“Well, I’m here to tell you … this will never happen. Sometimes relationships pass a point where they can be salvaged, as Ike & Tina, Nicole & OJ and Sam & Diane all proved over the years. In the Rocket’s case, too much has happened. We can’t let it go. We won’t let it go. When you give your heart to someone and they basically drop it on the ground, stomp on it a few times, then ask, “What did I do?” … well, you don’t forget something like that. Ever.”
– Bill Simmons, on why Roger Clemens will never redeem himself in the eyes of Boston fans, in his piece “Is Clemens the Antichrist?”
So by now we all know that Rafa Marquez, he of FC Barcelona fame and El Tri captain’s armband-wearing acclaim, has signed with the New York Red Bulls. In a league that has prided itself on economic sensibility, the signing of Marquez by the Red Bulls makes the New York/New Jersey based franchise the first to take advantage of Don Garber’s extended designated player rule. Marquez is the third DP for New York, joining Juan Pablo Angel and Thierry Henry, who of course was introduced as the second Red Bulls DP less than a month ago.
There is no question the signing of Marquez is an impressive “get” for MLS, one that has many implications, nearly all positive. For one, it significantly increases the Spanish-language speaking credibility of the league, giving MLS a player who carries a “legend” label in his home country. At 31, Marquez appears to have a good deal of fine soccer left in the tank as well, as his reasonably good World Cup indicates. That’s good news for the league too given the general overreact of the soccer media proper, who view DP signings with more cynicism than an agnostic at Easter. They worry that the league is becoming a resting place for over-the-hill former superstars who are a shell of themselves. This in turn, the argument goes, damages the league’s initial purpose as a developmental laboratory and hurts the league’s global brand and credibility. Marquez is a strong retort to those claims, and certainly Don Garber knows it, noting Monday before the announcement that “the captain of the Mexican national team, a guy who had a great World Cup, a long-time Barcelona player, if we could have him in MLS, it would really give us a big boost of credibility and I think would be exciting for our fans.”
In addition to bolstering the league’s credibility and increasing its appeal to Spanish-speaking media outlets, the addition of the Mexican captain may represent a shift of power in the East. Sure, the Red Bulls sit seven points behind the Columbus Crew in the standings as I write—but they’ve a game in hand and as Real Salt Lake demonstrated last year, the nature of the MLS playoff system means all that really matters is qualification. Once you reach the playoffs, anything can and usually does happen. Marquez is a flexible player that is a rather substantial talent upgrade defensively for the Red Bulls. He usually slotted at center back for club at Barcelona, but played a strong defensive midfield in the World Cup and will add a calming presence to an at-times disorganized New York midfield if that is where manager Hans Backe decides to deploy him.
This deployment is even more likely if Henry’s first league match is any indication, as the Dynamo dropped off Henry and allowed him a great deal of space in an effort to neutralize his still-formidable pace. This places the impetus on the Red Bulls midfield to ratchet up the pressure behind Henry, and better link up play than is currently provided by Seth Stammler and Tony Tchani could be the critical ingredient to a style of play that essentially dominates possession and plays its best defense through a smooth possession-oriented, good passing offense. Even if they don’t hold the lion’s share of possession moving forward, Marquez can bolster an already sound backline. MLS games can be chaotic at times and a possession-oriented, sound link-up player can make all the difference, especially in the “Defense wins Championships” world of the MLS playoffs. Having already created one of the most dynamic striker pairs in the history of the league in Angel and Henry, one would have to think the attack will be complex and dynamic enough to score enough goals to win a championship so long as they hold opposing teams at bay. Marquez is more than capable of being the critical cog in this championship formula.
It is clear, by any objective measure, that the man they call El Kaiser is an excellent signing for both league and club, the type of quality CONCACAF based-player who comes along only once-or-twice a generation, and certainly outside of Henry the highest pedigree of player to ever enter MLS with good soccer seemingly still in the tank. The signing should tickle the fancy of any fan of a rapidly-improving league. If the whole of the tale were written on paper: and Marquez were stripped of name and dubbed “Player X”, you’d be thrilled, perhaps even surprised, that his level of quality were joining your league, much less your side.
The thing is, when it comes to Marquez, it’s just impossible to see things this way. The whole of the tale is not simply placed on paper. He is not “Player X”. To be blunt, the signing makes one ill, a punch to the stomach, a dagger to the side. After all, this is Rafa Marquez. Yes, that Rafa Marquez. This is Red Card Rafa, the man who had the audacity to head butt Cobi Jones with venom in his heart in Jeonju eight summers ago. That Rafa Marquez—the one who viciously stomped on Tim Howard on a cool night in Columbus two Februaries ago that should be remembered as MB 90’s coming-out-party, but thanks to Marquez’s malice, simply isn’t. Are we supposed to forget? Forgive? Accept, for love (and the betterment) of the game? In a word, I say no. There’s an old saying that Will Rogers never met a man he didn’t like. It’s safe to say Will Rogers never met Rafa Marquez.
The use of the Simmons quote at the top of the page is not wholly analogous to the situation, but certainly characterizes the nature of my sentiment. At least in the American sporting metanarrative, Clemens is tied closely to Boston. He won three Cy Young Awards in that city and over 150 games. The Rocket, as Simmons notes, had every opportunity to achieve heroic status in Boston—to be part of a short discussion by old men in barber shops that passes from generation to generation: The Splinter, Orr, Bird, Brady. Bill Russell too but there was too much racism for that to be part of the contemporary moment in time in which the great Celtics big man played. Even when Clemens signed with Toronto, there was still a chance he could save his place in Boston sporting folklore. All he had to was say something endearing about the fans and people in Boston at his Blue Jays press conference. It was forty-five seconds for the rest of his life. And he let the moment pass. To make matters worse, he recovered from a tough set of final years in Boston, won the Cy Young again and Toronto and remade his career. Then he decided to play for the Yankees. His forced, and as Simmons reminds us, legally tenuous trade to New York in 1999 was the final straw, what Simmons calls the “ultimate violation.” From that moment forward, well before he donned a Yankees hat at the “Greatest Players of the 20th Century” ceremony at the All-Star Game; at Fenway Park no less, later that summer—Clemens was dead to Red Sox fans. And, as the epigram at the top demonstrates—it is a lasting, endless death. There is no shot at redemption for Roger, not even a (now questionable thanks to steroids) Hall-of-Fame induction in a Boston hat. Not particularly beloved by Yankees fans either (he was up and down, and still a Red Sox guy to the cynical Bronx Bomber fan, during his tenure in New York) Clemens is now a rare breed of athlete in the typically forgiving world of American sport. He’s an athlete in the rarefied realm of the irredeemable.
The totality of Clemens place of abjection in the hearts of American fans happens to be exactly the space that Rafa Marquez occupies, or ought to occupy—with only a pair of slight differences. First, unlike The Rocket, Marquez is a hero to at least one group of fans. In Mexico, the man is a rock star. He’s also beloved by the many Mexican-American soccer fans in this country, many of whom, for better or worse, at times find it a betrayal of the heart to pull for the Red, White and Blue over El Tri. That’s the first distinction. The second is the graver offense. In the battle of club and country, only in baseball does the appeal and attachment to club trump the attachment to country.
Basketball fans, particularly those of the American variety, that disagree with me need to ask themselves how they felt when Kobe Bryant took over the Gold Medal Game in Beijing. Maybe you already liked the Lakers. In that case, you were in fine shape. But the many Celtic fans, and Knick fans, and other fans watching—those are the ones who are lying if they weren’t glad Mr. Bryant had the basketball when the game truly mattered. Sure—there are exceptions, or at least exceptions are possible. Cleveland may not be particularly proud if Lebron guides the US to gold in London. It may make them ill. But that will be one city. My guess is a great Olympic performance could help James rehabilitate public good will again in every other American city where his summer antics and cruel departure from Cleveland created a rather large respect deficit.
In soccer, no matter what the club managers tell you, the edge to country over club is even more pronounced. This is where Marquez has the largest of his problems. No matter how many times the United States defeats Mexico dos y cero—Marquez will still be the Mexican captain (or the former Mexican captain). He’ll still be red-card Rafa who intentionally tried to injure American players and who displayed zero dignity or class in defeat after defeat, always insisting that the Yanks were lucky, that Mexico was still the superior footballing nation, and that the game mattered less to Mexico than it did to America. Never a kind word uttered quick on the excuse. Unlike James and Clemens, Rafa never had a foundation within American sport to generate a well-spring of goodwill. Indeed, Rafa starts at the zero point of respect and adulation—that is to say; he begins as the embodiment of the enemy.
You can talk as much as you’d like about the need for villains in American sport. American rivalries are compelling because opposing fan bases demonize the opposition and the distaste is clean and old-fashioned. Red Sox-Yankees is marvelous for this reason, for the pure ideological opposition to what the other side stands for. The same can be said of other great American rivalries—Duke and North Carolina, Ohio State and Michigan, Auburn and Alabama, Celtics-Lakers. Soccer’s rivalries share this trait with American sport and outpace it in most areas. There are all sorts of reasons for that and they extend beyond the walls of club soccer. Religion, politics and former wars and conflicts, class and cultural conflicts all permeate the walls of soccer at both the club level and the international game and they are part of what makes the history of the game so rich and the stories the sport has to offer so compelling. And it is true that MLS needs more villains. The effort to demonize LA Galaxy as a super club fails for the most part, especially at a time that they feature the current hero of American soccer. DC United is too lousy to be hated. The Crew are in Ohio and the Dynamo are in Houston so regardless of their success on the field they aren’t really worthy of American loathing. New York, as Jason Davis reminds us in his piece on the Marquez signing, offers the New York Yankees, the Rangers, and the Knicks. It is uniquely American to love New York City and hate her sports teams. With three designated players, the Red Bulls are using that most evil of things, money, and not only is it incapable of buying you love; quite the contrary in sport, the more of it you spend, the more you are hated. The Red Bulls seem to finally be buying into the most New York of concepts, and their reward will likely be a more venomous reception wherever they go.
So perhaps we should appreciate the Marquez signing because it provides MLS a proper villain, one she lacked? Sorry, can’t support this either. Marquez is simply too evil to be a right villain. Not that all villains offer some smidge of a redemptive quality. Certainly Gladiator’s Commodus had little excuse, outside of paranoia about a father’s love. No Country For Old Men’s Anton Chigurh is even less-redeemable, but at least he flipped a coin. No, Marquez is beyond the realm of redemption, and absolute villains are too dark and make for bad sporting narrative. Take for example his prior club, FC Barcelona. You’re supposed to like, if not love, FCBarcelona. They play one of the most beautiful brands of football in the world and they have long served as the loyal opposition to totalitarian dictator General Franco’s Real Madrid. It is right to hate the Galacticos and it is wrong to hate Barca. You simply can’t hate a club whose sponsor isn’t a sponsor at all but is, rather, an international organization that wants to feed starving children. Yet Marquez made you pause. Admit it. At some point in time you wondered aloud or in the quiet of your mind, while watching Barca play a Champions League game one day—exactly how such a noble club, a people’s club, could employ the likes of a Rafa Marquez. Interestingly, before the Hand of Gaul incident, Henry commanded similar warm sentiment. He’s just too good a human being to reject outright. But now there is the Hand-of-Gaul, and it is a bit easier. And now there is Marquez, and it is hard to actively cheer for Henry or his new club. Marquez poisons all he touches.
The hardest part of course is getting around the original point—that Rafa Marquez is good for MLS, an important signing. Maybe so. But life isn’t always measured with reason and objectivity. Nor should it be. On paper, it’s quite easy to be deceived. On paper, Sarah Michelle Gellar was the perfect woman in Cruel Intentions, beautiful, a model student and campus leader. Sure she was a narcissistic, jealousy-driven sadistic coke-addict—but no one really realized it until Reese Witherspoon made those copies of Ryan Phillippe’s conquest book. By then, Phillippe’s character was room temperature. This makes her worse than say, a classic villain like Rachel McAdams’ Regina George in Mean Girls, because Gellar’s Kathryn Mitchell was far better looking on paper. People were afraid of Regina George, but even her “friends” the Plastics knew what she was in the end—controlling, manipulative and insecure. Marquez falls more in the Kathryn category—evil, despite appearances. And like Gellar, he’s likely to win, at least in the short term. That’s the most frightening part. Winning often cures anger, rights past wrongs. This is one context where it shouldn’t. I’m not saying you have to boo him every time he touches the ball—but give it some thought.
Is Red Card Rafa the Antichrist? No, of course he isn’t—although on paper theology suggests the Antichrist will look pretty sound himself. But he is worthy of our cynicism. His past actions are not worthy, for the time being, of our forgiveness. He does make it nearly impossible to like the Red Bulls, humanitarian of the year Henry considered. So be careful, MLS fans. This is a sticky situation and Rafa deserves your fear and loathing. He’s playing the role of the pretty girl from the overlapping social circle in college who you always knew was bad news, conniving, manipulative and likely to rip your heart out. And he just started dating your best friend. Your move, USMNT fans. Your move. I know mine.
Neil W. Blackmon is the Associate Editor of The Yanks Are Coming. He can be reached at email@example.com. You can also follow him on Twitter @nwb_usmnt.