While other teams left veteran players at home in favor of younger legs in Brazil, Mexico coach Miguel Herrera said he never considered omitting 35-year-old Rafa Marquez, El Tri's captain for a fourth World Cup.
On Monday, that decision paid off in spades as Marquez's pivotal goal from a header in the 72nd minute ignited a scoring burst and Mexico surged into the World Cup's knockout stage for a sixth straight time with a 3-1 triumph over Croatia.
"When I was named coach, I called and talked to him about being the team leader," said Herrera, who eight months ago became the fourth coach for Mexico that fall as the country struggled to even qualify for the World Cup in the CONCACAF zone. "I told him I needed him to be the voice of the coach on the field, command the team. I never doubted for one second in giving him the title of captain and I was sure he would be 100 percent fit, and he has met that goal."
Mexico entered the Croatia match needing only a draw but played aggressively and looked dangerous in attack before breaking through. The result gave Mexico a second-place finish behind Brazil in Group A and set up a second-round meeting with Group B winner Netherlands.
"He is the kind of player who opened up possibilities for me," Herrera said of Marquez. "Historically, he is the only captain for [Mexico for] four World Cups. Yes, he has reached personal goals, but he has done much for the group. That is why the players call him 'The Boss.' I am only thinking now about getting Rafa to lift the World Cup in his hands."
Marquez, who scored in Germany in 2006 and South Africa four years ago, made it three straight World Cups with a goal by beating Croatia defender Vedran Corluka to head home Hector Herrera's corner.
"They wanted him to retire, and look at him," said Andres Guardado, who scored three minutes after Marquez on a one-time shot following a cross from Oribe Peralta. "He plays like he's 23."
Croatia defender Danijel Pranjic added: "Mexico was equal in the first half. We tried to [attack] and left spaces in the second half. They scored on set plays, and Marquez killed us."
Marquez credits Herrera for giving the players the clear "make history" battle cry after an embittered CONCACAF qualifying period. He also said each player on the team knows his importance in the overall goal.
"From the beginning with Miguel, he proposed important things for us," Marquez said. "The important phrase we use in this group is 'make history.' And we are going step by step. We have had a great effort, and we have been as good as the other teams up until now.
"We are all united on this team, the players as well as the coaching staff and directors," Marquez added. "That is why this team is so solid today. We are the most united team I have played for. We work with solidarity and happiness. We have scored goals, and we go step by step getting them, something I hadn't seen in other eras [of El Tri]."
In September, during the heat of CONCACAF Hexagonal qualifying, Mexico changed coaches three times in one week. Federation and league officials were locked in a bitter feud but finally settled on Club America's Herrera as the fourth coach. Herrera was known in the Mexican league for his passion and temper and faced the challenge of uniting the disparate factions and piecing together a team that was short on morale, especially after Mexico lost its last-chance regional qualifier and squeaked into a World Cup playoff with New Zealand when the United States ended Panama's chances.
Under Herrera, Mexico qualified for the World Cup after a two-leg victory over the Oceania side.
Marquez said he is happy to lead El Tri this time around.
"Everyone pulls their weight to get results," he said. "We all have the same mentality: to make history and work together on the pitch, so it is easy to guide my teammates. I talk to them with Miguel and the coaching staff. Really it is a job we all do together."
Marquez said his side is focused now on beating Netherlands in their World Cup last 16 clash on Sunday in Fortaleza.
The Netherlands have gone through to the knockout stages as Group B winners with a 3-0 record after their 2-0 win over Chile on Monday.
"Netherlands are a great team. You could see that in the three games," said Marquez, the former Barcelona and New York Red Bulls centre-half who now plays his club football in his home country with Liga MX champion Leon. "But I believe we also have our weapons. We must take on the team game against them just the same as against any other team.
"For me, this is like my first World Cup," he added. "I feel that way, and I am playing like that. I will try to make history with my teammates."