Forty-one-year-old Cuauhtemoc Blanco doesn’t look like a soccer player.
He looks like a 41-year-old bank teller, or a 41-year-old janitor, or a 41-year-old accountant.
Certainly not like the second leading scorer in Mexico national team history, or the leading scorer in Confederations Cup history (tied with Ronaldinho).
ESPN’s Bill Simmons wrote about Blanco five years ago, when the U.S. Men's National Team went to Mexico to play a 2010 World Cup qualifier in Azteca Stadium. Simmons doesn’t really know sh*t about soccer (he’s learning), but he hit the nail on the head with Blanco, saying:
“The Americans sorely needed someone like Blanco, the aging Mexican star who controlled the first 55 minutes Wednesday. Blanco might be 73 for all we know; he moves like the 'South Park' guys are animating him. Didn't matter. He's magical. I am just starting to figure out soccer, but one of the first things I noticed is it's all about the subtleties. Not the goals as much as someone spotting a teammate 40 yards away, making a telepathic connection with him, starting a long kick for him just as his teammate starts streaking, then somehow landing the ball on his teammate's foot as though it were on a yo-yo. These moments set Blanco apart. The Mexican fans even bless them by screaming 'Olé,' which basically means, 'Beautiful play, I love what you just did.'"
That was written in 2009, when Blanco was a bright-eyed and bushy-tailed 36-year-old youngster.
When Simmons talks about those magical moments, there’s a very select group of players in the world with the skill and the creativity to do that, even within the professional ranks. Blanco is one.
On Friday, when Blanco’s Puebla squad went up against Queretaro, Blanco took every free kick and corner kick, and set up about 95 percent of Puebla’s scoring chances. Plus, he mixed it up with at least three different Queretaro players. You’ve heard the expression where someone is playing chess when everyone else is playing checkers?
Blanco is chess boxing.
And then the PK. Sweet Jesus. Down 1-0 in extra time, Puebla got one last chance to tie the game, courtesy of a Queretaro handball in the box. After nearly coming to blows with two Queretaro players after the foul that set up the PK, Blanco went and stood at the PK spot.
He knew he was going to make it.
I knew he was going to make it.
Queretaro knew he was going to make it.
They did their best to distract him though.
Goalie Edgar Hernandez came up and yelled at him while Blanco was setting the ball up on the PK spot. Another Queretaro player came up and stood next to Blanco talking smack, even cradling Blanco’s balding head in his arm for a few seconds. Blanco patted him on the back and went and placed the ball. It might have been a tender moment if the Queretaro player wasn’t likely threatening to kill Blanco’s family if he made it.
After Blanco set the ball, just to show Queretaro that he doesn’t give two shits what they say to him, he backed up past the semicircle to the part where the other players are allowed to stand. Queretaro players gathered around Blanco, jeering.
He stared off into the distance like he didn’t have a care in the world.
He must not have, as he ran forward and ruined Queretaro’s Ronaldinho introduction with a rocket into left upper 90. He didn’t have to; the goalie dove the wrong way.
But he did, because he is Cuauhtemoc Blanco and he puts the ball wherever he wants whenever he wants:
Blanco isn’t exactly well-known. He’s barely played outside North America (one stretch with Real Valladolid in Spain from 2000-2002), and has spent most of his time since 2009 (when he left his only stint in the MLS with the Chicago Fire) in the lower Mexican divisions. Puebla just got called up to the Mexican big leagues this year, and are in danger of relegation after this year.
So why is watching a mummified old man play for a crappy team such a thrill? Allow me to explain.
Watching Blanco play soccer is like watching an arthritic dog try to chase a tennis ball. It’s painful at first, and it takes a little while for the dog to get going. But when the little green/yellow ball flies through the air, the light bulb goes on.
When Blanco gets the ball, his teammates run a little harder, the fans pinch forward a little bit, the announcers get a little louder, all anticipating something amazing.
When it comes, the noise is deafening.
The announcers scream their fool heads off. The fans do too, and move their bodies in ways that could be construed as either a celebration or a seizure. The opposing fans slump silently in their seats. The opposing team’s players mill around, staring into the distance like their whole world has just been rocked. Blanco’s teammates crowd around him, laughing and cheering and patting him on the back.
Blanco looks up into the stands without a care in the world and smiles a little half smile.
He knows he’s a genius.