National team football

Mexico, the biggest minnow

WHEN Mexico beat Germany 1-0 in the group stage of the 2018 World Cup, it was greeted with mild hysteria, not just by the Mexican fans, but also by pundits and onlookers. As far as they were concerned, Mexico had pulled off a major shock, unseated the world champions and created a little piece of World Cup history.

Any defeat suffered by Germany is a surprise, such is the status of a nation that has become accustomed to success at the highest level on a consistent basis. If Mexican reaction was joy and unbridled celebration at winning, the media in Germany would have undoubtedly launched an inquiry into how Mexico were able to beat the Nationalelf.

But the victors were Mexico, not Saudi Arabia, Iran or Japan. Mexico, a country that has hosted two World Cups (1970 and 1986) and has just been awarded a co-host role for 2026. It is a country with a population of almost 130 million people (versus Germany’s 82 million) and one that has had football embedded in its culture for many decades.

Photo: Fabian Gonzalez CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Although Mexico has its problems, it has a very high rate of poverty for example, it is also the 15th biggest economy in the world. It has been described as an “emerging market heavyweight” and in some ways that comment reflects its status as a footballing power.

Mexico is certainly a force in the CONCACAF confederation and has little excuse not to qualify for the World Cup. With the exception of 1990 when they were banned for fielding over-age players in a youth competition, Mexico have been present at every World Cup since 1986. The best they’ve managed in the competition was the quarter-finals, achieved in 1970 and 1986 when they were on home turf.

In 1970, the world was worried about the high altitude affecting the players, especially European teams, but Italy reached the final, West Germany the semi-finals, so it was less of a problem that most people feared. At the same time, the world marvelled at the huge Azteca Stadium in Mexico City. In 1986, arguably the last great World Cup, nobody was too concerned with altitude. Equally, only the most dedicated Mexican seriously expected the World Cup to be lifted by the team in green and white.

Today, the Azteca’s capacity may be a lot smaller than it was in its heyday, now some 87,000 , but it is still among the top six worldwide in terms of capacity. The stadium is the home of Club América, and crowds average around 30,000 for their home games.

América are not the best supported club in Mexico, that honour belongs to Monterrey, who pack almost 50,000 into their Estadio BBVA Bancomer. UANL Tigres, also from the Monterrey area, also draw more than 40,000 fans.

The domestic league, Liga MX, is the fourth best supported league in the world, averaging more than Italy and France at the gate. This underlines the potential of Mexico and their clubs, who are considerably ahead of their counterparts from other Latin American countries.

In the recent Soccerex Football Finance 100 report, which Game of the People was involved in from an editorial perspective, there were nine Mexican clubs listed, from 40th placed América to Toluca in 86th position. Mexico has dominated the CONCACAF Champions League in its current form and since 2008-09, there have been six different Mexican winners: Atlante, Pachuca, Montrerrey, Cruz Azul, América and Guadalajara (2018). Most years, the final is an all-Mexican affair.

The LigaMX is a relatively prosperous competition and has the ambitious aim of becoming “the Premier League of Latin America”. Certainly there’s no apparent shortage of cash as players earn, on average US$ 300,000 per year, making it the 10th most lucrative league in world football. Admission prices are incredibly low, as little as 50 pesos (£ 2), so there’s plenty of upside. However, some clubs have very wealthy backers, including Carlos Slim, the magnate said to be worth US$ 50 billion. The earning power is so good that many players opt to stay at home rather than seek their fortunes in Europe or elsewhere. That said, many analysts believe Mexico’s broadcasting rights (US$ 120 million for domestic rights) are small beer and the league is grossly undervalued, despite being the most watched football in North America. There are 35 million Mexicans in the US and that figure is expected to double by 2037, unless the current sentiment in Washington prevents that from happening.

Mexican players get a good chance to be successful at home given the ruling that forces clubs to have eight local players and only 10 overseas recruits in their first team squad. Current [Clausura] champions, Santos Laguna, have a squad with a ratio of 50/50.

This means that there is a high reliance on developing talent, and to that end, many clubs have invested in academies. Mexico won the under-17 World Cup in both 2005 and 2011. A year later, El Tri won the Olympic gold medal in London, so there’s been a conveyor belt of a sort.

There have been few outstandingly successful Mexicans in Europe, although Spain saw the best of the acrobatic Hugo Sánchez of Real Madrid and Barcelona’s Rafael Márquez, who was named in Mexico’s 2018 squad. Nine of the 23 that went to Russia were from Mexican clubs, 11 were employed in Europe and three came from the US. Mexico’s players know what its like to play abroad.

All things considered, Mexico’s win against Germany didn’t warrant such a dramatic response from media and fans alike. In some ways, a country with such a huge population should be more than also-rans on the world stage. Have Mexico, in fact, under-performed and could they elevate themselves to have higher level? If Liga MX continues to progress and the clubs commit to developing more talent that can also bring in revenues from player trading, then Mexico could become more than just a regional force. Economists have said, for some years, that Mexico is among the top 10 countries for growth potential. If that potential is realised, Mexican football may just continue its progress and surprise a few people in the near future.

 

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