Few players in the history of the game can match the remarkable accomplishments of Rafa Márquez, someone who was able to truly shine for club and country. The 39-year-old retired from professional soccer this past summer. He helped to guide Mexico beyond the group stage at the 2018 FIFA World Cup, becoming the first man to ever captain his national side at five World Cup tournaments.
At Barcelona, his work at the back proved a part of their tremendous run of success, including four La Liga titles and two Champions League trophies. At the New York Red Bulls, the story was a bit different for Márquez and for the fans.
The saga of Rafa Márquez with New York Red Bulls
The talented defender began his career in Guadalajara with Atlas, and his strong play in the middle garnered serious attention from Europe. Often deployed as a center-back, Márquez also thrived as a defensive midfielder in front of the backline. A move to AS Monaco in the summer of 1999 saw immediate benefits for both club and player, as the team captured a Ligue 1 title during his first campaign. In 2003, El Káiser signed with Barcelona.
With exceptional vision and superb passing accuracy, he was an ideal addition at the Camp Nou. After unprecedented success in Spain and once again serving as Mexico’s captain at the 2010 FIFA World Cup in South Africa, Márquez became the newest designated player for the New York Red Bulls. The decision surprised many and had Red Bulls fans excited for a new era, as there were many moving pieces to the franchise’s latest reinforcement.
The Red Bulls had a pivotal year in 2010. The team truly headed in a new direction. Red Bull Arena in Harrison opened at the start of the season, leaving behind the cavernous confines of Giants Stadium. Hans Backe became head coach, and management was certainly looking to make an impact with their high-profile signings.
With striker Juan Pablo Ángel already in the team, the Red Bulls brought on Márquez’s former Barcelona teammate Thierry Henry to bolster the frontline. With Márquez added soon after, New York became the first MLS side to have three designated players. It is remarkable to reflect on that period in today’s climate for the club, as the emphasis shifted to the youth system and academy development. Massive salaries are not normally a part of the approach in terms of the current roster.
Early signs were promising for Márquez, as the club seemed poised to have a reliable presence at the back as they made their way towards the MLS Cup Playoffs. He scored a stunning goal against Toronto FC in August of that year, even though it would take time for the Mexican international to integrate effectively into the lineup. However, the 2011 campaign would see things start to unravel in a significant way for the Red Bulls’ relationship with Márquez.
The beginning of the end
There always seemed to be something a bit off with him in the team, from effective communication to an overall cohesion that never quite reached the appropriate level. Injuries of course did not help matters, but Márquez would ultimately develop a reputation of being unmotivated and indifferent in regards to his new club team. This take was confirmed late in the season, after a disappointing loss to Real Salt Lake.
Defensive issues from Tim Ream and Teemu Tainio directly led to goals for the opposition during the encounter, and that was clearly having an effect on Márquez. After the game, he spoke about the squad’s struggles on the field. “I’m focusing on really performance at my highest level. That doesn’t mean that the whole backline can perform at that same level, so that’s a problem. I think this is a team game and unfortunately there isn’t an equal level between my teammates and I.”
Backe would suspend Márquez for these comments, but the damage was already done within the locker room and in the home stands. The defender would hear the boos cascading down upon him at Red Bull Arena following those post-game words, and the upcoming MLS Cup Playoffs would see him double down on the attitude problems.
After a 1-0 home loss to the Los Angeles Galaxy in the conference semifinals, Márquez instigated a fight at the end of the match that ultimately resulted in his suspension for the second leg. New York would be eliminated from the postseason in that series.
2012 would see more of the same in terms of red cards at the worst possible time, occurring at the same stage of the playoffs versus D.C. United. After that season, Márquez and New York mutually agreed to terminate the remainder of his contract.
He would feature in only 50 matches across all competitions for the Red Bulls, as his two and a half years with the team would produce more frustration than celebration. Márquez signed with Club León soon after his release, eventually going on to lift two Liga MX titles. A stint in Italy with Hellas Verona and a final run with Atlas (who gave him his professional start) would close out his career.
In a 2014 interview with ESPN Deportes, Márquez labeled his decision to play in the United States as a “mistake”, seemingly regretting the fact that he was still capable of more. Rumors at the time linked him with Juventus after departing Barcelona, but instead New York became the destination.
Márquez was an interesting case, and certainly will be remembered as a villain by Red Bulls fans. With an expensive contract and sky-high expectations, his run with the club ended in genuine disappointment. Other big names have not worked out for the team also, with Lothar Matthäus and Branco coming to mind during the MetroStars days. But when considering the playoff ramifications of his actions, this signing was in a category all its own.
Rafa Márquez is one of the top talents in Mexico’s history, and found success in nearly every chapter of his impressive career. His move to the New York Red Bulls in the summer of 2010 came at the wrong moment, one where attitude and desire did not arrive with the player.