by Tom Marshall
Mexican striker Javier Hernandez has stolen headlines this week following his match-winning goals against Stoke on Sunday and Wolves on Tuesday but things aren’t so rosy back at his old club Guadalajara Chivas.
Sunday’s “clasico of the clasicos” against bitter capital city rivals America ended 0-0, the second half of which was at times exasperating to watch.
The clash pits the all-Mexican, provincial “people’s club” from second city Guadalajara against Mexico City’s America, whose name alone alludes to intentions of grandeur. America spend big on players, flaunt their wealth and their fans are proud of it. Chivas, thanks to an era of domination called the campeonisimo in the late 1950s and 1960s, lead America eleven to ten in the overall title count but both clubs currently find themselves in a slump.
The Mexican sports press was ferocious in building the game up, suggesting the clubs owed the fans a true classic after recent mediocrity and scandal in the national team.
After 90 minutes, boos rang out and the game only served to highlight how both clubs now have some thinking to do in terms of how they can compete on the pitch, not just commercially, with Mexico’s new elite: Monterrey, Cruz Azul, Toluca, Santos Laguna.
Of the two giants of the Mexican League though, it’s Chivas who are very much in flux.
Fans are almost unanimously against club owner Jorge Vergara, who bought the club in 2002 and said he would make it into one of the biggest in the world.
“On paper the project is fine but in practice it’s not that easy,” says Chivas fan Luis from Mexico City before Sunday’s game. “Where’s the money going to come from?”
Chivas fans dancing, singing and drinking in a Mexico City park before making their way to the Azteca hid a shared concern about the future of the club.
“I’ll tell you, none of us like Vergara,” says Carlos of Guadalajara’s Legion 1908 fan group. “You go around the park and ask people what they think of him.”
A major problem for Chivas fans in Guadalajara this year has been the new Omnilife Stadium.
“It’s an amazing stadium, incredible but the prices are too high and we can’t get there easily,” says Jorge, who was one of those to make the trip from Guadalajara to Mexico City on Sunday. Hardcore fans like Jorge and Carlos go to the new stadium every home game, but thousands have been put off.
The Estadio Omnilife is like a modern European stadium, set on the edge of the city. It is genuinely impressive. The problem is that Mexicans can’t pay Western European costs and most people simply can’t afford to pay the ticket prices plus transport to the stadium and then the food and beer inside the stadium. In comparison to the vast majority of Mexican stadia, there are no independent vendors outside; meaning Vergara has a monopoly on food, booze and merchandise.
Vergara laughs it off and says the stadium has been a success and that it’s the media causing the discontentment, but he would be better looking at the stark facts.
There were swathes of empty seats around the ground when Chivas took on local rivals Atlas a couple of weeks ago and when Pumas came to town it was the same. At the old Estadio Jalisco it was rare if one of the above games didn’t sell out, regardless of the circumstances of the team. The stadium isn’t the only sign of discontent within Chivas however.
“This year I only brought one bus to the clasico,” says Luis Felipe Martinez, organizer of the Legion 1908 in Guadalajara. “I usually bring three.”
Outside the Azteca on Sunday another supporters’ club was protesting a potential change to the club badge.
As in all sports, a successful team brings fans around and while Chivas are performing like they did on Sunday, discontentment is bound is reign.
Perhaps what is required in the long term is that the club relaxes the rule on not allowing foreign players. Chivas have struggled in recent years in the Mexican league and now rely almost exclusively on talent coming up through the youth team. The “sacred herd” has won just three titles since the Campeonisimo era ended in the 1960s. Toluca, on the other hand, has won seven titles since 1997.
The template for success in the Mexican league seems to be to have a large base of seven or eight Mexicans complemented with a few foreigners sprinkled in there. The Mexican identity remains while the team can be hugely aided by foreigners who can provide the missing link.
An additional problem for Chivas’ “Mexican only” policy is that it is combined with a policy of selling players that are successful. ‘Chicharito’ Hernandez played exceptionally well for only one year with Chivas before being whisked off, while 19-year-old midfield starlet Jorge Enriquez is being tipped to move in the same direction in the not too distant future.
If Chivas’ best players are sold on, the team naturally loses quality and it becomes difficult to win trophies; the most surefire way of getting supporters back into the stadium.
Most worryingly of all, Chivas fans are already fantasizing about the potential end-of-career return of the already mythical Chicharito. With his goals on Sunday, the wait could seem like an eternity.