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

Mexico and Major League Soccer – over the wall and into bed

HOW confusing is the relationship between the US and Mexico? On one hand you have the US president calling for a wall to be built that would keep out the “criminals” and on the other hand, the three amigos, US, Canada and Mexico are co-hosting the 2026 World Cup.

Given the US will host 60 of the 80 games, it would seem the Canadians and Mexicans are partners of convenience.

Mexico is hugely reliant on the US, hence people like Trump seem to say what they like to antagonise their neighbours. Around 76% of all Mexican exports find their way to the US and 37 million people of Mexican descent reside across the country.

Bizarre

Most recently, President Trump announced that relationships between the two countries are “outstanding” after discussions with his Mexican counterpart, Lopez Obrador. It’s a bizarre world – it wasn’t that long ago when Trump said he wanted to fill the river that divides the two countries with snakes and alligators to deter would-be illegal immigrants.

Now we hear there’s some muscle behind the project to merge Liga MX and Major League Soccer, creating a North American super league that can compete with Europe’s top competitions. American sport has a history of mergers and consolidation and Mexico’s decision to create a closed top league for five years has a hint of Americanisation about it. Liga MX is the most popular football league in the US, largely due to the huge Hispanic population.

Mexico is a football-crazy nation but their clubs often lack the polish of US clubs who are not only soundly organised, but structurally well financed and invariably have good infrastructure to support their teams. In terms of playing resources, Mexican clubs are ahead of US clubs, so if there should be a merger, you would assume that there will be some benefits for both sides.

However, the gulf between MLS and Liga MX teams could mean any super league would be somewhat unbalanced. While the US has made great progress domestically, just look at the CONCACAF Champions League which has been dominated by Mexican teams for a decade and a half. The last team other than a Mexican side to win the competition was Saprissa of Costa Rica in 2005. DC United and LA Galaxy, in 1998 and 2000 respectively, represent the only US successes so far.

It’s clear, though, that the people behind the concept have dollar symbols in their eyes, particularly broadcasting and commercial revenues. Businessman Alejandro Irarragorri, the head of the Orlegi Sports Group which has a stake in both Atlas FC and Santos Laguna, is a fierce advocate of the merger, claiming there was a certain logic in combining forces given a high percentage of Mexican football’s income comes from the US.

Irarragorri, who was linked with Newcastle United in 2019, wants to see more international investment in Mexican football. At present, around 47% of companies on the Mexican Stock Exchange invest in football in some shape or form, with firms like FEMSA, Cemex, Televisa, Calienta and Omnilife all holding stakes in clubs. There is a strong feeling that creating a dual market league could access overseas investment and make the Liga MX more marketable.

It could just stop a talent drain in the Mexican game. Mexico’s top clubs have long been accustomed to losing their best players to Europe – half of the country’s World Cup 2018 squad was registered with clubs from Germany, England, Netherlands, Portugal, Spain and Belgium – but the US and Canada are now hunting down promising young players from Liga MX. At the same time, Mexico is the biggest importer of foreign talent in Latin America.

Crowd appeal

Would the merger make a difference to attendances? If the partnership’s latest venture, the Leagues Cup, was a litmus test, it may have been deemed a failure. The eight-team competition drew average crowds of less than 18,000 and just 20,000 to the all-Mexican final in Las Vegas.

Attendances at MLS and Liga MX games are more or less equitable, the average in the MLS in 2019 was 21,300 which suggests the league may have plateaued for the time being. However, MLS has a couple of seriously big hitters, with Atlanta United drawing almost 53,000 per game and Seattle Sounders averaging over 40,000. Conversely, 15 of the 24 MLS franchises have sub-20,000 crowds.

Mexican crowds have been falling for the past few years and the 2018-19 average was 22,896 with Tigres UANL the highest at 40,995. Cruz Azul and Monterrey both exceeded 35,000 and América over 30,000. América, who play at Mexico City’s iconic Azteca stadium, are followed by more than 30% of the population in Mexico, but they are also the most unpopular club – a scenario typical of many European countries.

Declining gates, along with lower TV revenues  – the clubs have the power to negotiate their own rights deals – and less sponsorship mean that Mexican football’s financial power is waning a little. The pandemic has exposed some of the economic shortcomings of a league that had ambitions to be the Premier League of Latin America.

The wealthiest club in Mexico is Guadalajara with a value of around US$ 300 million with Monterrey just behind them. These two clubs, along with América, were the only Mexican entities featured in Soccerex’s FF100 (Game of the People was engaged to provide the editorial content for the third consecutive year). Conversely, there were 15 US teams in that same report, underlining the solid foundations that typify so much of American top level sport.

But there are hurdles for a combined league to overcome. Travelling is a massive concern – Toluca to Los Angeles, for example, are more than 1,500 miles apart, and that’s just one of many long-hauls.

Removing the dream

Major League Soccer is run on a closed league basis, but Mexico has initiated that no promotion and relegation structure for the next five years. The US has restrictions on salaries and transfers in order to maintain competitiveness. The players who have moved from Mexico to the US have been bought through the Designated Player Rule (also known as the Beckham Rule) or Targetted Allocation Money, which allow clubs to sign up to three players outside their salary cap. The average MLS wage in 2019 was less than US$ 350,000 which was around 25% lower than the average in Liga MX where there are no salary caps.

While many folk like Irarragorri claim Mexico is a very competitive league with no class divide, clubs such as UNAL, Monterrey, Cruz Azul, América and Guadalajara are pulling away from the rest of the league. Moreover, the league has started to become a free-for-all mfor players out of contract.

Will the marriage of MLS and Liga MX materialise? Closed leagues actually go against the spirit of football in that the “dare to dream” aspect of the sport is compromised by a competition with no real losers. Promotion is all that some clubs can play for, they may never be league champions, but they can achieve their own “little victory” by securing a place in a higher division. The comfort of knowing you will always be safe also breeds stagnation and complacency. There is also the danger of such a league being a fad rather than something people want to exist indefinitely. From a commercial perspective, it may work for a while, but whether it improves the US teams remains to be seen. If it goes ahead, of course…

 

@GameofthePeople

Photos: PA Images