Steve Graff –
While some Americans are familiar with what is termed a “soccer war” between establishment and anti-establishment, reformist camps (the #ProRelforUSA hashtag is one of several reform hashtags that has been used to organized reformist information regarding the USSF), the one to the south in Mexico might not be as known, but seems to operating in similar veins to the USA battle with Grupo Pachuca at the centre of the affair.
However, there is a difference in the political battle. While the USSF has pitted the directors of league associations against each other, the fight within the FMF has been one between owners within one league—Liga MX. There’s also another difference. Unlike in USSF, who is holding presidential elections in the coming weeks, Liga MX owners are the only owners who have any say in the goings-on of the national federation. If something happens with the national team, or with a national team manager or director, then it’s the representatives or directors from only the eighteen clubs in Liga MX who can vote on the decision and only from those eighteen clubs. No players. None of the representatives from the more than 295 clubs who are affiliated with FMF but play in the FMF’s lower divisions. No one else. And it’s been that way since the professional era began.
From the perspective of media, some argue that Liga MX’s control has been necessary to get soccer to become a national pastime among a “non-elite” who got their sports meaning from baseball, bullfighting, and boxing among other sports.
Fault lines have appeared between Grupo Pachuca teams and TV Azteca and Televisa teams
But in the last few years of significant FMF policy decisions, fault lines have appeared between Grupo Pachuca teams and teams affiliated with TV Azteca and Televisa. Grupo Pachuca’s directorship, controlled by one-time New York Times investor and world’s richest man Carlos Slim, lost a bid for the TV rights to Mexico’s national teams to Televisa and TV Azteca. This happened despite the offer bringing in 20% more revenue than did the winning proposal made by the Mexican TV giant, according to a report cited in El Desmarque. It was a bid in which only the Grupo Pachuca teams (Leon, Pachuca), and the Nuevo Leon teams (Tigres UANL and CF Monterrey) voted in favour for. Had more owners been behind the offer the deal would have put Mexico national team games on Carlos Slim’s America Movil network and Telemundo in the United States. Telemundo would have provided a “world feed” for all Mexico national team games.
Independently of the Grupo Pachuca bid, Riccardo Silva, the billionaire whose deal with USSF and MLS for more than $4 billion over a ten-year contract was rejected, because it required MLS to be a part of an open pyramid, won the TV distribution rights to the home games of seven Ascenso MX teams. Following that deal, FMF decided to enforce a minimum stadium capacity requirement that made all but six teams ineligible for promotion to Liga MX.
Although Silva’s company, MP & Silva, maintains the media distribution rights to those Ascenso MX, he and New York Cosmos owner Rocco Commisso led an anti-trust lawsuit against MLS, whose commissioner’s promotional company, Soccer United Marketing (SUM), has ties to both the FMF and Major League Soccer. And so, some people may ask if SUM, already wary about Riccardo Silva’s effort to challenge MLS’s business model and influence, alerted leaders within the FMF about MP & Silva. (So far, nothing has been postulated about the battle between Major League Soccer and Riccardo Silva crossing the Rio Grande.)
There’s also a case that Grupo Pachuca might have unnerved Televisa when Coyotes de Tlaxcala, a team bankrolled by the media conglomerate which hails from one of Mexico’s smallest and poorest states, were Bicampeones of Serie A (Mexico’s third division) in 2016-17, earning automatic promotion to Ascenso MX once they completed their stadium upgrades. The club had only received investment from Grupo Pachuca before the 2016-17 season and appeared to have seen that investment turned into success too soon.
Grupo Pachuca also has a laundry list of other successes which could have been seen as unholy. Leon’s promotion to Liga MX in 2012 and their Bicampeon campaign of 2013-14 came with investment from the media giants. Some prominent Liga MX national team players and club players spent time in Pachuca’s youth system, including Hector Herrera, Jorge Hernandez, Hirving Lozano, Erick Gutierrez, Rodolfo Pizarro, and Jürgen Damm. Another player, Elias Hernandez, has emerged as a protagonist in Juan Carlos Osorio’s Mexico national team which finished the last World Cup qualification cycle with only one defeat in all matches it played. Pachuca broke the TV Azteca/Televisa monopoly in Liga MX TV rights, paving the way for outsiders like Fox Sports, ESPN, Imagen TV, and Sky Sports to obtain domestic rights to some team.
Grupo Pachuca – Claims of corruption
But on Monday, 29 January, Televisa Deportes showed an investigative documentary on Grupo Pachuca’s dealings with the Hidalgo state government that appear very damning for the ownership group, whose flagship team is one of the oldest football clubs still in existence in Mexico.
The investigative report had implicated a history of corruption-related crimes, including assistance in tax evasion, gifts, including of more than 23 hectares that was used to build what would become the Tuzos’ academy. The investigation was traced back to 1993 when the Hidalgo state government sold the group to Jesus Martinez Patino and when Pachuca were playing their football in Mexico’s second division. The crimes had stemmed from what looked to be an unusually cosy relationship between Martinez Patino and several governors of Hidalgo, starting with the administration of Jesus Murillo Karam, one of the founders of the Grupo Pachuca conglomerate, and to the administrations of Miguel Angel Chong and Omar Fayad Meneses, Hidalgo’s current governor. According to a summary compiled together by Tiempo. The alleged crimes of corruption not only include the Hidalgo administrations do not just include the allegedly illicit land sale and assistance with tax evasion, but also with funneling more than 2 billion pesos ($107 million USD) into the club’s coffers meant to go to social programs for the people of Hidalgo in the 25 years Martinez Patino has been in control of [Grupo Pachuca].
The investigation has already forced Chong, now the Interior Ministry Secretary, to resign from his post within the Mexican federal government. But Televisa, who put together the documentary are not scot-free from their legal issues stemming from a multinational bribery scheme to obtain FIFA World Cup rights for the 2026 and 2030 editions and the network’s rating struggles. The ratings and revenues struggle the network suffered from forced its CEO, Emilio Azcarraga Jean, to resign from his post in 2017. The network has struggled to maintain its relevance with the appeal of streaming services like Amazon Prime and Netflix.
Even with these problems, Televisa’s investigations could convince the FMF to strip the Grupo Pachuca teams, especially Pachuca, of their affiliation with the federation and, therefore, their Liga MX status. The investigation could see Grupo Pachuca’s other organizations be disaffiliated, particularly Leon and Mineros de Zacatecas, whom the conglomerate acquired from the Autonomous University of Guadalajara (and subsequently relocated and rebranded the team) only in 2014.
In light of these revelations, some have called for the FMF and its leagues and teams to produce content in other languages besides Spanish and change significantly how it conducts its TV rights businesses to be able to function on a global market that appears to be dominated by European clubs and competitions. But those calls come in environments of systemic corruption that engender the allegedly unsavoury financial behaviours of both the Televisa/TV Azteca duopoly and of Grupo Pachuca and the outsiders seeking to break into the media rights game.
In one way, it is not entirely dissimilar from the problems facing soccer north in the United States, which is characterised by old boys’ networks, unwillingness to admit mistakes, high costs of entry, businesses which limit the free motion of and fair compensation of players.
Both nations also share deeply polarised politics, where real compromise or consensus-building is seen as a capitulation to eternal enemies (even though the nature of such are different in the two countries) and the entrenched political systems and cultures are distant from the realities, in political and cultural terms, that many others face.
But in Mexico, even with the deeply entrenched political issues, it does not feel like the “clash of civilisations” that characterised the war in U.S. Soccer, in which the decisions and problems are not merely administrative, but reflect profound cultural clashes across class, ethnicity, urbanity, and race.
Follow Steve Graff on Twitter @SG_Calcio