- Associated Press - Monday, February 24, 2014

MEXICO CITY (AP) - Visibly upset after Mexico was eliminated from the 2010 World Cup in South Africa in the round of 16, long-time captain Rafael Marquez announced he had just played his last international.

“It’s the right moment to step aside to let the young guys play,” Marquez said after a 3-1 loss to Argentina in Johannesburg.

No one blamed Marquez for the decision. After all, he was 31, had just finished his third World Cup, and Mexico had a wave of young players coming, many of whom won the Under-17 World Cup in Peru in 2005. Among them was defender Hector Moreno, a player considered good enough to replace Marquez.

Other players from that team included strikers Carlos Vela (Real Sociedad) and Giovani Dos Santos (Villarreal).

Nearly four years have passed, and Marquez not only has not retired, but so far he’s the only player with a secure spot for Brazil, according to coach Miguel Herrera.

“It’s a great responsibility because I need to set an example,” said Marquez who, along with Hugo Sanchez, is considered Mexico’s all-time best player.

“I have to give it all in practice so my teammates can follow,” Marquez added. “I’m grateful to the coach for trusting in me. Now more than ever I have to keep on fighting.”

That attitude has been a Marquez signature since he started playing professionally at 17 with club Atlas of Guadalajara.

When he was 20, he was named one of the best players in the French league and helped Monaco win the title in his first year abroad.

In 2003, Marquez signed with Barcelona and spent seven years there, winning everything: La Liga titles, two Champions Leagues and the Club World Cup.

After South Africa, Marquez left Barcelona and signed with the New York Red Bulls of the MLS, where he stayed for two seasons before returning to Mexico to play for Leon.

The end of his career loomed on the horizon.

Back on home soil, Marquez had a rough first season. He was often injured and looked out of shape.

Despite his pedigree, former national team manager Jose Manuel De la Torre never called him to play World Cup qualifiers.

Mexico struggled and appeared to be on its way to missing a World Cup for the first time since 1990.

Being ignored hurt Marquez and he started a comeback.

“When I was not in the national team I kept working as hard as I could, grinding to be better and hopefully to get a chance to help,” he said.

The work paid off because in the 2013 Apertura, Marquez was a different player. Suddenly, he had his legs back and the skills that made him a great player in Europe flourished.

Herrera, Mexico’s fourth manager during the qualifiers, noticed and called him up for the playoff series against New Zealand.

Mexico destroyed New Zealand with a 9-3 aggregate and Marquez played a key role, not only on the pitch, but also off it.

“We suffered to qualify but we are there, that’s the main thing, and now we all have to work to improve,” said Marquez, who played also in the 2002 and 2006 World Cups.

If nothing unexpected happens, Marquez will be only the second Mexican to appear in four World Cups. Goalkeeper Antonio “Tota” Carvajal has the national record with five (Brazil 1950, Switzerland 1954, Sweden 1958, Chile 1962 and England 1966).

Marquez has already announced a second retirement.

“Without a doubt this will be my last World Cup because for the next one I will need a cane,” said Marquez, who just turned 35.

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