IN THE fall of2006, Major League Soccer adopted the so-called David Beckham rule, whichallowed teams to exceed the salary cap to sign a "designatedplayer"—presumably one with equal parts skill and box office appeal. TheLos Angeles Galaxy used its exception to bring in the eponymous, telegenicbender of free kicks. The Chicago Fire used its to sign a guy who was droppedfrom Mexico's 2006 World Cup team and who might be the most despised soccerplayer in the Western Hemisphere. ¬∂ Guess which one worked out better. ¬∂ O.K.,so Becks sold bushels of jerseys and tickets and inspired a soccer mania notseen Stateside since Pelé and the Cosmos were hanging out with Mick Jagger atStudio 54. But injuries limited Beckham to five games, and the Galaxy missedthe playoffs for the second year in a row. Cuauhtémoc Blanco, on the otherhand, led the Fire on a second-half surge to the Eastern Conference finals.What's more, his signing helped validate MLS's new emphasis on importing Latinotalent, especially at the attacking positions (page 48). Not only did theforward provide playmaking panache, but he also served as the perfect teammateand ambassador for the franchise—surprising roles for a guy who last year said,"It's a beautiful thing to have the people against me."
In his 16-year procareer, the bulk of it with Mexican league power Club América, and as amainstay of the Mexican national team for a decade, Blanco cultivated awell-deserved reputation as a colossal irritant. For U.S. fans the enduringimage of Blanco is his standing wild-eyed over Pablo Mastroeni in the 2002World Cup, screaming at the midfielder before kneeing him in the back anddrawing a yellow card. "[Playing against Blanco] is frustrating becausehe's good," says Galaxy and U.S. forward Landon Donovan. "But more thanthat, he's the guy who likes to get under your skin. He's just a pest. He wantsto 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, hefinds any advantage he can to win."
Blanco, 35,doesn't antagonize just the Yanks. In the 2004 Copa Libertadores he elbowed aBrazilian player, igniting a postgame brawl. A year earlier he sucker punched aTV reporter who'd been critical of his play. He once celebrated a goal bygetting down on all fours like a dog and pretending to urinate in the net. Evenback home he's divisive. Beloved for his heroics with Los Tricolores, he wasalso detested by many as the face of Club América, Mexico's version of the NewYork Yankees. His long-running public feud with national team coach Ricardo LaVolpe reached a head in 2005, when La Volpe dropped him from the roster for aWorld Cup qualifier. "He doesn't have big enough trousers to selectme," said Blanco. La Volpe responded by leaving Blanco off the squad forGermany the next summer.
Ask Blanco if hehas any regrets, though, and he furrows his brow and gives a quick shake of hishead, as if the concept is foreign to him. He grew up in Tepito, a tough MexicoCity barrio, playing on barren, rocky fields. And while his name means"white," he's more comfortable in a black hat. At Club America,supporters wore Blanco T-shirts that read ÓDIAME MAS ("Hate me more").Says Blanco, whose injury-time equalizer salvaged a 1--1 draw at Real Salt Lakein the Fire's season opener last Saturday, "It motivates me because of thefeeling when people are against you and you get the win."
CHICAGO FORWARDChris Rolfe first noticed Blanco in 1998. Then a 15-year-old visiting Francefor the World Cup, Rolfe was watching Mexico play on TV when he saw Blanco holdthe ball between his ankles and bunny-hop between two South Korean defenders.The move became known as the Cuauhtémilla, a kind of audacious skill that hasbeen all too rare in MLS—and that was enticing to the Fire.
"If you'regoing to invest in a designated player, it makes sense to look at somebody whocan add quality to the offense," says Fire general manager John Guppy."This game's about playing entertaining, attractive soccer." There werepotential hangups, though. Many an aging foreign star has come to MLS in searchof a payday and dogged it after signing on the dotted line. Blanco fit theprofile. He admits he'd never heard of the Fire before the team expressedinterest, and of MLS, Blanco says, "I thought it was going to beeasy."
And there wasBlanco's reputation. Fire message boards decried the move. Diehards threatenedto boycott the team. The players didn't know what to expect. "I had an openmind," says Rolfe, "but I still had that image of him being ahothead."
Guppy visitedBlanco several times in Mexico City and came away impressed—with his modesty."Contrary to what a lot of people say, Blanco's a fairly humble guy,"says Guppy. "He just wants to win football matches, and he wants to do itin an entertaining way. He doesn't have to be in the spotlight. He's actuallyvery down-to-earth." Blanco agreed to a three-year deal for $2.7 millionper season. (Just the first $400,000 of a designated player's salary countsagainst a team's $2.3 million cap.)
The worries easedonce Blanco came north. On April 1, 2007, the team put out a four-sentencepress release announcing that Blanco would be introduced at Toyota Park atseven the following evening. From his office overlooking the stadium'sconcourse Guppy saw people start lining up shortly after noon the next day.More than 5,000 fans turned up, most of them from the Chicago area's 1.5million--strong Mexican community. Says Guppy, who was born in Winchester,England, "It was like the Beatles had been reincarnated and arrived atToyota Park."
Because ofcommitments to Club América and the national team, Blanco didn't suit up forthe Fire until July, and no one was quite sure how he'd fit in. MLS is a fast,physical league, and Blanco, at 5'9", relies more on finesse than speed orpower. "In the Mexican league those guys respected him and gave him alittle bit of space," says Rolfe. "In our league you've got a bunch ofkids making $15,000 a year who don't care who you are. I was afraid he'd gethit and the physicality would take him out of it."
Playing deeperthan he did in Mexico, where he was an out-and-out striker, Blanco stood hisground and energized the Fire's attack. Before he arrived, Chicago was 4-8-4and averaged 0.81 goals. With him, the Fire went 6-2-6, scored 1.29 goals agame and knocked top-seeded D.C. United out of the playoffs. The team'simprovement can't be credited entirely to Blanco—Chicago switched coaches atmidseason and got healthier—but in half a season he had seven assists. No otherFire player had more than three. "Left foot, right foot, there's not abetter passer in this league," says Fire assistant coach Chris Armas,Blanco's teammate last season. "And you could argue there hasn't been abetter one in the history of the league."
The fans were wonover too. Attendance at home games jumped from 14,055 to 20,144 after Blanco'sarrival, and Section 8, the Fire's supporters group, had so much spillover thatit has been given a second section at Toyota Park this year.
And Blanco did itall while on his best behavior. True, there were three yellow cards and somegriping from opponents about his diving, but nothing major. He constantly—andpleasantly—surprised his teammates. Before one practice, a few players weretossing a football around the locker room. Blanco jumped in front of theintended receiver, picked off the pass and ran it into an adjoining room for,presumably, a score. He came back into the locker room and celebrated by doingthe Ickey Shuffle, which is pretty impressive considering that his knowledge ofAmerican football is so limited that he'd never heard of Chicago Bears legendMike Ditka. Says Armas, a former U.S. midfielder who did battle with Blanco onnumerous occasions, "He doesn't speak English, but he can get a whole busor a whole locker room laughing." Blanco has even taken to doling outnicknames. He greets one unlucky teammate now known as ET (for his looks) bysaying, in heavily accented English, "Phone home." Everyone loves it.Even poor ET.
Rolfe—who's stillawaiting his nickname (he's now just Chreeees Rolfe)—says Blanco is "theperfect teammate," and Armas has called him "the life of the lockerroom." If Blanco isn't careful, he's going to ruin his reputation.
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Photograph by Nam Y. Huh/AP
EN FUEGO While Beckham (above) did little for the Galaxy's record in '07, Blanco carried Chicago into the conference finals.
PHILIPPE LOPEZ/AFP/GETTY IMAGES
[See caption above]