King of León: How Rafa Marquez came to rule Liga MX (and then eff off back to Europe)

Hey, did you know that Rafa Marquez still hasn’t retired? It’s true. And as recently as a few months ago he led a newly-promoted team to two Mexican titles in a row. Not bad for a guy who hasn’t been able to sprint since 1997.

In 2011, few could see the light at the end of the tunnel for either Mexican defender Rafael Marquez or Mexican team Club León FC. Marquez had left FC Barcelona in 2010, having enjoyed a glorious spell as the pass-first center back for perhaps the best team in the world. He’d signed for the New York Red Bulls of Major League Soccer, a franchise in the middle of a reboot thanks to millions from a European energy drink company. Still, things weren’t clicking. Used to a pass-and-move style of play, Marquez struggled to adapt to MLS’s run-and-gun approach. He failed to gel with teammates on and off the field. Also, his depleted physical gifts were exposed by younger forwards. Petulance followed. He looked and felt isolated.

Club León F.C, nicknamed “The Green Bellies”, was in even worse shape. The City of León, located in Guanajuato and boasting almost 2 million inhabitants, had grown used to first-tier futbol. In fact, during the 1940s and 1950s, the Green Bellies won the Primera four times. They were also the first to win both the Primera and Copa Mexico in the same season (1949). However, they were relegated in 2003. The team got a Jekyll and Hyde reputation, regularly tearing up the regular season before choking in the promotion playoffs. It lost the promotion playoff final against Irapuato in 2003, Dorados de Sinaola in 2005, and Indios de Juarez in 2008. It was basically the Buffalo Bills of Liga de Ascenso.

So, how did these two fading stars united to form a supernova of success? Well, I’ll tell you.

In 2012, Gustavo Matosas took the helm at León. The half-Argentina, half-Uruguayan coach had traversed and knew quite well the troubled waters of Mexican second division soccer. He inspired the Green Bellies to 10 wins in 14 games during the Clausura regular season and won the Clausura playoffs, beating Correcaminos and BUAP. In the promotion playoff final, they again faced Correcaminos (based in Victoria, the capital of Tamaulipas). After losing the first game 2-1, they thrashed the Correcaminos 5-0 at home to earn promotion.

Unlike many a European league where a promoted club often axes its coach, Mastosas stayed on board. However, Club León faced the same dilemma of newly promoted clubs everywhere: do you count on new revenue and invest heavily in the roster or do you try to stay up with a bare bones roster? Liga de Ascenso also has another wrinkle: the franchise model. Basically, rich cities with bored billionaires will often pluck out a newly promoted club and relocate them. Luckily, Club León had committed owners, a relatively large metropolitan fan-base, and played in the Estadio Leon (confusingly also known as the “Nou Camp”), an older venue but large enough to have hosted World Cup matches in 1970 and 1986.

The club stuck around and, more importantly, serendipity landed them Rafa Marquez. Rafa’s poor play and, more importantly, degrading public comments about the quality of the play and his teammates burned many a bridge with MLS and the Red Bulls. He wanted to return to Liga MX, but few clubs were willing to pay his salary, especially with questions about his ability to still play at a high level. Less than a day after being released by NYRB, he signed with Club León. It would prove a match made in soccerballing heaven.

Of the 18 teams that contested the Apertura, five sacked their coaches, one resigned, and one left by mutual consent. The coaching carousel in Liga MX makes the English Premier League look like a bastion of stability. Club León FC stuck with Matosas and the team finished a very strong third place in the regular season, winning eight games out of 17 and finishing only seven points off champion Club America. In the liguilla (playoffs), though, it was second to none. It crushed Morelia 7-3 on aggregate in the quarterfinals, bested Santos Laguna 5-3 on aggregate, and, in the final, beat Club America both home and way to lift the trophy. The 3-1 demolishing of Club America at the Estadio Azteca is probably the best away performance by a Liga MX team in recent history. Not bad for a first season in the top flight.

Set up in a 5-3-2 system, the Green Bellies defend with numbers and rely on wing play, crosses, and set pieces to score goals. They also scored quite a few screamers from 25 yards out. In the midfield, Rafa Marquez plays as either an advanced libero or holding midfielder, depending on the situation. His metronomic passing set the tone, and his ability to switch fields often played creative wingers into acres of space. Beside him, Carlos Peña, has been with the club since the Liga de Ascenso days, provided the steel. Peña’s long hair earns him frequent comparisons to Ruud Gullit, but, in reality, he’s more Roy Keane. His work-rate and industry helped to compensate for Rafa’s lack of pace.

In the Clausura, León fell from orbit. It finished the regular season in eighth place, qualifying for the liguilla ahead of Chiapas on goal difference. However, it grinded out a playoff run that was fortunate, gritty, and above all ugly. First in the quarterfinals, it tied Cruz Azul at home 1-1. Away to Cruz Azul, itconceded two goals in the first half. However, Argentine striker Mauro Boselli scored just before the break. In the second half, Luis Montes scored to tie the game and send León through on away goals. In the semis, it comfortably beat Toluca home-and-away 1-0, but faced a strong Pachuca side in the final. It lost the first leg 3-2, but won the second leg 1-0. But wait, you ask, what about away goals? For the final, they don’t count. Thus, the second leg went to extra time, where Nacho Gonzalez headed home a Luis Montes corner kick in the 111th minute.

What’s most impressive about the back-to-back titles is that the club has done it with the same coach and key players from the second division side from 2012. Yes, Marquez has left for greener pastures in Serie A after a good World Cup, but with Boselli leading the line and Pena and Montes in midfield, you can’t count out the Green Bellies. They may currently sit 15th place in the table, but if they make the liguilla, watch out. When you’ve reached your lowest ebb, you can only go up.