Manuel Veth –
Once again, it has been a tumultuous week for Liga MX. Mexican football has been in the news this season both for its exciting football, as well as the unpredictable nature of the competition. This week, however, the league provided drama off the pitch with Liga MX referees going on strike following a series of incidents that took place during last week’s Copa MX games.
The referees decided that they would sit out matchday 10 of the Liga MX Clausura after the Mexican Football Federation (FMF) suspended two players, Toluca’s Enrique Triverio for eight games, and Club América’s Pablo Aguilar for ten matches, as they believed that the punishments they had been given were not harsh enough. As it turned out, Liga MX referees had a point.
As part of the Liga MX 2016-17 regulations, players are supposed to be suspended for a full year, if they attack the referee. Both Triverio, who pushed the referee, and Aguilar, who attempted to head butt the referee, were guilty of attacking the referee during the midweek Copa MX fixtures.
Liga MX referees, therefore, argued that both should have been suspended for a full year. This explains why the referees were outraged despite what appeared, at first glance, to be harsh punishments handed out by the FMF against both players.
Politics played a significant role in Liga MX referees strike
Politics may have played a significant role in the decisions made by the FMF. In essence, what ensued just before matchday 10 in Liga MX, was a battle between the powerful club owners, the players, the football federation, and the referees.
As ESPN journalist and Mexican football expert, Nayib Morán, explained to the Futbolgrad Network in Mexico City, the issue was blown-up by the referees partly out of principle. Referees may have felt that league and federation officials did not appreciate them enough.
Morán pointed out an incident that had apparently had taken place after a Club América game in which América sporting director, Ricardo Peláez, had an altercation with a referee. Peláez has denied that the incident ever took place, and even stated that he would step down from his role at the club, if the referees could deliver any proof.
América are one of the two most popular clubs in Mexico (the other is Guadalajara based Chivas) and are owned by the powerful Grupo Televisa which, among others, owns the popular television station, Univision. América are one of the big clubs accused of influencing results on the pitch by pressuring referees.
Is there a war between referees and clubs?
Conspiracy theorists have, therefore, suggested that this was the reason why referees have recently favoured other clubs over América. One team in particular that often seems to be favoured are Tigres UANL and their star striker André-Pierre Gignac.
Owned by the Universidad Autónoma de Nuevo León, in recent years, Tigres have developed into the most powerful club in Mexico. The club has been able to lure French national team striker, Gignac, to play in Mexico, and the general belief is that Gignac is awarded special treatment by the league, which has made it tough for referees to punish the Frenchman for altercations.
The conspiracy theories and talk about favouritism has resulted in an atmosphere in which players and club officials have treated referees with less respect. All of this provides the backdrop to what has become a power struggle between the referees and the owners of the clubs.
What happened next was the cup games last weekend in which the federation went out of its way to protect the players in question. The referees union, consequently, showed their power by announcing a strike and, with referees’ unions around the world announcing their support, the league and the federation quickly realized that the referees were more powerful.
Liga MX referees have shown the power of unions
The federation, therefore, announced yesterday that Triverio, and Aguilar would be banned for one year each. At first glance, this appears to be a harsh punishment but, upon reflecton, the federation is simply following the rules that were set in stone ahead of this season.
Satisfied, the referees announced that they would return to work. But the strike will have a major impact on the future of football—not just in Mexico.
The first impact is that the referees have shown their collective strength. Players, and the owners in Mexico will now be forced to show more respect to the referees. On a global scale, it will be interesting to see whether, in referees’ unions around the world, the events in Mexico change the relationship between referees, fans, owners, and players.
Furthermore, players will also have noticed the impact the Liga MX referees strike had on the league. Players in Liga MX already contemplated the formation of a players’ union last year after players at Chiapas were left unpaid.
A call for the formation of a players’ union under the leadership of former Barcelona defender, Rafael Marquez, who now plays for Atlas, fizzled out, however, after the owners pressured the players. The example set by the referees could now bring this issue back to the forefront.
Liga MX is growing as a product
All of these issues could be described as growing pains for Liga MX. The league has recently developed into the best competition outside of Europe. With its short season and relative parity to most leagues in Europe, fans disillusioned with the predictability of European football flock to watch Liga MX games.
As a result, the league has become more internationally accessible. The recent referees strike, and the lack of a players union could, therefore, be understood as growing pains for a league that is on the verge of becoming a global player.
Finally, there is something else going on here. Liga MX is representative of Mexico’s problems in general. As the country comes to terms with corruption, a hostile president in the United States, the continuing drug war, and also the modernization and globalization of the economy, the country, like Liga MX, has to decide what path it wants to take.
The referees have perhaps taken the first step. They decided that the status quo is not good enough, and that there needs to be transparency when it comes to any decision making process in Liga MX.
Manuel Veth is a freelance journalist, and podcaster for WorldFootballIndex.com. He is also a holder of a Doctorate of Philosophy in History from King’s College London, and his thesis is titled: “Selling the People’s Game: Football’s transition from Communism to Capitalism in the Soviet Union and its Successor States”, which will be available in print soon. Originally from Munich, Manuel has lived in Amsterdam, Kyiv, Moscow, Tbilisi, London, and currently is located in Victoria BC, Canada. Follow Manuel on Twitter @homosovieticus.