“It feels just like it was the first time,” were the words of Mexico’s Rafael Marquez, evidence that, however many trials and tribulations have gone before, no player is able to conceal their excitement at taking part in the FIFA World Cup™ - even on their fourth trip to Planet Football's top table. 

First making the journey at Korea/Japan 2002 at the age of 23, Marquez had proven enough over three seasons at AS Monaco for then coach Javier Aguirre to hand him the captain’s armband. Thus on 3 June that year came his first World Cup appearance: El Tri sinking Croatia 1-0 thanks to a penalty from Cuauhtemoc Blanco.

Twelve years and 18 days on, Marquez is fully immersed in his fourth edition of the global show-piece – having captained his country at all four, a feat never before achieved. In an intriguing twist of fate, the gifted centre-back and his Mexican team-mates are preparing to fight for a Round of 16 berth at Brazil 2014 against none other than Croatia, with Marquez taking time out from preparations to speak exclusively to FIFA.

Coming full circle
Level on points at the top of Group A with Brazil, having beaten Cameroon 1-0 then held the hosts to a hard-fought 0-0 draw, it hardly seems credible that Mexico were the very last team to qualify: by means of an intercontinental play-off versus New Zealand. Yet for all the travails of North, Central America and Caribbean Zone qualifying, it would appear that Los Aztecas have found their feet just in time.

“Our current coach has been very influential,” said Marquez, on the impact made by Miguel 'El Piojo' Herrera, at the helm since October 2013. “We’ve worked really hard to achieve what he’s asked of us, and he’s brought together a very good squad of players for this World Cup. What’s more, I think that we’ve learned from our mistakes and we’re now stronger than we were during qualifying.

“We’re really happy [with our tournament so far]” continued the former Barcelona stopper. “If you take a look at the quality of the teams we’ve faced, it shows how difficult and tough a task we’ve had. And though we’re not there yet, we’re close to taking an important step. Keeping clean sheets has been key for us and we’re determined to keep that going.”

Out to down the Vatreni
Despite the positive vibe in El Tri’s camp, they are indeed “not there yet”, with at least a point required against the Croatians to secure a spot in the knockout stages. “This is our biggest game,” said Marquez, an Apertura 2013 and Clausura 2014 winner with Mexican club side Leon. “We know we have to keep the momentum going. We worked so hard in our last two games and we don’t want to throw it all away against Croatia.

“We’ve always known we were going to face tough opponents,” said the 35-year-old, a two-time UEFA Champions League winner when at Barça. “Croatia have loads of very talented players. They’ve got very quick wingers who can get to the byline and put the ball in the box. They’ve also got a lethal striker and some of the best central midfielders around. They’re a great team, so it won’t be easy. We’ll have to give our best to get at least a point and move on to the next phase.”

Not that this healthy respect for Luka Modric and co. translates into anything resembling fear: “We need the win too,” explained Marquez. “We’re not going to play for the draw, that’s something we need to watch out for at all times. We won’t change our playing system. Croatia will be giving everything for the win and we will too.”

Come 23 June and kick-off time in Recife, El Kaiser de Michoacán will captain Mexico for the 15th time at a World Cup and, conscious that it will be his last trip to the finals, the defender is determined to extend his record as the Mexican with most World Cup games under his belt. “It feels just like during my first World Cup. I’m enjoying every instant of every game,” he said as the conversation concluded.

“We’ve got a great group of players, staff and coaches. So, we’ve got the chance to achieve something really big and that’s what spurs me on to make the most of this last chance and get a great result with Mexico. I think it’ll be a very tough clash [versus Croatia], but we’ll come through in the end.”