At this time a year ago, Rafa Márquez did not resemble a potential savior of the Mexico defense. Far from it, in fact. He couldn't even marshal a back four in MLS capably.
The alarming decline from the peak of his powers left him at rock bottom. He ambled around as a cantankerous shadow of his former self, tormented by old American enemies and emerging physical frailties. The dire state of affairs with New York created an untenable situation for all parties. Márquez subsequently settled his lucrative contract last December to conclude a frustrating two-and-a-half year spell in the United States and returned to his native land with few reservations.
Márquez's gradual transformation from MLS discard to probable starter against Panama in a vital World Cup qualifier on Friday started when the former Barcelona and Monaco man crossed the border.
His remaining skills - all of the intelligence, passing range and tactical awareness accrued from years playing at the top levels of European soccer - never fit neatly in MLS. He couldn't devise a way to display them regularly. The energetic and robust competition exposed his dearth of pace, limited his time on the ball to pick passes and restricted his ability to influence games in those rare stretches when he could stay out of the treatment room.
It took Márquez some time to adjust to Liga MX, a friendlier venue given his aversion to high pressure and his justifiable desire to play accurate long diagonals out of the back and step into midfield occasionally to distribute. He shuttled between central defense, central midfield and the substitutes' bench with Club León during the Clausura. He spent most of his first season trying to find his footing after 13 years abroad and navigate his way back into the sort of form required to earn an international recall.
Márquez's desire to play in a fourth straight World Cup and his increasing comfort with León inspired the necessary uptick in his performances at the start of the Apertura. The former Mexico captain did not necessarily look like the man who once started in a Champions League final, but he showed well enough to generate curiosity about his return to the international scene after a year in the wilderness.
Former boss Jose Manuel de la Torre resisted the urge to recall Márquez during his tenure, but new manager Victor Manuel Vucetich turned to the 34-year-old defender shortly after his appointment. Vucetich included Márquez in his squad for a series of training camps held for domestic players to indicate the veteran - not the sort of player suited to sitting tamely on the bench in support of others anyways - featured prominently in his plans.
Any doubts about Márquez's place in the pecking order evaporated when injuries ravaged Vucetich's central defensive options. Current lynchpin Hector Moreno dropped out of consideration with a hamstring injury. Future star Diego Reyes missed out due to a lack of match practice with FC Porto. Vucetich needed to rebuild from a clean slate in the middle of his back four without those two players in the fold. And Márquez - the man cast off a year ago after accumulating 112 caps - emerged as the best candidate for the job from a rather limited pool of choices.
His renewed presence does not mean he constitutes a perfect option, though. The flaws in Márquez's game - the missing yard of pace, the tendency to lose his composure at inopportune times - still remain. Those deficiencies could prove fatal at international level, particularly in a tense situation against a well-drilled team plotting to pull Mexico apart on the counter. His imminent restoration represents a significant gamble for both the fate of his country's World Cup hopes and his legacy.
In order to preserve both fundamental objectives, Márquez must summon all of the tools once used to establish himself as a critical cog for both club and country. He must lean on projected partner Hugo Ayala for cover when necessary, pick up the proper positions at all times and thwart potentially calamitous one-versus-one situations. His premature departure from León's 3-1 victory over Puebla last weekend - caused by a confluence of all of those liabilities, plus his penchant for rash challenges - reinforced the peril if his judgment wavers.
Vucetich placed his faith in Márquez's ability to avoid those troublesome circumstances and mask those concerns by involving him in this daunting rescue effort. Márquez's return reveals the desperation within the ranks and the paucity of alternatives available. This move is by no means the ideal solution beyond this week, but it is all Mexico can muster at the moment.
It could be worse. Márquez returns to the international scene with something still to prove. His accomplishments remain firmly intact, but his reputation remains in need of burnishing after the past few years. This revival act - unexpected as it is in the autumn of his career - could serve as the perfect riposte to his detractors and show he still possesses the tools to deliver for his country yet again.