- Scott Powers, Reporter
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Victor Cruzalta and Diego Vite leaned forward into the chain-link fence, and each peered through a hole to watch the Chicago Fire practice on Tuesday.
They originally stood and watched from the top of the outside bleachers, but in time they decided to get a closer look. They had traveled from Mexico City, and they weren't going to miss the opportunity to be as close to Fire star forward Cuauhtemoc Blanco as possible.
For Cruzalta and Vite, being able to watch their Mexican soccer hero practice only yards away was just the beginning of their Blanco experience. After practice, the pair, both wearing red Fire jerseys, surrounded the 36-year-old Blanco with about a dozen others and took his picture and got his autograph. And on Wednesday, they have front-row tickets to see him live in action against the Los Angeles Galaxy at the Toyota Park.
"The way he plays, the way he carries himself," said Cruzalta, 27, explaining his fandom. "He's the kind of player you either love or you hate.
"[I love him] big-time."
This level of adoration is nothing new for Blanco. Ever since he signed a multimillion dollar contract with the Fire in 2007, his fans have flocked from as far as Mexico to Bridgeview, Ill., to get a glimpse of him. They buy his jerseys and his collectibles, and in October they will surely purchase a copy of "FIFA 10" with Blanco on the video game's cover.
His appearance on the cover of the worldwide best-selling video game is just another example of Blanco's influence since joining MLS. To him, it did come as a surprise.
"I'm very content. I wasn't expecting it," said Blanco through translator JP Galvan. "I hope all the kids enjoy the game. It's all the hard work and dedication you put on your club team and national team, and that's how you get to be chosen."
Last week, Blanco put in that effort for the Mexican national team and chipped in with an assist to help defeat the United States 2-1 in a World Cup-qualifying game. It was a vital win for Mexico as it moved within one point of the U.S. and Honduras for second place in the CONCACAF standings.
Blanco had originally said he was retiring from international play in September 2008, but he returned in June and has contributed a goal and an assist in his three games back.
"The team wasn't playing very well, and the technical director asked me to come out, and I did," Blanco said. "I just try to do things well. Everyone has a small part, and in the end, it all comes together."
Wednesday's meeting with the Galaxy will reunite Blanco with Landon Donovan. The two played together for the MLS All-Stars in July, were against each other last week in the Mexico-U.S. matchup, and now will oppose each other at the club level. Blanco and the Fire have come out the victors in both of their previous meetings with Donovan and the Galaxy. Last year, Blanco scored the game winner in a 3-1 win at Toyota Park.
Despite being international opponents and two of the league's biggest stars, Blanco downplayed any sort of rivalry he and Donovan might have.
"It's just another game, three important points, and we need to win at home," Blanco said. "He plays for his team, and I play for mine. We're enemies on the field. He defends his colors; I defend mine."
Donovan went into more detail.
"I saw a lot more of him on the field the other day more than I wanted to," said Donovan in Chicago on Tuesday. "He was playing on the same side of the field, and he was giving us problems throughout the game. He's active despite his age. He's energetic. He makes plays. Particularly for Chicago, he makes them a lot better team. If he's playing, he's somebody you got to be aware of, for sure."
How much longer Blanco will be with the Fire is in question. He said before the season this would be his last, as his contract expires. On Tuesday, he said something different when asked about what he'd still like to achieve in his career.
"I'm always working hard, and I'd love to become champion here with Chicago," he said.
And if that doesn't happen this season, would he return to try to win it next season?
"For sure, I definitely would like to come back and win that championship," he said.
Chicago Fire forward Cuauhtemoc Blanco is wildly popular in his home country of Mexico, which translated into a cover appearance on the FIFA 10 video game.