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.


Copa Libertadores heading for an all-Brazil final

THE COPA Libertadores has gradually become more global over the past two years, largely thanks to the 2018 debacle when Boca Juniors and River Plate met in the final in Madrid after a string of highly publicised disruptions in Argentina.

The Buenos Aires duo are back in the semi-finals again, but after disappointing results in the first legs, the odds are stacked against a repeat of the 2018 final. 

Boca’s fans were so frustrated by being held to a draw by Santos, they decided to attack the Brazilian team’s coach. The competition does have a history of violence and disorder, but this year, the semi-finals and final are being behind closed doors. That didn’t stop a brick or two being thrown at the windows of the Santos vehicle.

If Santos and Palmeiras get through, it will be only the fourth time the Libertadores decider has been played between two clubs from the same country and the third all-Brazil final.

Boca and Santos seemed very edgy in the empty Bombonera and neither side could muster up any chances of note, although Boca’s Sebastian Villa struck the woodwork with an effort that would have been ruled-out for offside. 

The previous night, Palmeiras pulled off an unexpected emphatic victory against River, goals coming from Rony, former Milan and Shakhtar Donetsk striker Luiz Adriano and Matias Vina. Palmeiras took full advantage of River’s defensive mistakes and the home side received another blow when Jorge Carrascal was red-carded.  The result was a double blow for River, who were seconds away from retaining the cup in Lima in 2019 but conceded two late goals against Flamengo. They were determined to make-up for that heartbreaking loss.

River, arguably, had the toughest route through to the last four, overcoming Brazilians São Paulo and Athletico Paranaense as well as a quarter-final drubbing of Uruguay’s Nacional.

The Maracana will host the final on January 30 which under normal circumstances would attract a huge crowd in the stadium and across TV networks worldwide. There’s no doubt the Copa Libertadores has the potential to become a significant worldwide event that could enhance the image of South American club football and deliver multiple commercial and sporting opportunities. Until recently, it has been something of an unknown quantity to many fans in Europe. It was good to see the BBC screening the semi-finals.

There is a significant hurdle to overcome, however, caused by making the final a one-off game. Fans from the participating clubs may not have the opportunity to see their team in action due to financial restrictions, hence a lot of people are in favour of retaining the two-legged final format.

The importance of South America’s contribution to world football is unequivocal. Since 2005-06, every UEFA Champions League winning team has had at least one South American in their line-up and that list is impressive: Lionel Messi, Neymar and Luis Suarez (Barcelona), Roberto Firmino (Liverpool), David Luiz (Chelsea), Marcelo (Real Madrid), Diego Milito (Inter), Philippe Coutinho and Dante (Bayern Munich) and Kaká (AC Milan). 

Argentinian and Brazilian players are among the most coveted in world football. According to CIES Football Observatory, there are around 1,300 Brazilians playing in top level football across major football leagues and 800-plus Argentinians. Of this year’s semi-finalists, Santos’s Kaio Jorge, an 18 year-old striker, has caught the attention of Real Madrid and is being tipped to become the “new Neymar”. River Plate have Julián Álvarez (20) who could be heading to Europe before too long.

Football cities in Latin America are among the most fanatical in the world, so the absence of fans makes for a somewhat sterile atmosphere. As the 2018 Libertadores final showed, Buenos Aires is a fermenting hotbed of football. It also highlighted that occasionally, things get out of hand, but a researcher at San Martin University, Diego Murzi, said “in Argentina, there is a football culture in which violence is legitimate, and not just by the ‘barras’ but by everyone who attends.” The popular and frequently televised image of the region’s football fans, nevertheless, is of Samba-dancing, drum-bashing, happy-go-lucky characters urging their team to play beautiful football, notably the Brazilians and their devotion to “jogo bonita”. 

The winners of the Copa Libertadores pocket US$ 12 million and go straight into the FIFA Club World Cup, joining the likes of Bayern Munich, UANL (Mexico), Ulsan Hyundai (South Korea) and Al-Ahly (Egypt). 

If River Plate are to get to Qatar, they will have to produce something monumental to overturn a three-goal deficit against Palmeiras. Dramatic turnarounds in the semi-finals in the competition are rare, although they could draw inspiration from Boca’s 2007 performance when they lost the first leg 1-3 but produced a 3-0 second leg win against Cúcuta Deportivo. Santos versus Boca is still an open tie and the lack of a passionate local crowd in São Paulo may neutralise home advantage. This game will be worth watching.

Photo: PA Images