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Blanco's success no flight of fancy

With him, Fire hope to rule MLS

Chicago fans have come to exult along with Blanco. Chicago fans have come to exult along with Blanco. (FILE/JONATHAN DANIEL/GETTY IMAGES)
Email|Print| Text size + By Frank Dell'Apa
Globe Staff / November 7, 2007

The so-called Beckham Rule has a Spanish accent in Chicago.

The Fire's signing of Mexican star Cuauhtemoc Blanco as a designated player has paid off by improving the team's level of play while tapping into a huge Latino fan base at a relatively low cost.

When Blanco arrived to sign a $2.7 million annual contract in July, several thousand fans showed up at Toyota Park, south of the city in Bridgeview, Ill., just to be in his presence.

Once Blanco started playing for the Fire, the spectators arrived in significant numbers - an average of 16,490 attended each game this season, up from 10,217 per game last year - and the team rallied to qualify for the Major League Soccer playoffs.

Unlike Beckham, who seldom performed for the Los Angeles Galaxy because of injuries and is costing twice Blanco's salary this season, Blanco has been able to raise the Fire's game. Since Blanco's debut in a 3-0 win at Toronto July 29, Chicago has a 7-2-7 record against MLS opponents - including the playoff elimination of regular-season champion D.C. United.

The Fire will play the Revolution for the Eastern Conference championship tomorrow night at Gillette Stadium, the fifth time in six years the teams are meeting in the playoffs. But this time the matchup will capture the attention of a new audience, solely because of Blanco.

Few players symbolize Mexico the way Blanco does, and his countrymen are keeping a close eye on how he fares in the MLS.

Blanco's very name provides a history lesson for the Valle de Mexico. Cuauhtemoc was the last Aztec emperor, considered a living god, the name translated from the Nahuatl language as "The Descending Eagle." Blanco pays tribute to his nominal 16th century ancestor by posing as an ascending eagle after scoring goals, going to a knee and bending his elbows as if he expects to soar skyward.

Fast forward approximately 375 years after the execution of Cuauhtemoc to the urban reforms of president Porfirio Diaz. The Tepito barrio on Mexico City's northern border became a smuggler's paradise, as well as a "zona de tolerancia" in which brothels were allowed.

Tepito absorbed many thousands of rural Mexicans, starting in the late 1800s, as did the rest of Mexico City's colonias, secciones, and zonas as it grew into one of the world's largest population centers.

When Blanco was growing up in Tepito, a century after Diaz came to power, a lively market had become the barrio's symbol. Some call it a "thieves' market" of stolen goods and contraband run by con men and hustlers, with a thriving drug business on the periphery. In any case, surviving on the streets of Tepito requires knowing all the tricks, and inventing some yourself.

And that is what Blanco's game most closely represents. Blanco seems to be in a state of alert, constantly thinking ahead to avoid traps.

Blanco is also a very fundamental player, who often makes the simplest of passes, just as a street vendor spends most of his time making small, honest transactions. But, if Blanco can set things up right, he will switch into the full routine of back heels and bicycle kicks, selling defenders on fakes, feints, and dummies. He even invented a move, a "Cuauhtemina," in which he pinches the ball between his legs and starts jumping past opponents.

Asked about how his background influenced him, Blanco said in a telephone interview last night: "I believe, no matter where you come from, the most important thing is your mentality, your desire to give it your best. I always worked hard so I could then go back to the field and play. Where I come from, you simply have to be motivated and work hard."

Blanco appears to have found a second home in Chicago, along with more than 1 million Mexican immigrants. And Blanco has found a place with the Fire, quickly adjusting to conditions in a league that surprised him.

"The MLS has really grown in the last three or four years," Blanco said. "I really thought it was an easy league. But it's not an easy league, it's very, very complex, and very fast.

"There are some very good players - Juan Pablo Angel [New York], Luciano Emilio [D.C. United], Landon Donovan [Los Angeles]. The rhythm of play is very fast. I've been able to adjust because I have good teammates and they have helped me a lot."

Blanco will be performing for the first time in the Boston area. But he is accustomed to being in the villain's role.

Blanco spent most of his career with Club America, which claims many millions of supporters on both sides of the border, but is also known as a club of the elite, so has many more millions who dislike it.

"For me, personally, it's a beautiful thing to have the people against me," Blanco said. "It's more motivation.

"We are going to have everyone against us [at Gillette Stadium], but we are also hoping to have support from the Chicago fans, because they know we are one game away from the final.

"We have to stay very focused. My teammates are good at playing away from home and they know very well we are a game away from the championship."

Frank Dell'Apa can be reached at f_dellapa@globe.com.

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