Giovani dos Santos celebrates a goal scored by Rafa Marquez after the Mexican defender tallied the equalizer vs. South Africa at the 2010 World Cup. (Andy Mead/YCJ Photo)

By Michael Lewis
FrontRowSoccer.com Editor

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — If all the stars align in the World Cup universe for Mexico, Rafa Marquez could be in position to make some history for El Tri at next year’s quadrennial competition.

If he stays away from injury and plays up to form, the former Red Bulls’ midfielder-defender could equal a rare mark by playing in his fifth World Cup at the tender age of 39. He would join former Mexico goalkeeper Antonio Carbajal, German standout defender-midfielder Lothar Matthaeus, a former MetroStar, and current Italian goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon do so.

At the present time, Marquez is just trying to get back at a level at which he will be effective for the Mexicans in two qualifiers this week and for the FIFA Confederations Cup in Russia later this month.

Marquez is recuperating from a back injury he suffered in a qualifier against Costa Rica in March, which shelved him for the rest of the Liga MX Clausura season with Atlas.

He came on as a substitute in Mexico’s comprehensive 3-1 victory over the Republic of Ireland Thursday, June 1 and his short performance still gave Juan Carlos Osorio encouragement for the future, immediate and next year.

Osorio knows all too well what Marquez can bring to the team, whether it is a starter in central defense or as a defensive midfielder or as cover at both positions at Russia 2018.

“I think it is a very unique situation,” Osorio said in a post-game press conference last week. “Rafael’s understanding of the game, his leadership is there to be not only to be followed by, but to learn from the rest of the players.

“If he is healthy, he can compete for that position on the team and hopefully that will be the case. We think that, as well as he does, he probably still has one more year in him to play at this level. Hopefully, we did something positive toward that goal because in the 20-25 years that he played, today he showed that he is getting close to his level and he will compete for a position on this club.”

Marquez, who turned 38 Feb. 13, is optimistic he will return. Prior to a World Cup qualifier against Costa Rica, he was honored for 20 years with the national team. The defender-midfielder has played in four consecutive World Cups (2002, 2006, 2010, 2014), won two CONCACAF Gold Cups (2003, 2011) and captured a FIFA Confederations Cup (1999).

He made his debut with the full squad against Ecuador Feb. 5, 1997, although it was reported that his call-up was an error made by then national coach Bora Milutinovic, who actually wanted fellow Atlas player Cesar Marquez.

Some 139 international appearances and 18 goals later, Marquez’s internal clock might be in its 11th hour, but it is still ticking well enough to compete at the highest levels of the game.

“It would be very easy for me to retire from football, after winning so many things, but I see the quality and clarity that there is in this national team and this group of players and I want to write a new history and want to help Mexican football to change,” Marquez said after a friendly international against Iceland earlier this year.

While he underachieved grossly during two-year stint with the Red Bulls, Marquez has proven to be a viable player elsewhere, whether it has been with club teams Atlas and Leon in Mexico, Monaco in France, Barcelona in Spain, or for the national team.

He has been a nemesis to the U.S. on several levels, usually instigating incidents and tussles with various national team players, domestically and internationally.

In fact, many American fans view him as a thug.

Marquez had two well-publicized on-the-field incidents with Cobi Jones (2002 World Cup) and Tim Howard (WCQ in 2009), criticized his Red Bulls teammate Tim Ream (who is in U.S. camp for qualifying) for his “infantile” play in 2010, received a red card for throwing the ball at Landon Donovan after a 2011 playoff defeat, became the first player in Major League Soccer history to end back-to-back playoffs with red cards (2011, 2012) and hard-tackled Shea Salinas to the ground in 2012.

However, Marquez did strike for the goal that ended El Tri’s 16 years of struggles at MAPFRE Stadium in Columbus, Ohio last Nov. 11, scoring the game-winning goal that lifted his side to a 2-1 qualifying triumph. That devastating defeat turned out to be the penultimate game for then U.S. head coach Jurgen Klinsmann, whose team was embarrassed in Costa Rica several days later and he subsequently was sacked.

On that fateful night in Columbus, Marquez he snapped a 1-1 deadlock in the 89th minute, converting a Miguel Layun corner kick past goalkeeper Brad Guzan. Marquez had suffered three dos a cero defeats in his career (2001, 2005 and 2009). He did not participate in the 2013 confrontation.

“The goal was a prize for Rafa,” Osorio said afterwards. “We won justly and if we’d have scored the two that hit the post wed have won more easily.”

“Rafa Marquez is to Mexico what Peter Schmeichel was to people from Denmark. I’ve been involved in retirement of such players. Steve McManaman in Manchester City, for example. Rafa has a love for the game like no one else.

“He wants to play all the games. Today the game rewarded him and I’m very happy for him.”

Marquez? He was just happy to secure three points and a rare win in a WCQ match in the USA.

“Maybe now they have a bad time, a time of intolerance and with this win maybe they can forget now a little bit what happened here in the U.S.,” Marquez said in November. “It was a long time that we haven’t had a good game [here]. We are very happy and this is very important for us.”

If healthy, Marquez could get another opportunity against the U.S. in Mexico City Sunday night.