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Humble Champion: Mario Yepes

In Argentina right now there is a little tournament going on called the Copa America. Most Milan fans are ready to watch our 3 famous Brazilians play today, but less attention is being given to Milan’s sole Colombian player, Mario Yepes., who is also competing in the tournament. Yesterday, Yepes captained his national side to a 1-0 victory over Costa Rica to put them at the top of their group after one match, ahead of hosts and favorites Argentina.
 

Yepes is not one to require a lot of attention. He is humble and hardworking and doesn’t ask for much. Which is pretty incredible if you think of the career he has had.

He was born Mario Alberto Yepes Díaz on January 13th, 1976, in Cali, Colombia. His first football club was Cortuluá in Colombia in 1994, where he initially played as a striker. But his coach convinced him to play sweeper instead, which shows his desire to play and willingness to learn was there even then. In 1997, he went to play for his hometown team, Deportivo Cali, where he won back to back Colombian championships with them.

As his defensive talents became more well known, he moved on to legendary Argentinian club River Plate in 1999. With River Plate, he won league titles in 2000 and 2002. From there, Europe came calling. He decided to go to FC Nantes in Ligue 1, where he was affectionately known as “El Rey” (the king,) perhaps considered by many French fans to be the king of defense. In 2004, PSG came calling for him, where he was called “Super Mario” (that’s right, Balotelli! There was a Super Mario before you were even in middle school!) and was largely considered to be one of the best center backs playing in France.

His break into Serie A came in 2008 when he went to Chievo. He played two very successful years there, his efforts at center back being one of the  primary reasons they were able to avoid relegation. So when Milan needed a reserve center back for this last season, they quickly recognized the humble talents available in Mario Yepes and snatched him up. The Scudetto he won in May gives him 5 career league titles in 3 different leagues, even if the other four titles were for South American leagues. He likes to win, he knows how to win, and he will do what it takes to win whether it is in Argentina playing first team or in Italy starting on the bench.

And speaking of winning, he has 80 caps for Colombia, having captained the side since 2008, and is the 4th all time most capped of Colombian players He was on the 2001 Colombian team that won the Copa América when Colombia were the host nation and also the team that placed 4th at the Confederations Cup in 2003, the only time Colombia qualified. Next up, on Wednesday, Yepes’ national team face Lionel Messi and Co., the home team and I’m sure favorites in this match. But Argentina shouldn’t be so quick to assume Colombia will be easy to beat, not with Yepes on the pitch.

Yepes bemoans a missed scoring opportunity

Yepes is an excellent center back. Perhaps he was never going to win the Ballon d’Or (how many center backs ever will?) but he is athletic, plays “taller” than he actually is (6’1 ¼” or 1.86m) and at age 35, still runs with the stamina of a 25 year-old. He is great in the air, very strong, and still has a little bit of that striker drive inside of him, so even at his age, he still gets forward a lot. He is dangerous on set pieces, and isn’t afraid to score a few goals per season when given enough playing time. He typically works well with the keeper and back line to provide maximum coverage, and thanks to being so experienced, only very rarely makes mistakes.

But for someone who has been called “the king” and “super,” he has a surprisingly quiet demeanor as a footballer. Although he is a fierce competitor and  has a strong work ethic on the pitch. Which translates to two of my favorite words when describing a player: no drama. Plus, he is consistent: he is apparently the one Milan player who never missed training this past season.

Yepes has a contract with Milan through June 2012 and has stated recently that he still has at least 2-3 more years in him. With new addition Philippe Mexes, it will be even harder to find playing time this season, particularly with our two guaranteed-if-they’re-healthy starters ahead of both of them. But at least we can take consolation that an appearance by Bonera at center back is incredibly unlikely. Even if that were to be Yepes’ only contribution, it would be worth it.

Milan got an A-game player for a B-game price, even if he is in the final years of his career. And certainly, Yepes will continue his A-game effort, even if is body starts to catch up to him. For someone who started out as a striker, he has turned into the opposition's strikers' worst nightmare. He is a class act on and off the pitch, and always seems to be just so grateful to even be at Milan. I know everyone wants Nesta in there in every game, but considering that on most other teams, Yepes would be a starter, we have an excellent backup in Mario Yepes.


This post inspired by the music of the Violent Femmes