Soccer’s biggest heel should have said goodbye four years ago

Spare me your praise party. Yes, Cuauhtémoc Blanco played the last 20 minutes of the Copa MX final over a week ago, and drew attention far and wide for his purported farewell. And yes, Puebla won said Copa MX final. In fact, one of Blanco’s few goals for Puebla this season was a penalty kick in the Copa MX. Nevertheless, his return to Puebla always felt like a publicity stunt on the club’s part and moneygrubbing on Blanco’s. The cold reality is that Blanco’s Puebla will probably be relegated and Cuau didn’t ride to the rescue: he couldn’t even make the team’s weak bench in many Liga MX games. His return has been a farce, so why was everybody else so giddy?

Of course, like everybody else, I loved Blanco the player while I was growing up. He played for easy-to-hate Club América but relished his role as the bad guy. When the Aguilas would travel to away games, the boos, chants and insults would super-charge his batteries. Unlike other slow players with a soft touch, he wouldn’t cuddle up in a ball when he got kicked: he’d kick back, veins bulging and threatening to jump out from his bright red forehead.

He combined the crowd-egging of the Undertaker, the savvy veteran who’s still-got-it of post-30 Paul Pierce, and the tenacity of a wolverine. Seemingly all inside the body of a balding, middle-aged accountant with a limp. When Blanco knelt as a gladiator to celebrate goals, you booed because you loved to hate him. He didn’t just don the black hat, he rocked it with feathers.

Cuau’s World Cup exploits are the stuff of legend down south. His Cuauhteminha versus Italian defenders is almost as nice as his lovely cross for a Borghetti goal. And up north, Cuau earned mad respect for his Designated Player years with the Chicago Fire. Discarded from Club América and in his 30’s, fans suspected he had come Stateside for one last paycheck. The media fuss was not quite on par with David Beckham’s, but it still sent shockwaves through the Mexican-American community.

Then came the odd part: Blanco still kicked ass on the field. He and Brian McBride led Chicago on successive deep playoff runs. I had the pleasure of personally watching him pick apart D.C. United one cold fall night at RFK Stadium. His agile mind outfoxed younger legs time and time again.

So I’m not a Cuau-hater. I even taught my son the Cuauteminha before he turned five years old. Sometimes I even emulate his extended run-up penalties when I’m feeling cheeky in a game or practice.

Still, the book of Blanco’s career had two chapters too many. When he first returned to Mexico and the Liga de Ascenso, it was a decent fit. He spent a short spell at Veracruz before spearheading Irapuato to a promotion playoff with Club Tijuana in 2011, which the club lost. He then perpetually announced his retirement only to retract it when a Liga de Ascenso club came calling. He played for Dorados de Sinaola (and won the Copa MX in 2012), then Lobos BUAP, and came close to retiring. Then came Puebla, a relegation-bound club starved for excitement and buzz, from which he’s finally willing to depart.

Thus, this very last chapter is the saddest: Blanco, the ineffective player on a team careening towards relegation. We used to hate Blanco because we respected him as a player, but at the end, that was simply no longer the case. He could still pull off a few tricks and flash some nice touches, but lane lacked cks the footspeed to even get open for a pass, let alone turn. A player we’re used to seeing dominate and win was flailing and losing. Somebody stuffed Superman’s pockets with Kryptonite and he’s too weak to notice. Even Shakespeare’s stomach would churn from the mega-tragedy.

As he devoted himself to politics, we’d do best to forget the last four years of his career, including his time at Puebla. When Blanco was a ball-kicking wrestling heel in the D.F. and Chicago, we loved him because we still respected him. Come his last game with Puebla, he deserved neither. At his best, Blanco was an every Mexican’s dream – you looked at him and thought “If I trained hard enough, maybe I could be a pro soccer player.” The past few years, though, he was’s been little more than a sideshow – a player not yet ready to let go, not quite ready to stand in a Hall of Fame, thus occupying a circus tent.

I’m glad he got minutes in the Copa MX final. I hope it truly is his last game ever. My once adoring eyes couldn’t bear to watch anymore.

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