They were not expected to be here. Not the team seconds away from an embarrassing elimination in the qualifying phase. Not the captain, deemed as washed up and on his way to retirement after a disappointing spell in the MLS.
That was one year ago. It’s a completely different story now.
Mexico and Rafael Marquez completed an incredible comeback with a game to remember at the Arena Pernambuco in Recife, a 3-1 victory over Croatia that was one of the most memorable performances by the former Barcelona star with his national team.
Marquez scored the first goal of the game and assisted Chicharito for the third that sealed Mexico’s victory. The 35-year old veteran has vindicated coach Miguel Herrera. One of his first decisions after taking charge of El Tri for the World Cup play-off against New Zealand was to bring him back after more than a year removed from the team.
One of the biggest weaknesses Mexico had in that disastrous 2013 was the lack of leaders, a void Marquez filled immediately. Once Mexico finally got their place in the World Cup, Herrera quickly stated he was the only player who was certain in the final squad.
It wasn’t an obvious choice, as it may seem now. Marquez’s best days seemed long gone and his legacy was partially tarnished by his habit of mind-boggling red cards when frustration over lost games got the better of him. It happened just months ago in the Copa Libertadores, the night his club Leon were eliminated by Bolivar.
But Marquez has regained his old form and his team-mates couldn’t be happier to have him on their side.
“Rafa is a leader, the capacity he has and has proven during his career, it doesn’t surprise me because he was always done this, the trophies he’s won, he’s always showed this quality,” said goalkeeper Guillermo Ochoa after the game.
“He is a great character. Now he has a (Mexican) record, he has scored in three consecutive World Cups, he is a very important player for us. He went back to Mexico, he won two leagues and now he is the captain here, he is scoring goals and he is supporting us in the best way possible inside and outside the pitch,” added Chicharito Hernandez.
No matter what happens next for El Tri in Brazil 2014, Marquez has cemented his legacy as one of the best Mexican players of all time. He is not Cuauhtemoc Blanco, the biggest idol Mexico have had in the past two decades, but is indeed the best Mexican of the past two decades. Some could argue he is the best ever, only rivalled by Hugo Sanchez.
But he is not done yet. This is his fourth World Cup and in each of the past three he saw Mexico’s dreams shattered in the round of 16. He wants more and he is convinced this is the best team he is been part of in the biggest stage of football.
He told Goal: “I never (in previous World Cups) enjoyed such a strong union, with so clear commitment, and a group so anxious to meet all the goals, as we are living with him (coach Miguel Herrera.)
“This is a group that knows what it wants and works to achieve it.”
Netherlands will be their toughest challenge so far, maybe tougher than any opponent Mexico had in their five consecutive defeats in the round of 16. But that doesn’t rattle El Tri’s captain.
He added: “We have the purpose of doing something important here, The motto of the group is to make history.”
They’ve qualified from Brazil’s group unbeaten. Maybe they can make history.