MEXICO CITY • Mexico and former Barcelona star Rafael Marquez is dubbed "The Boss" for his leadership of the national football team - but now the United States has branded him a drug criminal.
On Wednesday, the US Treasury accused him of being a "front person" for a major drug trafficking organisation.
The 38-year-old, who has captained his country at a record four World Cup Finals, was one of 22 people and 43 entities it has placed on a sanctions list in relation to a drug trafficking group controlled by Raul Flores Hernandez.
The Treasury said Marquez has a "longstanding relationship" with the Mexican businessman Flores Hernandez, has acted as a "front person" for him and held assets on the Guadalajara-based drug cartel's behalf.
Marquez, who voluntarily reported to the Mexican Justice Ministry, denied any involvement.
"I categorically deny any type of relationship with the said organisation and the referred events," he said in a statement.
"Today is my most difficult match and I will try to clarify all this as soon as possible."
He's got one of the longest careers in football. Do you really think he would need to do something like this?
JULION ALVAREZ, Mexican singer and Marquez's friend, feels the charge is false.
The American statement gave no details of his alleged actions on behalf of Flores. But Mauricio Heredia Horner, the chief executive of Marquez's charity foundation, has also been blacklisted.
The announcement rocked the Mexican football world where Marquez, popularly known as Rafa, is a legend after making his debut for the national team in February 1997.
He went on to star for Barcelona, becoming the first Mexican player to win the Champions League after victory over Arsenal in 2006.
Marquez, now with Mexican club Atlas, scored an 89th-minute winner in a 2-1 World Cup qualifier victory over the US last November.
Mexico's football federation had no comment on the accusations.
Marquez was the top trending topic in Mexico on Twitter on Wednesday. The country is used to news of violence and corruption related to its powerful drug gangs.
But football fans expressed shock and disbelief at the news about their sporting hero.
"This is really bad, because he is a role model for children," said Fernando from Mexico City.
Another fan, shoeshine man Mario Rodriguez, said the allegations were "absurd and nonsense".
One of Marquez's co-accused, well-known Mexican singer Julion Alvarez, rushed to the defence of his "great friend".
"He's got one of the longest careers in football. Do you really think he would need to do something like this?" Alvarez said in a video posted on Facebook.