GUADALAJARA, Mexico -- The idea of Rafa Marquez becoming the first player in history to captain a team at five World Cups looked to be a distant dream just a few days ago. Marquez had been sanctioned on Aug. 9 by the U.S. Treasury Department for alleged links with a drug trafficking organization following a multi-year investigation. The news stunned Mexican football and Marquez was sidelined from playing.
The former Barcelona player described the situation he was in as his "most difficult match" in a press conference after hearing the news and apart from the occasional tweet and his return to training on Sept. 18, Marquez has remained quiet. Since then, he's won a couple of legal battles to unfreeze his bank accounts and there's been almost unanimous backing from within the Mexican game. But the feeling was that Marquez's chance to finish his career on a high was disintegrating by the day, with his 38-year-old body needing games in order to avoid stagnation and possible retirement.
When the news came Wednesday evening that Marquez was in Atlas' squad to face archival Chivas in the Round of 16 Copa MX game, it came as another shock. There was no official announcement from Atlas and no explication of the legality of Marquez suddenly being allowed to play; instead, just assertions from journalists, which were confirmed as the teams were announced in Estadio Chivas.
Marquez didn't enter the field in Atlas' 1-0 loss. He didn't even warm up before the game or at half-time and was only seen stretching midway through the second half. With Los Rojinegros chasing the game, coach Jose Guadalupe Cruz threw on forward Fidel Martinez as his final substitution, forcing Marquez back to the bench. But this wasn't some publicity stunt. As far as Atlas are concerned, Marquez is back for good as the 2017 Apertura playoff push intensifies over future weeks.
"We are happy Rafa has been given clearance, it's good for us in both the human and professional sense," said Cruz after the match. "He's our leader, our captain and for us he never went away."
"[Marquez] returns stronger because it isn't easy to live through what happened," continued Cruz. "I put him on the bench with the chance of him playing if the situation was right. He's ready to play in the league at the weekend."
Up next for Atlas is a league game at Queretaro on Saturday. One expects that Marquez will be integrated gradually given that his last game was back on Aug. 6, but there won't be much time to settle back in: with Atlas now out of the Copa MX, there are only four regular season games left in Liga MX and the club is currently just outside of the playoff spots.
As for what the future holds beyond that, a lot is still up in the air. Although the four-time World Cup veteran is very unlikely to be in the squad for El Tri's November games in Europe against Belgium and Poland, it's not yet known if Marquez can actually leave Mexico. If he can, could he travel to the United States? If not, what might that mean for his World Cup prospects, given than Mexico is likely to play four friendlies north of the border ahead of next summer's World Cup, including the first game of 2018 in San Antonio, Texas on Jan. 31?
There are still more questions than firm answers, but Wednesday night was a step forward for Marquez's chances of making history at Russia 2018, even if it was a disappointing loss for his Atlas side.