Cuauhtemoc Blanco is back.
You read that right. Blanco signed for Liga MX club Puebla earlier this summer, and at 41 years of age. Not 30. Not 40. Forty one. Cuau has been on this earth for almost 15,000 days. Of those, he’s been a professional soccer player for about 8,000 days. So why has he returned to the top flight? And where exactly did he go?
Cuauhtémoc Blanco Bravo grew up in Mexico City and earned his fame as an attacking midfielder for local team and regional power Club America. He and Salvador Cabanas formed a potent tandem, and won the 2005 Clausura tournament. He also won the league MVP award four times, and was the top league scorer in 1998. More Quasimodo than Captain America in terms of stature and fitness, he imposed his will on games through a silky first touch, lightning quick decisions, and eye for the killer pass. If Club America is a Yankees-esque empire with too many villamelone (bandwagon fans), Blanco was the miscreant you couldn’t help but love. He was a villain and loved being the villain, and you loved him being the villain. Imagine WWE but with soccer balls instead of leotards.
Internationally, Blanco also performed well for Mexico at several World Cups. He especially shined at the 2002 edition, playing just off target striker Jared Borghetti. However, his career hit a major dip when he and Mexico’s new coach Ricardo LaVolpe publicly traded barbs and he didn’t make the 2006 squad. He also soon found himself on the outside looking in at Club America. Then, he found an unlikely place to reboot his career: Major League Soccer. He and Brian McBride joined the Chicago Fire and took the team on deep playoff runs. His flair, flicks, and heel passes were too much for technically challenged defenders, even if Blanco’s meager physical gifts had withered considerably.
How good was Blanco’s form, then, on the wrong side of 35? He earned a shock call-up to the 2010 World Cup in South Africa. He even scored a penalty against France in Mexico’s last and decisive group stage game. He could no longer hop around the field and pull off his famed cuauhteminhas (bunny hops), but his brilliant soccer brain still operated at 1,000 miles per minute. However, by that time, he’d left the Fire for the backwaters of second division Mexican soccer, where clubs are probably as likely to be liquidated & disappear as earn promotion (or both).
The Liga de Ascenso is a barren land of mirages, and Blanco turned nomad. He lasted less than half a year at Veracruz before moving to Irapuato FC. He bagged nine goals in 47 appearances and spearheaded a highly successful campaign by the Guanajuato-based club. They barely lost out on promotion, falling to Club Tijuana in the Liga Ascenso playoff final. Thereafter, Irapuato, like many other clubs in medium-to-small cities in Mexico, disappeared. In fact, reading their club history on Wikipedia is flat out depressing. In 2001, when the club won promotion, the “franchise” was sold to Veracruz. After 2013, the team, relegated to the segunda (the third division in reality), performed poorly and was moved to Zacatepec. What was Blanco doing in such muddy terrain?
In December 2011, he moved to Liga Ascenso club Dorados de Sinaloa. He boldly (and incorrectly) claimed this would be his last club and he was considering being a coach. However, again, Blanco turned back the clock. He scored 14 goals in over 40 appearances, and the second-division club won the Copa Mexico.
Both the Copa Mexico and the league have byzantine rules and confusing calendars: the Copa has a round-robin group stage before converting into a knockout tournament. The league has two seasons per year, each followed by playoffs (known as “liguilla”), and a complex relegation system based on the average points accumulated over the prior three years. This was done to prevent the big (read: Mexico City) clubs from being relegated, and has been largely successful in that regard.
Confused? You should be. But know this – despite the point totals, round-robin games, and other nonsense, Blanco owned the liguilla. For fans of Mexico, Cuauhtemoc = clutch. Which is why the romantic in me would like to think Puebla signed Blanco to jumpstart the attack. However, reality hurts. In his debut, he only managed a nice heel flick and a yellow card. To a novice viewer, the physical demands of the game have become too much. Unlike Ryan Giggs or Javier Zanetti, no intense physical regimen and diet has kept him playing soccer: just skill and self-belief. In fact, his every movement looks labored. It’s as if Batman in The Dark Knight Rises never got his back to heal properly and decided to hang around in the Lazarus Pit instead of working out.
Thus, despite a penalty kick goal for Puebla in the Copa MX, the cynic in me only sees dollar signs. Weeks before Mexico’s friendly with Israel and Blanco’s retirement from el tri, billboards plugging products and featuring his famous Aztec salute popped up all around I-59 in Houston (where the game was played and, shock, many Mexicans and chicanas call home). Ergo, Puebla is in dire straits and facing relegation, in addition to dwindling attendance. Even if Cuau can’t win games, he can at least fill the stands. Commercial sponsorships may be the key to ensuring Puebla doesn’t cease to exist if they do take the drop to Liga de Ascenso.
Then again, writing off Cuautehmoc Blanco has been a pastime of smarter writers and analysts than me for the past decade. I feel sad that Blanco’s swansong is coming four years too late on a pretty mediocre team, but I also can’t help but secretly root for him (and just maybe Puebla). If my back was hunched against the wall, I know who I wouldn’t mind having in my corner.