Unpredictable Magic In, Status Quo Out: The Crazy 2021 in Mexican Football
On Monday of this week, a Ballantine’s harvested in 1954 was just opened in the city of Guadalajara, the second most populated city in Mexico, and certainly the cradle of all Mexican stereotypes – mariachi, tequila, food, women’s beauty and passion from football fans.
According to a study published jointly by the Pan American Health Organisation and the World Health Organisation, Mexico ranks third on alcohol consumption in the Americas, just behind Brazil and way surpassed by the United States. Why on Earth would a bottle of such good-quality whisky was stored and undrunk immediately until it was empty?
Because it would be opened as soon as Atlas claimed the league, and the very day came. Julio Furch just nested the final penalty shootout ball and the Jalisco Stadium exploded with exhilaration. Fans from the other teams (even a good share from León, the defeated team) felt happy for them.
Atlas had just won their second title and the first one in more than 70 years. Rewind five and a half months back, the mythical Aztec Stadium was boiling as usual in normal conditions, yet unusual during this pandemic.
Looking Back at Mexico’s Unique Relationship With Major League Soccer
One of the two tenants, Cruz Azul, tied against Santos Laguna, yet the good harvest from the north (1-0) was enough to finally win the eluded trophy, ending a shameful streak of 8 lost finals in the Mexican league, sometimes in the strangest conditions. 24 years were full of upsets, but finally the Cement Machine could breathe after a big weight was lifted from their shoulders.
Maybe some of the football passerby fans outside Americas have grasped a bit on Mexican league (aka Liga MX) but have never delved into the realms of this unique competition: two tournaments in one year, fair rotation of champions, no prom-rel system (this shall end next year), a mixture between economic powerhouses and tradition, new teams popping up, a playoff system where 12 out of 18 have opportunities to win and the top team after 17 matchdays seldom manage to keep the pace.
Liga MX can be likened to Premier League: good coverage and broadcast followed by the dump celebrity journalism. This is Mexico and this is our football. In the Mexican league, each team fulfills their role: the eternal failure, the one wanting to get the hatred because of winnings and polemic statements, the supporting actors, an occasional shock that disappoints next season.
Among the 18 members, Cruz Azul had a curious place to fit in: the jinx. That is right. Cruz Azul had this reputation of having a strong roster, a supporting fan base, great signings from the pool of available footballers, the tag of “big 4” worn thanks to a sweet decade of ’70s… and at the end of the day, Cruz Azul would lose with no logical explanation.
In 1997, Cruz Azul went to León, the capital of the leather industry, to win with a golden penalty, ending a drought of 17 years with no titles, despite a quite pleasant footballing style to watch. Few people could imagine that a curse would take on.
The drama began two years later, when at home (Azul stadium, besides the bullfighting plaza) lost against Pachuca. Since then, runner-ups, catastrophic losses literally seconds before the final whistle blow, eliminations despite having all odds on favour were the bread and butter of their loyal fandom. Those upsets had a wide range: from the most wicked ones, to the first “foreign team” at a South American tournament final match.
That does not mean that Cruz Azul had no joyful moments, like winning the Concachampions over Toluca with the opposite conditions: an incredible miss from the Red Devils seconds on the final play, winning eventually thanks to the away-goal rule.
Cruz Azul went to Morocco to play Real Madrid on the FIFA World Club Cup 2014. Another win on Copa MX. Yet the local league was the aim of each year, and frustrations were the common feeling of every fan.
Mexican football ecosystem even coined a special verb for them: “cruzazulear”. This word even made it to the thesaurus of the Royal Spanish Academy, the equivalent of entering the Oxford English Dictionary. The definition is quite straightforward: “Having a winning streak, but losing everything due to an error”.
England has “to do a Leeds”, but “cruzazulear” crept into the daily life in Mexico stained with the characteristic humour of Mexicans. Even with topics beyond the scope of football, people would tell “cruzazulear” when a huge upset came.
Cruz Azul fans were aware of this, but instead of feeling low with all the teasing, they even embraced it. When El Tri used to take on any team at the play-off for the World Cup, they wished good luck to the rival fans with a rather subtle sinister goal: to jinx it.
It was a silent success and sometimes the supporter of other teams even appreciated their “witchcraft”. It went too far when days before the showdown against Swedes on the FIFA World Cup Russia 2018, the Swedish Football Federation warned their fans not to accept any gift with the image of this sky blue team. Coincidence? Mexico were thrashed 3-0.
Suddenly, the pandemic started and things would never be the same for everybody. The Argentine manager, Roberto Dante Siboldi, won a mini-tournament as a warm-up. They got a week off at the play-off for being among the top-4 during the regular season.
After annihilating the richest team, Tigres, the rival in the semifinals would be Pumas UNAM. Cruz Azul were the favorites and a 4-0 well deserved on home soil could finally break the spell. After all, Cruz Azul was always on the attack.
But the jinx reputation combined with the university mystics translated into three goals on the first half and the final straw a few minutes before the end. Cruz Azul did a Cruz Azul once again, but big time. Some bad-faith journalists even claimed Cruz Azul players to have received calls to let Pumas win.
The damage was already done: Siboldi had to step back, being replaced by a former Peruvian legend, Juan Reynoso, who took on the manager position and taught a style so painful to follow, yet effective to get three points matchday after matchday.
Finally, it happened, Cruz Azul topped the league for the last six weeks with a stainless defence, just one loss (first matchday) and almost breaking the record of most points obtained out of 57 (40). During playoffs, Cruz Azul was not exempt from the jinx.
Toluca did defeat them, but at the end, they turned the tables. The semifinal was so tense as there was a risk of losing again due to the away-goal rule, yet the 1-0 was enough to claim a spot on the final. The rest is widely known: Cruz Azul finally broke the curse, threw the jinx away and the verb “cruzazulear” is no longer on the Mexican dictionary.
Six months later, the status quo would be shaken again, this time Atlas was to put the blame on. Their situation was more dramatic: a historical team, one of the founders of football down in Guadalajara, tradition, decent performances at Libertadores Cup, and support despite all odds.
Atlas rules on the grassroots championships and are the starting point of remarkable players in Mexican history, such as Jared Borgetti, Rafael Márquez and Andrés Guardado. It is therefore no surprise to know that Atlas is also known as “the academy”. The problem… their only title was won in 1951, and the last trophy came to their shelf in 1968.
In between 1951 and 2021, there were two relegations, poor board decisions, losing streaks against the rivals, consecutive seasons at the bottom. There was a strange vicious cycle ad infinitum: failing to qualify for five consecutive seasons, thus being on the verge to a third relegation, then magically having great results to hop on the play-offs once, nearly avoiding that hell.
1999 was the year when this curse was to be broken with a super team by Ricardo La Volpe, future manager of the Mexican national team. Their style was aggressive, so fan-friendly and with chemistry within. They were runner-up to another heavyweight down those times, Toluca.
Both teams eventually got into the final, one of the most remembered series ever, 3-3 in Guadalajara, 2-2 in Toluca. Atlas would lose after penalty shootouts. Atlas had the bad luck of sharing a city with Chivas, not a whiskey, but the second most winning team on history, especially on 60’s: 12 leagues, 4 cups, 7 supercups and 2 Concachampions.
Chivas is widely known for employing only Mexicans and for years it was the proud representative of the city against the power from the capital city. Chivas were regularly superior to Atlas in several occasions and this rivalry was looked upon this Sacred Herd, as Chivas is translated as Goats in English.
Despite that, Atlas attracted more people in the very city of Guadalajara and nobody could explain how come a team doomed to failure could be followed so faithfully. Even if there were some ultras who destroyed everything after losing key matches, the passion for red and white was passed on from generation to generation in families.
There were times where Jalisco stadium was the fourth most attended, way ahead of teams with better situations. This was hard to explain, even for Atlistas. There were people who died and people born without knowing the feeling of becoming champion, yet hope to finally end this suffering was there.
That was the dream, even if reality said otherwise. Every win was celebrated, and their fans proudly said a phrase after managing to get an unlikely win or draw over the buzzer: “a lo Atlas” (“the Atlas way”)
During the last decade, Chivas was stricken by hard times. Their CEO Jorge Vergara died after a troublesome divorce from Angélica Fuentes. As if that wasn’t enough, Chivas had to give up the Jalisco stadium to move to Akron.
Managerial decisions were not the best and the golden prestige once earned was polluted. In other words, fewer people went, as the new stadium was logistically more difficult to reach. On the other hand, Atlas was patient enough to reap the fruits of this silent development.
Things improved clearly when Atlas were purchased by Orlegui Group, chaired by Alejandro Irarragorri, one of the strong men in the Mexican football flow chart. He was responsible for the removal of pro-rel system just to clear the main concern of Atlas every tournament.
Irarragorri is the CEO of Santos Laguna and the brand new franchise, Mazatlán. New winds started to blow after a match against América, the most popular team. America would have kept on their lossless path, yet Atlas complained that the Eagles fielded up an ineligible player. The claim was found to be true and Atlas won at the desk.
That was the turning point. Atlas started to collect good games with their manager Diego Cocca. The Grita México 2021 tournament featured a season where every team (except América) self-sabotaged not to end on the top-4 on bye for the first playoff round. Yet Atlas was relatively consistent to be considered a serious threat.
Like 1999, the Foxes finished in second position. They had to wait for one week to take on Monterrey, a team that would muster strength gradually. The suffering was still real and Atlas prevailed the Atlas way, with the aggregated score 1-1 (the tiebreaker is the highest seed). Then Pumas came, and Atlas won on University City.
The second leg was beyond fearful. Atlas had to rely again on being the highest seed, as they lost 1-0. The final showdown would be against León. Unlike the rest of the season, this final was to be remembered for years, most notably the first 90 minutes at León. A thrilling match was decided with a doubtful penalty on the last moments, and the final score was 3-2.
The second leg featured a tense course of the match, with a Jalisco stadium packed. Nothing new under the half-moon. The timing was also strangely on point. It would be on December 12th, the day of Our Lady of Guadalupe, a cornerstone of Mexican identity.
In addition, that very week two diehard Chivas fans passed away: the actress and politician Carmen Salinas, and the legend mariachi singer Vicente Fernández. As a way to pay respect to the latter, there was a minute-applause round for him, where everybody sang his signature song, Y volver.
Notice how Atlas fans were united chanting a work from a rival; it was beyond a rivalry, after all, they are all Mexicans. Even through the TV, PC, laptops, and cellphones, shivers could be felt by almost everybody.
Game on! Atlas fiercely attacked with no success at the very end of the play. This continued with a goal of Rocha at 55’. Then, the specialty. Suffering whenever, however. Atlas would win the Atlas way or they would not win.
They took it to the extreme with an incredible miss by Zaldívar just 40 cm away of the goal line. León also responded and even were about make things even, yet the score did not change. Penalty shootout! Two outstanding goalkeepers, two teams, one curse. One of them would be gone forever. Both second shooters failed. Zaldívar had the nerve to kick a penalty, and he scored.
Everything was reduced to the fifth penalty kicker of each team. León’s Chapo Montes was the first. He shot… right to Vargas’ hands. Atlas fans would have never been so close to glory. Now Furch would be the chosen one to close the deal. He prepared, he scored to his left… and the ball went on. ¡ATLAS CAMPEÓN!
Half Guadalajara celebrated. The party was joined by also the most famous commentators like Enrique Perro Bermúdez and David Medrano, loyal Atlas fans. The next day, Twitter was flooded with videos from elder Atlas supporters crying after Furch nested the ball.
The city had many restaurants giving food for free, as they promise to serve with no cost the day Atlas would become champion. As an average fan, it was impossible not to empathise with them. 70 years were bygone.
The COVID-19 pandemic has been the catalyst to get rid of curses around the world. Atlético Mineiro did it in Brazil, mid-tier Villarreal finally made it to win the Europa League, Bodo-Glimt became the first team beyond the Arctic Polar Circle to claim any championship, Sheriff Tiraspol is holding the underground flag in European competitions.
After many years, New York can taste the sweet victory. Mexico was not alien to this status quo shock. Cruz Azul and Atlas have jacked the Mexican football and have provided another story to be told.
By: Sebastián Alarcón / @alarsebas
Featured Image: @GabFoligno / Ulises Ruiz – AFP