I told myself the second time I came to Mexico that I would make an effort to understand Mexican soccer. Understanding Mexican politics, I reasoned, would be the next step but that would take considerably longer. To really understand the politics of a country (especially one as big as Mexico) you need to develop a considerable background knowledge, until eventually newspaper headlines such as: Hernandez tells Dominguez: "No Return to CAD" become comprehensible. Now, five years after I first arrived in Guadalajara, I feel I finally understand the football here. And it really is quite remarkably chaotic and Latin to someone versed in the predictable, perpetual rhythms of European football. I hope any other European football fans out there will be interested:
It's a chilly Wednesday evening in mid December and Cruz Azul (from Mexico City) are facing off against Monterrey in the first leg of the final that will decide the league championship. As Monterrey finished the regular season with the worse record of the two teams, the first leg is played in Monterrey, and the seond leg (a mere four days later, mind you) in the Estadio Azul in the capital. In the first half of that first leg, Cruz Azul race to a 3-1 lead, away from home. Surely a remarkable effort and the cementeros* surely have the trophy all but won. (*Cruz Azul's nickname means the cement makers because the club is owned by Cruz Azul cement.) But Monterrey come back to score three goals in the second half, winning 4-3, before holding on for a draw in the return leg, thus wining the final 5-4 on aggregate. Surely a remarkable final that no-one will stop talking about for years? (Cf Liverpool v Milan, 2005 UEFA Champions League final). But no, not really. This kind of thing just happens in Mexican football, where defending has never been half as interesting as full-blooded, hang-the-consequences attacking football.
So Monterrey are the reigning league champions. Except, of course, that that was only the "opening" ("apertura") championship of the 2009/10 season. Now begins the somehow-more-serious "closing" ("clausura") championship. Partly, it is more serious because the winners gain an automatic place in the Copa Libertadores, Latin America's answer to the Champions League, which begins in earnest this month. Monterrey will be playing in the Libertadores - not because they won last year's championship, but because they won the Interliga tournament last week. The Interliga is an eight-team mini tournament to decide which two teams (in addition to the two strongest teams in the 2009 clausura) will compete in the 2010 Libertadores. All the matches are played in the south-west of the USA. (How many domestic football tournaments can you name that take place outside the country concerned?) Joining Monterrey as qualifiers will be Estudiantes, a club from Guadalajara that is owned by the Autonomous University of Guadalajara. When I lived in Guadalajara in 2005 the club was known as Tecos, and played in different colours. But, as they were distinctly third-place in that city behind Chivas and Atlas, the club has rebranded itself, and I suppose you can say they are doing well, having qualified for the Libertadores. It doesn't matter that they were one of the weakest teams in last year's apertura, because the qualification for the InterLiga is based on the results through the whole of 2009, and teams do have a habit of reversing fortunes dramatically over the two haves of the year. Take Pumas, for example. One of the most popular teams in the country, Pumas are owned by the National Autonomous University of Mexico - the country's largest university with the small matter of some 350,000 students in Mexico City. Pumas won the 2009 clausura, but then put in an abysmal performance in the apertura and didn't come near to qualifying for the playoffs.
Confused yet? Well, it's probably time I explained how the whole playoffs system works. There are 18 teams in the top division, and these are divided into three different groups. All teams in the league play each other once, regardless of groups (a bit like the NFL or Major League Baseball). How are these groups decided, you ask? By region? Or strength? No, it appears to be completely at random and changes once a year. So, for example, the two big Guadalajara teams, Atlas and Chivas are in the same group, but the biggest rivals in Mexico City, America and Cruz Azul are separated. Chivas and Atlas have not been strong lately and are in the same group as probably the two weakest teams in the league: Indios of Ciudad Juarez and Gallos Blancos of Queretaro (sorry, I mean just "Gallos". The club officially dropped the "blancos" last year, so changing from the "white cockerels" to just the "cockerels"). This group was so weak last year that both Gallos and Chivas, despite very poor records, went into the last weeks of the season still with a chance of winning the title overall. This is because the top two teams from each group qualify automatically for the playoffs at the end of the season, plus the two other teams with the best record, regardless of groups. The top eight teams, therefore, play off in two-legged ties until a final champion is decided - Monterrey, in the case of last year's apertura.
So, with eight teams qualifying for the playoffs out of 18 in total, there is a high chance of any team making it through to the later stages. The gap between the haves and the have-nots is a great deal narrower than in any European league. But despite the constant flux of strength and weekness amongst the clubs, some teams are more prestigious than others. By far and away the two biggest clubs in the country are America (Mexico City) and Chivas (Gdl). Whenever these two play, it is the biggest match in Mexico, no matter how inconsequential the game may be to the wider picture of the championship. Nor does it matter that neither had reached the playoffs in the last four tournaments until America made it last year - only to be immediately eliminated at the quarter final stage by Monterrey.
But with even the biggest teams often having appalling seasons, isn't there a distinct risk of one of them being relgated? No. Beacuse the relegation system is entirely separate from the apertura/clausura groups that decide the playoffs. Only one team is promoted once a year, from the Liga de Ascenso (the second division, where -incidentally- the national team's star player is currently plying his trade - figure that one out if you can). The team that is relegated is the team with the lowest average points per game from their previous three years in the top division. Or, in the case of the Gallos of Queretaro, just this one year since they were only just promoted to the top division. So whilst most teams are keeping an eye on the group tables with hopes of making the playoffs, the likes of Gallos and Indios are really only watching the porcentaje (percentage, as it's known). Rather than cliches like: "all we needed were the three points", the really salient analysis is in comments like: "that win puts Gallos up to 0.915 points per game, and with Indios facing a tough visit to Pachuca tomorrow, a defeat there could cut their lead to a mere 0.020 points per game." Why is the relegation system as complicated as this? Simple: it's to ensure that the likes of America, Chivas, Cruz Azul, Pumas -who probably account for two-thirds of all the merchandise and income to the league- are never ever in danger of relegation. And it works.
So that does it for my explanantion of Mexican football. Confused? Everyone here is. And what's more, things are likely to change rapidly with little prior warning. For exapmple, Gallos fans here in Queretaro are still angry at events a few years ago, when the rules for including young players in every squad were changed retroactively mid season, making several of the club's victories illegal and condemning them to relegation - all to save one of the bigger clubs from going down. But that is Mexican football, and that -in a microcosm- is Latin culture. The authorities are corrupt and protecting the interests of the elite and everyone knows it. The organisation is chaotic and confusing and evereyone accepts it. And above all, things are want to change and people adapt to it. Very different to Europe, where things are done the way they are because that is how they have been done for years and years, and if you want to change things there are formal processes involving committees, elections, votes, accountability, debate, bureaucracy. And, of course, it being Europe, the systems over there are the best and the most logical, and everyone else in the world really should follow their lead if they don't want to be as brash as the Americans. And they're right. But the thing is, over here in America, things are more relaxed and -maybe just maybe- that little bit more fun.