Mexico's Rafa Marquez discusses his turbulent journey to a fifth World Cup

MOSCOW -- Sleepless nights. Tears. Fear of the law knocking at his door and leading him away from his family. Now, 10 months later, a fifth World Cup is in sight along with a chance to make history.

Of all the 736 players at Russia 2018, Mexico captain Rafa Marquez's road here has almost certainly been the most turbulent. Neither Mohamed Salah's struggle to return from injury nor Paolo Guerrero's fight against suspension have been as fraught with drama.

On Aug. 9, 2017, the now 39-year-old Marquez's life was turned upside down. The U.S. Treasury Department accused Marquez, as well as popular Mexican singer Julion Alvarez, of having "acted as front persons" for a drug trafficking organization, after a multi-year investigation. Sanctions followed, bank accounts in both Mexico and the States were frozen, Marquez's U.S. visa was stripped away and the veteran player was left to come to terms with life on the U.S. government blacklist.

The prospect of Marquez becoming only the third player to see the field in five World Cups and of extending his own record of captaining a side in four editions of the tournament was distant, to say the least.

Marquez is the most successful player in Mexico's history in terms of major trophies won in Europe and when he hangs up his boots after the World Cup, he'll likely go down as the country's second-best player, behind former Real Madrid striker Hugo Sanchez.

But even more than Sanchez, Marquez -- who has 143 caps for Mexico -- had become a figure of authority and almost morality in Mexican football. He'd been working on the creation of the recently founded footballer's association and has schools providing education and sporting activities for children in deprived areas of Guadalajara and his native Zamora in the state of Michoacan. Marquez's future beyond the pitch appeared to point to a high-profile role within the Mexican game, perhaps within the Mexican federation, or even in the political realm.

But all that appeared to come crashing down last August, leaving Marquez's reputation hanging by a thread.

"It was a very tough blow," Marquez said in a lengthy interview with ESPN's John Sutcliffe. "I think a lot of people don't realize, or don't know."

This is the first time Marquez has really opened up about those dark days in the wake of the allegations. The former Barcelona player's outward image is one of steely resolve, mixed with a little arrogance, which was perhaps part of him becoming one of a handful of Mexican players to reach the top of the world game. Mexico and club teammates have been known to call him "El Patron" (The Boss). But that air of invincibility and authority evaporates as his voice breaks when talking about losing his father after the 2002 World Cup and not being able to talk to him during this traumatic experience.

The whole situation was clearly tough for the player, who maintains his innocence. Marquez cried, was confused, didn't want to go out, couldn't sleep easily and feared arrest.

"Those were a couple of weeks in which maybe I didn't want to leave my house," Marquez said. "We had to really inform ourselves about what was happening and what the consequences were.

"I didn't even know in that moment about the investigations and accusations of the government of the United States, our neighbor and the most powerful nation in the world," added Marquez, who lived in the United States when he played for New York Red Bulls between August 2010 and December 2012.

Marquez announced in a media conference on Aug. 10 that he would be putting his career with Atlas on hold to fight the charge. The player didn't answer questions and looked in shock. He wore plain clothing, with no club logos to be seen, and called the fight against the sanctions his "most difficult game."

His accounts and businesses had been frozen and getting by on a day-to-day basis was complicated, he admitted. Some friends from the football world literally knocked on Marquez's door and helped him out financially. Others ignored his calls, something Marquez said he will remember.

Marrquez's lawyers have managed to lift some of the injunctions within Mexico through the court system, but the Zamora native didn't travel to the United States for El Tri's first preparation game against Wales on May 28. And even in Russia he trains with clothing not showing the Mexico national team sponsors' logo, some of which are giant American corporations.

It's been a long struggle and one Marquez said has left him with no regrets.

"I know who I really am, I know what I've really done and that I don't have anything to fear because in the end my parents gave me some very important values that I've passed on to my children," Marquez said.

"I'll always keep my head held high and I am who I am and that's how my family has seen me and people still respect me and have affection for me, on and off the field."

"The truth is that I don't regret anything even a little because I am no criminal; I've not done anything that is against the law."

Atlas and Mexico fans have certainly backed Marquez since he returned to the pitch in Liga MX on Oct. 29, following a break that was widely believed to be his retirement. But Marquez bounced back.

The former Monaco player has left his lawyers to work on gradually normalizing his situation -- at least in Mexico -- while he has concentrated on proving to coach Juan Carlos Osorio that he deserved a spot in the Mexico squad. In the team's send-off match in Estadio Azteca on June 2, Marquez's name echoed around the cavernous stadium when he was brought on at halftime. Two days earlier, Marquez had sat next to and shook the hand of Mexican president Enrique Pena Nieto. Even with the allegations, he is set to become a bona fide Mexican legend.

"I've never felt or wanted or thought about feeling like a legend," Marquez said. "In the end I am a human being like anyone other person.

"The people that know me say that I'm still the same person I was when I started my career 22 years ago.

"I'd like to be an example for future generations, so they try to achieve important things and make their own history."

Currently in Russia preparing for Mexico's opener against Germany on Sunday, Marquez wants to end his career by making history with a national team that has gone out of the World Cup at the round of 16 in each of the past six editions of the tournament.

"[I dream] about making history with the national team," he said. "It's been a thorn in the side that in four opportunities we've not been able to achieve it.

"This is the moment, it's today, it's the present. We can't wait four more years to make history.

"We have all the tools and we have to work them. We have to convince ourselves, mentally prepare ourselves to be able to make history."

Marquez's situation remains complicated and his reputation outside of Mexico may be difficult to recover, but just being in Russia is a minor miracle given where he was last August.