Football ["soccer"]: "Anti-Beckham" Blanco moves to Chicago

Reply Sun 27 May, 2007 05:22 am
For Chicago's Mexicans, star's arrival cultural goal

By Oscar Avila
Tribune foreign correspondent
Published May 27, 2007

MEXICO CITY -- Soccer star Cuauhtemoc Blanco jogs onto the field at Estadio Azteca to the din of thousands of Mexicans screaming his name. Outside the gates, one Club America fan expresses his adoration on a T-shirt with Blanco's picture and the pledge: "If you played in heaven, I would die just to watch you."

After wowing Mexican fans for more than a decade, Blanco wasn't sure how his popularity would carry over when he begins playing in July for the Chicago Fire. So the goal-scoring, trash-talking, punch-throwing icon was taken aback when he visited suburban Bridgeview for a news conference last month and heard ... thousands of Mexicans screaming his name.

Blanco's move to Chicago has created a buzz among soccer die-hards, but his arrival also represents a milestone for the city's exploding Mexican population. He is the most famous Mexican immigrant ever to land in Chicago, and his arrival undoubtedly will strengthen the fusion between Chicagoans of Mexican descent and their ancestral homeland.

Described by some as a Chicago-style answer to David Beckham, the suave British star heading to play in Los Angeles, Blanco helps put a face on the homeland of countless anonymous laborers in Chicago's factories, restaurants and construction sites. Soon, Blanco jerseys will take their place at playgrounds alongside those that say Urlacher and Konerko.

In Mexico City, Club America fans anguish over losing their icon, especially in one of the few endeavors where Mexico has claimed supremacy over the U.S. In one last run, Blanco has led Club America to the Mexican league's title game Sunday.

Yet his fans express an innate understanding and acceptance of a countryman heading north for a better paycheck -- in this case, $2.7 million from the Fire.

Blanco sounds like any Mexican immigrant: He is sad to leave his children and friends behind. He expects to miss his enchiladas, although he can joke about bringing his housekeeper along.

But this is a showman with a knack for symbolism, whose precision passing, clashes with referees and in-your-face goal celebrations are legendary. He is starting to sense that his arrival in Chicago will be a historic moment for the Mexican community.

"I was impressed by all the enthusiasm from the Mexican fans. I know they are excited. I will try to give them a lot of joy with good plays, victories and goals," Blanco said this month in an interview at the sprawling Club America training facility. "It was a difficult decision to leave [Club America], but this is the destiny life offers you."

In U.S. soccer, Blanco's payday will be eclipsed only by that of Beckham, whose model looks, tailored clothes and world renown help explain his signing by the L.A. Galaxy. He and his wife, Victoria, a pop singer and former Spice Girl, are fixtures in the celebrity tabloids.

Like many athletes, Blanco, who at 34 has the face of a bar bouncer and skinned knees and elbows, used sports as an escape. He started playing soccer at age 6 in tattered shoes on rocky fields in a rough patch of Mexico City before signing with Club America at 17.

The 'anti-Beckham'

Jose Ramon Fernandez, a sports commentator for Grupo Monitor radio, has been a critic since 2003, when Blanco sucker-punched David Faitelson, a former journalism colleague who had bad-mouthed the player. But Fernandez marvels at the deep love Blanco receives from Mexico's working-class fans who find common ground in their hero's upbringing.

He thinks Blanco belongs in a no-nonsense city like Chicago, not Hollywood.

"He is the anti-Beckham," Fernandez said. "He is not handsome. He is not a millionaire. He is not married to a Hollywood star. He has a hunchback. He has a strange hairdo. But he is arriving in the perfect city at the perfect time for him.

"When he takes the field, the Mexicans aren't going to say, 'Look at the goal Temoc Blanco scored.' They will say, 'Look at the goal we scored,' " Fernandez said.

"A goal scored by Temoc Blanco on the Chicago Fire will be a goal scored by millions."

Blanco's aggressive personality, however, has left a trail of bitter coaches, referees, teammates and journalists. One of the most popular Blanco T-shirts that sell outside Estadio Azteca features the catchphrase: "Hate Me More."

Many do. Once after scoring a goal against the Atlas club, Blanco ran toward opposing coach Ricardo Lavolpe and reclined on the ground in front of him with a smug smile. Seven years later, Lavolpe left Blanco off the Mexican national team competing in the 2006 World Cup, prompting solidarity marches among Blanco's fans in Mexico City.

Even worse, Blanco was blamed for triggering an on-field riot in 2004 in Mexico City after he elbowed a Brazilian opponent and started a brawl.

The only specific incident Blanco admits to regretting, at least mildly, was a goal celebration in 1999 against Atletico Celaya. After trash-talking throughout the game to an opponent, Blanco dropped on all fours, lifted his leg and simulated a dog urinating inside the goal.

"The press didn't look at it very well, but a lot of people liked it. You would even see kids on the streets imitating it," Blanco said with a shrug. "But what's done is done. You're a human being. Like any human being, you make mistakes."

Injuries and age have caused Blanco to lose a step; he wasn't the leading scorer on his team this season. But his heady play and experience make him a threat. He is a dangerous assist man and scored two goals in the quarterfinals to help his squad advance.

Blanco promises to be an unlikely ambassador to the U.S., as he has openly feuded with several U.S. soccer players during his stint on the Mexican national team.

"There will always be a rivalry between the United States and Mexico. On [the Fire], we will be friends. When we play against each other, we will be rivals and I will do anything to help my team win," Blanco said. "One has to be mature and adapt to the situation."

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Walter Hinteler
Reply Sun 27 May, 2007 05:23 am
< continued
Not all fans pleased

While Fire fans largely welcomed Mexican goalkeeper Jorge Campos' arrival in 1998, many are blasting Blanco's signing on Internet message boards. One fan wrote that "the logical half of me completely understands why this is a great move for the Fire but the emotional side of me has such disdain, bordering on hate, for the man that it's hard to come to grips with thinking of him in a Fire shirt."

John Guppy, the Fire's general manager, said the overwhelming sentiment from Mexican fans has been euphoria. He recalls a Mexican waiter learning of Guppy's job title and approaching his table. "Cuauhtemoc!" the waiter said approvingly.

Guppy described Blanco's Bridgeview appearance, in which fans camped out for hours for a glimpse, as "a Beatles moment," a cultural happening that went beyond sports.

Back at the Estadio Azteca, souvenir vendor Victor Chavez said he wishes Blanco weren't leaving but gives him his blessing "if he needs to migrate to find better opportunities."

Blanco acknowledged that the lucrative contract was a major factor in his jumping to Chicago. Many Mexican journalists speculate he will retire after next season, but Blanco said only that he would play "as long as my legs hold up."

He said he looked forward to less scrutiny in Chicago, where soccer remains a second-tier sport covered by only a handful of journalists. But he said the high expectations of Mexican fans, in addition to his hefty contract, offer their own pressures.

"If things don't go well, the press and the fans aren't going to be happy," he said. "I am a professional. I didn't go there to steal this money that they are giving me."

Blanco will have to get used to a new country like any other immigrant. He says his biggest challenge will be dealing with a more physical style of U.S. soccer without the deference he receives in the Mexican league.

One more item on Blanco's agenda in Chicago: He wants to become bilingual.

"To talk to the referees," he said with mischievous eyes, "you need to learn English."



sources: Chicago Tribune, 27.05.07, online, pages 1 & 15
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