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 Pel� 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. Cuauht�moc 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 (page 48). 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 Am�rica, 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."
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 Am�rica, 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 �DIAME MAS ("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."
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 Cuauht�milla, a kind of audacious skill that has
been all too rare in MLS—and that was enticing to the Fire.
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
And there was
Blanco's reputation. Fire message boards decried the move. Diehards threatened
to boycott the team. The players didn't know what to expect. "I had an open
mind," says Rolfe, "but I still had that image of him being a
Blanco several times in Mexico City and came away impressed—with his modesty.
"Contrary to what a lot of people say, Blanco's a fairly humble guy,"
says Guppy. "He just wants to win football matches, and he wants to do it
in an entertaining way. He doesn't have to be in the spotlight. He's actually
very down-to-earth." Blanco agreed to a three-year deal for $2.7 million
per season. (Just the first $400,000 of a designated player's salary counts
against a team's $2.3 million cap.)
The worries eased
once Blanco came north. On April 1, 2007, the team put out a four-sentence
press release announcing that Blanco would be introduced at Toyota Park at
seven the following evening. From his office overlooking the stadium's
concourse Guppy saw people start lining up shortly after noon the next day.
More than 5,000 fans turned up, most of them from the Chicago area's 1.5
million--strong Mexican community. Says Guppy, who was born in Winchester,
England, "It was like the Beatles had been reincarnated and arrived at
commitments to Club Am�rica and the national team, Blanco didn't suit up for
the Fire until July, and no one was quite sure how he'd fit in. MLS is a fast,
physical league, and Blanco, at 5'9", relies more on finesse than speed or
power. "In the Mexican league those guys respected him and gave him a
little bit of space," says Rolfe. "In our league you've got a bunch of
kids making $15,000 a year who don't care who you are. I was afraid he'd get
hit and the physicality would take him out of it."