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

Lima – football in the city of kings

LIMA is not renowned as a global footballing hub, although the country’s major clubs are mostly located in the Peruvian capital. The local population is football mad and they’re passionate about their teams – and bull-fighting – even though they struggle to be competitive forces in South American club competition.

Peru’s clubs have struggled to make an impact in the Copa Libertadores and in recent years, they have scarcely been seen beyond the group phase. Since Sporting Cristal, one of Lima’s top clubs, reached the final in 1997, losing to Brazil’s Cruzeiro, only eight times have Peruvian clubs made it into the knockout stage.

Roots

Lima is a city that many people are wary of because of its reputation, although crime has dropped dramatically during the pandemic. It is a sprawling metropolis that is home to around a third of Peru’s population. The Spanish, who conquered the country in the 16th century and founded the city in 1535, called Lima the “the city of kings”. Today it is popular for its cuisine and as a result, a lot of decent quality restaurants have sprung up. Each year, Lima welcomes around 2.5 million tourists.

Football was introduced to Lima and Peru in the late 19th century by British sailors and the country’s first organised league was inaugurated in 1912, a Lima-centric competition that included teams emerging from the city’s major factories – such as Sport Inca, Sport Progreso and Sport Vitarte. 

Sport Alianza, the club that became Club Alianza Lima, was formed in 1901 by workers at the local horseracing stables in the Victoria district of the city. Victoria was an area dominated by Afro-Peruvians, but football became the pastime of white Anglo-Peruvians. Very few black players featured in those early years. Today, Alianza have more fans across Peru than any other club.

Club Universitario de Deportes was formed by students in 1924 and started life wearing a pristine white kit. However, after an ill-fated trip to the laundry, the club’s strip came back as a shade of yellow. Hence, Universitario now play in cream shirts and shorts. Universitario’s support base has traditionally been from the middle and upper classes, but they have also attracted fans with right-wing political beliefs.

The clash between Alianza and Universitario is known as the El Clásico Peruano (the Peruvian classic), a passionate fixture that has often exploded into violence among the fans.

Sporting Cristal were formed in 1955 in the Rimac district of the city by owners of a brewery. Rimac is now an area overrun by what are known as Pueblos jóvenes – shanty towns. Sporting play at the Estadio Alberto Gallardo in Rimac, a 11,600-capacity ground, but their big derbies and cup games are held at the Estadio Nacional.

Deportivo Municipal were founded in 1935 and their golden period was between 1938 and 1950 when they were Peruvian champions four times. Deportivo were the first to get a taste of overseas competition when they were invited to take part in the first championship of South American clubs which was held in 1948 in Santiago.

Universidad de San Martin (known as USMP) are a relatively young outfit having been established in 2004 as the first public limited company club, and they have already been Peru’s champions three times: 2007, 2008 and 2010. Despite their impressive success, the club is without a permanent stadium.

Universitario are the best supported club in Peru in terms of attendances – in 2019, they averaged 12,700 at their home games, more than double the league average. Alianza regularly get over 11,000, while Sporting Cristal and Deportivo Municipal attendances fluctuate from 5,000 – 9,000. Universidad San Martin struggle to get more than 2,000 at most games. 

Ambition

Peru were part of the first World Cup in 1930 and for a while fancied their chances of becoming a force in the game. David Goldblatt, in his fine work, The Ball is Round, suggested Lima had ambitions to become the “Montevideo of the Andes”. Peru started to develop some outstanding players and in 1936, in the infamous Berlin Olympics, they reached the quarter-finals of the football competition. Three years earlier, a team comprising Peruvians and Chileans, the so-called Combinado Del Pacífico, went on an extensive charm offensive in Europe, pressing flesh and demonstrating that South America had a lot to offer the football world. Their exhaustive fixture list included matches with Celtic, Newcastle United, West Ham, Barcelona, Saint-Etienne and Bayern Munich. The majority of the squad came from Lima’s Alianza and Universitario and some went on to become part of the Peru Olympic team in 1936, including the outstanding Alejandro Villanueva, who played for Alianza and his aerial power (he was 6ft 6in) earned him the nickname, “the Peruvian Dixie Dean”. Villaneuva died tragically young, a victim of tuberculosis in 1944.

Teofilo Cubillas

More recently, Peru charmed the crowds in Mexico in the World Cup of 1970 when a talented young player named Teófilo Cubillas helped his country reach the quarter-finals. Cubillas, a native of Lima, played for Alianza and is considered to be one of the greatest Peruvian players of all time. He scored five goals in both the 1970 and 1978 World Cups and played 250 games for Alianza. 

Peruvian football has often flirted with disaster and has faced many challanges. In 1964, over 300 people were killed in a riot in Lima during an Olympic qualifier between Peru and Argentina. This incident, the worst ever disaster to involve football was seen as a reflection of pent-up discontent over the massive inequalities in Peruvian society at the time. Some 23 years later, the Alianza team, returning from a game in Pucallpa, was wiped-out in a plane crash when their Navy aircraft plunged into the Pacific Ocean. There was also a hint of scandal in the 1978 World Cup when Peru capitulated against Argentina, losing 6-0 in a game the hosts had to win by four to qualify from the second stage group. There have been countless theories behind this astonishing result, including the agreement between the two countries for a consignment of grain to be sent to Peru if Argentina achieved the right result.

Decline

Peru’s economic decline in the 1980s impacted their footballing fortunes. Although they appeared in the 1982 World Cup in Spain, Peru were nowhere to be seen on the global stage again until 2018. South America experienced a decade of turmoil in the 1980s and in Peru – La Crisis de Los Ochentas – peaked with debt defaults in 1984, hyperinflation peaking in 1990 and 350,000 people per year leaving the country. In the 1990s, the Fujimori government led the economic recovery. Although 20% of the country lives below the poverty line, Peru has been one of the fasted growing economies in the world, although growth has slowed in the past two years. The country also has other issues to deal with such as refugees from Venezuela and Alianza have linked up with the United Nations Refugee Agency to support integration of people arriving in Peru.

Alianza have won just six of the last 30 Peruvian championships, while Sporting Cristal have secured 10 and Universitario eight. Lima continues to dominate domestic football, although the last champions were  Binacional, a team from the city of Juliaca formed in 2010.

Like most countries, Peru suspended its football league during the pandemic and attempted to restart in August. By the end of November, the 2020 season will finally be over. The chances are, a team from Lima will be celebrating.

@GameofthePeople

Photos: PA