The spirit of Blanco: Why Mexico will never go far without an inspiring leader

USA TODAY Sports-Jerry Lai

Ambitious, talented, deep: What is Mexico missing? A new Cuauhtémoc, that's what.

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Calling Cuauhtémoc Blanco a Mexican legend is a gross understatement.

One of Mexico's most highly decorated internationals, Blanco is someone whose character outweighs his heavy catalog of accomplishments. While his important goals stick out, his larger-than-life personality lasts as something El Tri still hasn’t replaced.

He didn’t just score; he embarrassed defenders with moves like the Cuauhtemina, a ridiculous, two-footed leap with the ball. He didn’t just bury penalty kicks; he crawled along the goal line and imitated a dog urinating. Blanco was made for the YouTube generation, but was just a little ahead of his time.

Never did he resemble the great player that he eventually demonstrated himself to be. Slight of build with a hunched back, “Cuauh” could often legitimately be called pudgy.

There was nothing prototypical about him. This man should not have been the player he became. Yet, there was a will which Blanco possessed that was unrivaled, perhaps not even in the man he was named after.

After much of the destruction of Tenochtitlan (modern day Mexico City) and the rampant spread of smallpox among the Mexica, Cuauhtémoc (Nahuatl for ‘Descended Eagle’) assumed power as the last Aztec emperor in 1520.

Unlike those before him, Cuauhtémoc is most known for the fight he put up against the Spanish invaders. While ultimately unsuccessful, his determination and resistance against insurmountable odds is his lasting legacy.

That same undying competitive spirit propelled Blanco to heights that he had no business reaching.

He was raised in the neighborhood of Tepito, an area of of Mexico City into which even many natives won’t venture. Blanco excelled early and signed on with local giants Club América. At a time when the club was stacked with deep and legendary talent, Blanco rose through the youth system to make his senior side debut at 19.

He would go on to become the second-highest all-time scorer in the club’s prolific history. He made a regular habit of knocking in golazos, in the true sense of the word. His outside-of-the-foot volley in the 1998 World Cup against Belgium lingers in the minds of many a Mexico supporter.

Cuauhtémoc Blanco knew not only what his team needed, but exactly what the opposition didn’t. He knew how to anger and distract opponents. A true gamesman, Cuauh could crack even the most focused of defenders.

"He's good. But more than that, he's a guy who likes to get under your skin,” Landon Donovan once said of Blanco. “He's just a pest. He wants to do things that piss you off. And however he needs to do that, he'll do it. If it's by scoring goals, if it's by trying to egg you into a red card, he finds any advantage he can to win."

Blanco was that talisman for Mexico -- the Cuauhtémoc for El Tri. Essential in the 2002 and 2010 qualifying campaigns and instrumental in the side that took the Confederations Cup in 1999, he has yet to be adequately replaced.

The 2014 World Cup qualifying campaign exemplified this void in leadership. Mexico was a sinking ship, its World Cup hopes saved only by a stoppage-time goal from the U.S.’ Graham “San” Zusi against Panama.

The Mexican national team is devoid of this type of leadership at this point, the dynamic personality who could, by sheer will and spirit, lead a team through tough times is missing. Andres Guardado is an excellent player and Mexico’s current leader, but he does not fit the Blanco mold. Javier "Chicharito" Hernandez is the face of Mexican soccer, but is not naturally equipped to be a vocal leader.

The closest Mexico comes to a true leader on the field is 38-year-old Rafa Marquez, who is simultaneously the answer that fills the leadership void and a potential liability on the field.

The November 2017 World Cup qualifier against the United States illustrates the Marquez situation perfectly. His winning header in the dying minutes of the match encapsulates his steel in big moments, but he also displayed his propensity to lose his mark and be badly beaten for pace. He’s in the conversation as Mexico’s greatest player to date, but he is well past his best and shouldn’t be as irreplaceable as he still is.

The tactics of Mexico manager Juan Carlos Osorio are a constant source of debate, but this leadership issue predates him. On paper, El Tri is as strong as it’s been in many years. Mexico has top players in their prime and performing in Europe, complemented by talented youth that have infiltrated the senior sides. The depth at nearly every position further leaves the team with little excuse for massive failures.

Yet they continue to disappoint in big moments. Promise fizzled into frustration at last summer’s Confederations Cup and the humiliation of the 7-0 loss to Chile in the Copa America Centenario still stings badly.   

The simple truth is that there is no one currently with El Tri that could assume the role of Blanco. There is no one there to throw the team on his back when facing adversity. There is not a player on this team that could stop the bleeding against Chile, or punch back against Germany. There is no Cuauhtémoc.

Mexico remains a force in CONCACAF. Yet, if the nation is ever to reach its long-standing goal of the quarterfinals of a World Cup held outside of Mexico, the mental gap in the squad must be addressed. Which player is going to rise to the occasion for El Tri against world-class talent?

Blanco won’t be trotting in to save the day.

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This article was first published July 6, 2017.