By Paul Gardner
Rafa Marquez to the New York Red Bulls? A done deal, or a very nearly, as near as you can get, done deal, I am informed. A three- or four-year deal at $2.8 million a year.
That really is exciting, and not just for Marquez -- a world-class player, in his prime at age 31. A player who would be welcomed by most of Europe’s top clubs. One might, therefore, be suspicious as to why Barcelona would let him go -- but a more intriguing question relates to his choice of MLS as his destination.
Because, make no mistake, this is a huge coup for MLS. In the Beckham class, for sure -- certainly in the sense that Marquez brings much more on-the-field potential than Beckham ever promised, even had he managed to remain fit, or available, for more than a few games at a time.
The marketing and the celebrity prizes will no doubt remain firmly in Beckham’s corner, but it would not do to underestimate Marquez’s pulling power among the huge Mexican-American -- widen that to Latin-American -- soccer community.
The question mark that hovers over the recent signing of Marquez’s Barcelona teammate Thierry Henry has precisely to do with his ability to put backsides in seats ... quickly. Of Henry’s skill and ability to excite there should be little doubt -- but how many New Jersey/New York fans are there waiting for Henry to turn it on? It seems quite likely that Henry will have to prove himself, will have to quickly turn the Red Bulls into a super-team before the fans start to stream in.
With Rafa it will all be different. As one of the most prominent Mexicans of this era, he is an automatic draw for Mexican fans. He will surely have an immediate, dynamic effect on both attendances and on the performance of the team.
The problem for Coach Hans Backe is now one that became quite familiar during the old NASL days -- when teams would sign one or two stars, and attempt to get the best out of them while surrounding them with a mediocre teammates. In this sense, the more that the Red Bulls’ three DPs see of the ball, the better. That surely means that Marquez will play in midfield, where full use can be made of his wide range of defensive and attacking skills.
The team will be unbalanced, of course. In particular, it lacks a playmaker. Possibly Joel Lindpere can grow into that role, but so far he has shown little more than a willingness to do a lot of running -- and a lamentable tendency to play too deep for real playmaking activities.
But an inspired Rafa Marquez could bring on a reborn Thierry Henry and a rejuvenated Juan Pablo Angel, and that might be enough to ignite the Red Bulls, to turn them from a winning but dull team into a team that both wins and delights.
There is another aspect to Marquez’s arrival that promises good things. He is an obvious candidate to mobilize the Latino community in this country, to help it gain its merited place on the American soccer scene.
Thirty-five years ago, Pele arrived in New York, signed by the Cosmos. An article appeared in The Sporting News headed: “Pele - A Signal to Recruit Blacks?” The author pointed out that, at that time, there were precisely no American-born blacks playing in the league. Not one. The coming of Pele could alter that, he surmised, and suggested that a “soccer for cities” program be introduced, with Pele as its chairman, acting as a sort of Pied Piper leading young black Americans to the promised soccer land.
Nice thoughts, but naive. They were my thoughts. I was the author of the article, but I had not thought things out. Pele knew a lot more than I did about the workings of black politics in that era, and decided to steer clear. There would be no Pele-led initiative, and I realized, much later, that getting black Americans interested in soccer was a lot more complicated than I had imagined.
I recall -- very clearly -- my vision of Pele visiting Harlem. Harlem, it was always Harlem. That was the buzz-place -- if you mentioned Harlem you gained immediate attention -- and sympathy. Except that Harlem wasn’t interested in soccer. And, you know, not much has changed. When MLS and Don Garber and David Beckham put on a fundraising dinner a couple of years back, it was Harlem FC -- a club with little history in this area -- that was pointedly featured in the publicity.
But Marquez comes into a very different situation -- in fact he comes into the sort of situation that I had dreamily concocted 35 years ago. There is now a huge, nationwide urban minority community ripe for leadership. Hispanics do not need to be sold the sport, they already embrace it. But they do need to be assured that their presence is viewed as an asset rather than a nuisance or a menace.
This time, it should not take much to induce Marquez to act as a trailblazer for both Hispanic fans and Hispanic players. This time it’s different -- the time is ripe. Marquez will help MLS attract other top world stars. The Red Bulls can use Marquez as a supreme ticket seller -- but they must also use him to make sure that the club’s academy system encourages Latin talent.