Copa Libertadores – The Mexican Problem

Copa Libertadores – The Mexican Problem

Nicolás Miremont –

This season the Copa Libertadores will undergo some major changes, which has meant that, among other Liga, MX teams from Mexico will no longer participate in the competition.

On December 21, CONMEBOL celebrated the annual Copa Libertadores draw at their headquarters in Paraguay. This year, clearly following the wishes of the newly elected president, Alejandro Domínguez, the most important continental competition in America underwent some significant changes.

The year 2016 marked the 100th year of CONMEBOL. Such a milestone was obviously organized to coincide with changes in both competitive and financial matters. Football in Latin America is not undergoing its happiest period since economic challenges, corruption, and an obvious lack of vision have left the continent’s sport “stuck in the past”, as Domínguez stated in his interview on Fox Sports.

This process of reinvention will most certainly be beneficial for all the clubs competing in CONMEBOL competitions. Mexico, however, is not entirely convinced of this.

Mexican teams will not compete for the 2017 Copa Libertadores

Earlier this year, on the very day that Domínguez was appointed, he set off the process of change within CONMEBOL. The objective of this change is to make the Libertadores and the Sudamericana considerably more European. Copa Libertadores

The list of intended immediate modifications (the utopian ones such as the eradication of corruption and violence aside) includes a complete overhaul in the marketing strategy, which can, it is hoped, attract better sponsorships and exposure around the world.

This will include a new logo and name, combined to form a fancy blend of elegance and innovation. And last, but not least, a calendar displacement that would make Mexico’s experience at the Libertadores even more exhausting than it has been. The new calendar playing format of the now named ‘CONMEBOL Libertadores Bridgestone’ will be from February to November.

Putting this modification into context, we find a nation whose local Liga MX has achieved a reputation for being one of the best, most attractive and richest leagues in America. Every year for the past 18 seasons, two or three Mexican teams were invited to the Copa Libertadores. From now on, with this new format, the South American competition would take place during the same fraction of the season in which the Mexican teams have to compete both in their own league and in the CONCACAF Champions League, their respective continental trophy. This would force them to play 14 matches in less than two months, should they do well in all three, which they always do.

Clearly, and having said that the Liga MX is one of the (if not the) best in America, it comes as no surprise that their league President, Enrique Bonilla, announced back in October that no Mexican team would take part in next year’s Libertadores, which would allow them to prioritise their local competitions, which for them, have meant much more income and a direct spot in the Club World Cup for nearly eleven years in a row.

“This represents a failure, a mistake from Conmebol. They lose money, they lose supporters, the lose entertainment and we Mexicans lose the opportunity to show what we can do,” explained Jorge Vergara, Chivas owner.

Mexico’s history at the Copa Libertadores

Over the years, Mexico brought countless quality performances to the Copa Libertadores. From 1998 to the present, 18 Mexican teams took part only in the Copa Libertadores, three of whom were runners-up—Cruz Azul in 2001, Chivas de Guadalajara in 2010 and Tigres in 2015.

The Mexicans have displayed outstanding levels of football year after year, and the figures of attendance corresponded to the level of their game. In recent times, having a club like Tigres in your group went from meaning a headache to possibly meaning the worst of nightmares.

UANL Tigres almost won the Libertadores in 2015 – Image by César Muñoz/Andes

In recent editions, their style of play seemed superior to that of most South American teams. Their players were usually far superior to the South Americans, which made even the best forces in the continent struggle against such disciplined and pacey tactics.

This had even come to a point where watching a Mexican team could be the most interesting thing in a certain group. This, however, did not mean that the groups were dominated. Yet, the Aztecs, with their big names and modern stadiums, often won their groups every season with minimal effort.

Despite the way they were treated both by Conmebol and by the South Americans, the Mexicans did their job in a way that showed clear interest in the competition. Great levels of football and correct behaviour both at home and away made these contenders a prestigious force which no one wanted to stumble upon.

According to statistics that I have gathered, the Mexicans entered the competition 42 times between 2004 and 2016 via invitations (this period is easier to follow, given that between 1998 and 2003 Mexico was drawn in a ridiculous play-off against Venezuelan teams which always ended up in a complete slaughter by the Aztecs).

From those 42 appearances, the Mexicans survived the Group Stages 25 times (12 times winning their groups and finishing unbeaten in 7 opportunities). Moreover, they were semi-finalists on 5 occasions and reached the final 3 times if we count Cruz Azul’s spectacular campaign in 2001.

Overall, Mexico’s participation in the Libertadores has been very competitive and also amusing. Apart from this, their appearance meant large amounts of income for Conmebol coming from Mexican television.

Mexico’s experience was already frustrating enough

Moving away from the glamour that Mexican football provided, their treatment by the authorities and by Conmebol was not always the best.

The Copa Libertadores has always been known for, amongst other things, its double-legged final. This format has been the norm since the 1960s when the cup was invented. Alongside its reputation for giving entertaining second chances to those teams who lose the first game, having to play two games means much more than having to run for 180 minutes, especially if the second leg comes with the advantage of being at home.

Throughout their history in the Libertadores, Mexico was denied the right of playing the second leg of the final at home should they have been better seeded during the group stages. This naturally played against the best interest of our guests, and would have meant three Libertadores in their favor, that is for sure.

Apart from being denied what, under the proper circumstances, would have been an obvious right, the Mexicans were also denied their direct spot in the Club World Cup, because it was judged ‘improper’ that there be two Mexican teams in that competition—something for which there was an actual possibility of happening.

Finally, Mexico’s journey of frustration through the world of South American football also was harmed by the referees. The guests were unfairly punished multiple times by the local authorities on the pitch. In fact, there were severe repercussions after a call by the referee in 2004, where Santos Laguna had taken the mighty River Plate to penalties. On that occasion one of River’s penalties was repeated after Santos Laguna’s goalkeeper supposedly stepped away from the line during the execution. River scored with their second chance, and Santos Laguna were demoralised after that, which led to their defeat that night.

The Libertadores – a low-paying immense effort for Mexico

Overall, we have seen that Mexico’s influence in the Copa Libertadores has been extremely valuable, especially during the last editions where South America seems desperate for improvement. In spite of this, Conmebol still chose to sacrifice these invitations and distributed them amongst the original countries. According to Alejandro Domínguez, “CONMEBOL is able to help up to a certain point. From there, it will be up to them to decide if they will want to stay in the best club competition in the world”.

The rude treatment they have received, the long 10,000km flights required in the process, and the better prizes waiting to be conquered back in North America, perfectly explain the notorious difference in the Mexicans’ playstyle and a noticable drop in their intensity throughout the Libertadores.

We could say that a Mexican team’s performance in this cup has two main stages: a very intense and decisive one and a very meek and irresolute one. This phenomenon became evident only after the group stages. During that part of the season, the Liga MX enters resolute stages and so does the CONCACAF Champions League. Considering that a Copa Libertadores champion will earn only 25% of the wealthiest Liga MX teams’ transfer budget, a sudden priority change is to be expected when entering the playoffs of the Libertadores.

Will this make the Libertadores any better?

The impact that this change will have on the Libertadores is yet to be discovered. From the beginning, we can expect a television rating drop in Mexico, a loss of talent in the group stages, and, in consequence, less money from tickets for Conmebol.

Although the calendar switch is meant to help the teams to cope with the simultaneous demands of their leagues and the cup, leaving the Mexicans out was not a wise move. In short, they have already demonstrated that they are wonderful rivals who will not only test you, but will also defeat you. The Mexican football market is one of the biggest in America, and it generates figures that South American teams can only dream of.

Last year, I read a great article on Forbes Mexico that carefully explains why the Mexicans pay little attention to the Libertadores. After a very appropriate comparison between The Strongest (Bolivia) and Monarcas de Morelia (Mexico), the author proceeds to describe the immense economic gap that exists between Mexico and the entire Libertadores—where an average Liga MX team handles 21 times the budget of, ironically, The Strongest.

In essence, this move is not good for Conmebol’s financial interests, since Mexico and its teams, both competitively and financially, have made a great contribution to the tournament.

Gignac will not be playing at the Copa Libertadores next season

“The signing of André-Pierre Gignac is a proof of Mexico’s financial power”

The Libertadores might need Mexico in the future

Immediately after making clear that Conmebol’s decision was final (at least for 2017), Alejandro Domínguez invited the Mexicans to remember that the Libertadores’ doors will always be open even from the start of 2018.

This ‘project’, as he described it to the Liga MX President, came as a surprising, rather conservative change. However, neither side seems to be happy with how things ended. The symbiosis that the Mexican teams had established with the Libertadores was a very profitable one for both sides. While the cup benefited from their Mexico’s quality, the latter made use of the opportunity to improve their football against more powerful rivals than they could find in the North.

Alejandro Domínguez is already trying to figure out new ways to attract sponsors to the upcoming editions of the Libertadores, which recently signed new contracts with both Bridgestone and Fox Sports.

In the meantime, Enrique Bonilla has been in contact with the authorities from the Major League Soccer, which could mean the creation of three binational cups in order to fill the sizeable financial hole left by their exclusion from the Libertadores.

While the Mexicans are on the brink of establishing another profitable agreement, Conmebol ‘leaving the door open’ shows nothing but regret in their decision. I must admit this kind of courage is exactly what we need. With much more at stake and a clear loss of quality over the passing years, South America’s next move is yet to be decided.

Nicolás Miremont is a born and raised Boca Juniors fan, but his heart has a special place for Manchester United, Zenit Saint Petersburg and Dynamo Kiev. Miremont loves to support the underdogs. Miremont enjoys watching smaller competitions especially those from Eastern Europe, but also his native Argentina. Follow him on Twitter @Miremont_Nico