Soccer City: Mexico City waits for the coast to be clear

MEXICO is soccer mad and Mexicans are among the most passionate of fans. The country’s clubs dominate CONCACAF football. When Germany hosted the 2006 World Cup, thousands of Mexicans travelled to support their team, many selling-up at home to fund their trip, some using the competition as an excuse to relocate. Sometimes, things get out of hand, precisely why at present, Mexican fans are absent from some stadiums owing to homophobic chanting at games, a problem that has plagued Liga MX for some years.

Yet Mexico is a football country in every sense of the word – they have, after all, hosted two World Cups, in 1970 and 1986 and research has suggested that around 75% of the country’s urban population are interested in the game. 

The Mexico-held World Cups were both memorable occasions, two of the best World Cups of all time, even though the big worry when they were named as hosts was the altitude of the country. 

Liga MX, Mexico’s premier football league, is among the best supported in the world: between 2013 and 2018, the league’s average attendance (25,582) was the fourth highest in the world and it remains the biggest draw outside of Europe three years on.

Mexico City is 2,250 metres above sea level and is known as D.F. among the locals, Distrito Federal. With a population of 9.2 million, it is the most populous city in North America and the largest Spanish-speaking city in the world. 

Unsurprisingly, the city has won more Mexican championships than any other metropolis. Between the four main clubs, Mexico City has 32 titles to its name, compared to Guadalajara’s 13 and Toluca’s 10.

The most loved and hated club in Mexico is Club América from the capital. América, who were formed in 1916, have been champions 13 times and have also won the CONCACAF Champions League on seven occasions. They have one foot in the final this year after beating Philadelphia Union 2-0 in the first leg of the semi-final. If they succeed, they will play fellow Liga MX sides Cruz Azul or Monterrey in the final, making it the ninth all-Mexican final in the Champions League era. In the past 12 years, Mexican teams have won every competition. 

América’s rivals in the capital are Cruz Azul (formed 1927) and UNAM (formed 1954), otherwise known as Club Universidad Nacional or the Pumas. There’s also Atlante, who are currently playing in Mexico’s second tier, Liga de Expansión MX. Clashes between América and Cruz Azul are known as Clásico Joven, while América v UNAM is the Clásico Capitalino.

Despite these intense local encounters, characterised by incessant noise, drums and much flag-waving, Club América versus Guadalajara is seen as the biggest game in Mexican football. The three teams from Mexico City plus Guadalajara are known as the Cuatro Grandes (the big four) of Mexican football, the most influential and newsworthy institutions in the game.

In Mexico City, the three main clubs have very different crowds, América are supposedly the club of the wealthy, Cruz Azul are very much a working class team and UNAM have long been known for having intellectual and middle class fans.

América and Cruz Azul both play at the iconic Azteca stadium (Estadio Azteca), which was opened in 1966 and used in the 1968 Olympic games, as well as the World Cup in 1970 and 1986. When it was constructed, it was a remarkable arena but the capacity has been dramatically reduced since the days when over 100,000 people attended matches at the Azteca. The stadium can claim to have been the venue for the infamous Diego Maradona goal in 1986 and the fabled 1970 World Cup final.

Cruz Azul, who were formed in Hidalgo as Cementos Cruz Azul, before moving to Mexico City, have won the title nine times. They have also been CONCACAF champions six times, the most recent being in 2014. The club pulled off a unique treble in 1968-69 when they won the CONCACAF Champions League, Mexican Primera División and Copa Mexico. They repeated the trick in 1997.

Cruz Azul were champions of the Torneo Guardianes in 2021, a competition named after the doctors and health professionals who helped Mexico through the pandemic. They beat Santos Laguna in the final 2-1 on aggregate with Uruguayan forward Jonathan Rodríguez scoring the vital goal at the Estadio Azteca. This ended a barren run for the club that had earned them the reputation of being “chokers” at vital moments. Like América, they have played the first leg of their CONCACAF Champions League semi-final, losing 1-0 to Monterrey. The second leg is on September 17 2021.

UNAM, who play at the Estadio Olímpico Universitario, are struggling in LigaMX this season and have won just one of their first six games. The club hasn’t won a major honour since 2011 when they lifted the Clausura by beating Morelia in the final. It is getting increasingly difficult for UNAM to be competitive as, financially, they currently operate differently from other Mexican clubs. They do not have income from big sponsorship so the club has to survive on much lower levels of funding granted by the university.

Mexican football, generally, has financial issues owing to the pandemic with the estimated cost of the crisis running to around US$ 200 million. Some clubs have lost backers and sponsors due to the financial climate. The league suspended promotion and relegation because of a need to stabilise after the pandemic, but is this merely a step towards the sort of closed league structure that US sport advocates? There is growing interest in a combined North American league involving Mexico, Canada and the United States and it is likely, given the 2026 World Cup will be held across these countries, that stronger partnerships will develop between the leagues.

Liga MX is the best paid Latin American league with an average salary of between US$ 350,000 and US$ 400,000. There is a big reliance on TV income and around 55% of the league’s revenues are derived from broadcasting. Certainly TV audiences for Mexican games dwarf Major League Soccer’s viewing figures. There’s little doubt that Mexico City is one of the world’s great football hubs but given the number of people who live in poverty, the covid-19 pandemic has hit some areas of the city very hard and it will surely take time for normal service to be resumed. Mexico has seen the fourth highest number of deaths worldwide (256,000) and a total of around 3.3 million cases have been recorded. Sorting out football is the least of their worries at the moment.

@GameofthePeople

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