: Franz Beckenbauer. But ask a Mexican who that nickname refers to, and the first answer they will give you is most likely not that of the legendary defender, but rather that of Rafael Márquez, El Kaiser de Michoacán.
But the similarities between the German and the Mexican kaisers don’t end with the common nickname. Like the elegant Beckenbauer, Márquez is a gallant líbero whose touch, quality and vision allow him to start—and join—the attack. And it is those attributes, along with a penchant for scoring vital goals, that have allowed El Tri’s longtime captain to become one of Mexico’s foremost soccer stars.
At the age of 31, Rafa—as he is called by his millions of adoring fans—is already a legend in Mexico, perhaps equaling the stature of the great Hugo Sánchez, the only other Mexican export to have sparkled in Europe.
Márquez made his debut in professional soccer at the tender age of 17 with Mexican First Division club Átlas in the Torneo Invierno 1996, and he did so with a splash. The defender quickly and decisively took ownership of the central defensive position, becoming one of most solid backs in Mexican soccer and the most promising talent since Sánchez.
The defender’s first call-up to the Mexican National Team came in early 1997, while still aged 17. As the story goes, Bora Milutinovic, in his second stint as Mexico coach, accidentally summoned Rafael Márquez instead of César Márquez. But, after watching the mistaken Máquez train, Milutinovic decided to keep him in the squad that faced Ecuador, a match that kicked off Márquez’s 94 official caps for Mexico thus far.
Márquez wouldn’t feature for Mexico until nearly three years later, when the Zamora native gave the Tri hopefuls a taste of what was to come. In April of 1999, he captained Mexico to the quarterfinals of the 1999 FIFA U-20 World Cup held in Nigeria, in which the defender scored two goals. Just a couple of months later, Márquez got another call-up—this time not accidentally—that would change his career.
While participating in the 1999 Copa América in Paraguay with El Tri, Márquez impressed a scout from French Ligue 1 side Monaco who was there to look at a Chilean player, and the rest is history. Márquez went on to win the 1999 Confederations Cup a couple of months later with Mexico in a historic victory over Brazil in Mexico City’s Estadio Azteca, but he would do so as Monaco’s newest signing.
As one of Mexico’s most promising talents, Márquez’s move to France’s top division made him his country’s equivalent of David Beckham. Every move he made was well documented in news shows, on the Internet and even in tabloids—but all with good reason.
In his first season with his new French club, Márquez won the 2000 Ligue 1 title, anchoring the defense. His success went beyond France’s borders, reaching back to his homeland. Suddenly, Mexican players received more opportunities, something that Sanchez’s success at Real Madrid never instigated. In the wake of Márquez’s title-winning season at Monaco, scrappy holding midfielder Gerardo Torrado and striker Francisco Palencia both joined Spanish clubs.
After impressing at Monaco, Márquez then took it to another level, establishing himself as one of the world’s best defenders during the 2002 World Cup as Mexico’s captain. However, despite subduing some of the world’s top strikers, his most remembered moment was when he earned a red card for deliberately nailing US winger Cobi Jones in the waning minutes of Mexico round of 16 loss to the Americans.
However, Mexico fans forgave their captain for that and have since learned to forgive his tendency to earn unnecessary cards in the closing minutes of important games El Tri is losing—especially when he has scored some vital goals for the national team, like the late equalizer in this year’s World Cup against hosts South Africa in the tournament’s opening game.
In 2003, Márquez completed a blockbuster move worth 25 million euros to Barcelona, becoming the first Mexican to play for the club. While there, he coincided with players like Xavi, Andrés Iniesta, Carles Puyol, Ronaldinho, Lionel Messi and current Red Bulls striker Thierry Henry as the Catalán club established a stranglehold on Spanish and European soccer. During his seven-year stint at Camp Nou, Márquez, despite suffering a couple of injuries, appeared in 242 games, helping the team to 12 total titles, including four La Liga trophies and two UEFA Champions League titles.
His success at Barcelona, coupled with Mexico’s impressive showing at the 2006 World Cup—in which Márquez scored a goal in El Tri’s dramatic round of 16 loss to Argentina—again opened the doors for Mexicans abroad. Forwards Guillermo Franco and Francisco Fonseca, midfielder Pavel Pardo and defenders Ricardo Osorio and Carlos Salcido all jumped the pond to Europe, quickly followed by Andrés Guardado and Francisco Rodríguez.
“Great for Mexican soccer,” Márquez said in 2006 about the Mexican influx. “Hopefully more Mexican players can go play abroad and take advantage of these opportunities we’ve tried so hard for.”
Now, after captaining Mexico in a third consecutive World Cup, where he showed his versatility by playing holding mid and showing his excellent passing quality, Márquez comes to New York. He is a living legend with many good years still in him, and he leaves the legacy of the talented, young Mexican player.
Unlike Beckenbauer, Márquez may not be in the hollowed pitch of all-time greats just yet. But, for all that he’s done, for being the greatest proponent of Mexican soccer, there is only one Kaiser that matters to Mexicans.