Are You Ready For Some Fútbol?
David Beckham gets the hype, but MLS's most valuable import may be Cuauhtémoc Blanco of Mexico, the fiery forward who's leading a new wave of attacking talent from south of the border
Posted: Tuesday April 1, 2008 10:08AM; Updated: Wednesday April 2, 2008 12:49PM
In the fall of 2006, Major League Soccer adopted the so-called David Beckham rule, which allowed teams to exceed the salary cap to sign a "designated player" -- presumably one with equal parts skill and box office appeal.
The Los Angeles Galaxy used its exception to bring in the eponymous, telegenic bender of free kicks. The Chicago Fire used its to sign a guy who was dropped from Mexico's 2006 World Cup team and who might be the most despised soccer player in the Western Hemisphere.
Guess which one worked out better.
O.K., so Becks sold bushels of jerseys and tickets and inspired a soccer mania not seen Stateside since Pelé and the Cosmos were hanging out with Mick Jagger at Studio 54. But injuries limited Beckham to five games, and the Galaxy missed the playoffs for the second year in a row.
Cuauhtémoc Blanco, on the other hand, led the Fire on a second-half surge to the Eastern Conference finals. What's more, his signing helped validate MLS's new emphasis on importing Latino talent, especially at the attacking positions (click here for more). Not only did the forward provide playmaking panache, but he also served as the perfect teammate and ambassador for the franchise -- surprising roles for a guy who last year said, "It's a beautiful thing to have the people against me."
In his 16-year pro career, the bulk of it with Mexican league power Club América, and as a mainstay of the Mexican national team for a decade, Blanco cultivated a well-deserved reputation as a colossal irritant. For U.S. fans the enduring image of Blanco is his standing wild-eyed over Pablo Mastroeni in the 2002 World Cup, screaming at the midfielder before kneeing him in the back and drawing a yellow card.
"[Playing against Blanco] is frustrating because he's good," says Galaxy and U.S. forward Landon Donovan. "But more than that, he's the guy who likes to get under your skin. He's just a pest. He wants to do things that piss you off. And however he needs to do that, he'll do it. If it's by scoring goals, if it's by trying to egg you into a red card, he finds any advantage he can to win."
Blanco, 35, doesn't antagonize just the Yanks. In the 2004 Copa Libertadores he elbowed a Brazilian player, igniting a postgame brawl. A year earlier he sucker punched a TV reporter who'd been critical of his play. He once celebrated a goal by getting down on all fours like a dog and pretending to urinate in the net.
Even back home he's divisive. Beloved for his heroics with Los Tricolores, he was also detested by many as the face of Club América, Mexico's version of the New York Yankees. His long-running public feud with national team coach Ricardo La Volpe reached a head in 2005, when La Volpe dropped him from the roster for a World Cup qualifier. "He doesn't have big enough trousers to select me," said Blanco. La Volpe responded by leaving Blanco off the squad for Germany the next summer.
Ask Blanco if he has any regrets, though, and he furrows his brow and gives a quick shake of his head, as if the concept is foreign to him. He grew up in Tepito, a tough Mexico City barrio, playing on barren, rocky fields. And while his name means "white," he's more comfortable in a black hat. At Club America, supporters wore Blanco T-shirts that read ÓDIAME MÁS ("Hate me more"). Says Blanco, whose injury-time equalizer salvaged a 1-1 draw at Real Salt Lake in the Fire's season opener last Saturday, "It motivates me because of the feeling when people are against you and you get the win."
Chicago forward Chris Rolfe first noticed Blanco in 1998. Then a 15-year-old visiting France for the World Cup, Rolfe was watching Mexico play on TV when he saw Blanco hold the ball between his ankles and bunny-hop between two South Korean defenders. The move became known as the Cuauhtémilla, a kind of audacious skill that has been all too rare in MLS -- and that was enticing to the Fire.
"If you're going to invest in a designated player, it makes sense to look at somebody who can add quality to the offense," says Fire general manager John Guppy. "This game's about playing entertaining, attractive soccer." There were potential hangups, though. Many an aging foreign star has come to MLS in search of a payday and dogged it after signing on the dotted line. Blanco fit the profile. He admits he'd never heard of the Fire before the team expressed interest, and of MLS, Blanco says, "I thought it was going to be easy."