Helping the Giants Escape
How Mexico and Argentina have tried to ensure big sides are never relegated
In 1993, the Argentinian club Quilmes supposedly made a pact with a bruja [witch] named Dora. They would win promotion from the second division in exchange for cold hard cash: US$4000, as the peso was pegged at the time. However, after the club lost their next two games to rivals Gimnasia y Esgrima and Deportivo Morón, they backed out of the deal and decided not to pay. The next decade they were cursed with near misses, losing the promotion final three times. Management tried to track down the bruja to pay up, but she was already dead. Only in 2003, when a fan named his daughter after Dora, was the club able to win promotion with a hard fought victory over Argentinos Juniors.
Promotion and relegation can feel like life and death to fans and players, and literally be life or death for some clubs. The disparity in television and sponsorship revenues between the top flight and lower tiers can be astronomical, and the drop is a massive blow to a club’s bottom line even with golden parachutes in some leagues. Still, promotion and relegation is enshrined in Article 9, Paragraph 1 of Fifa’s regulations and “shall depend principally on sporting merit.”
Sadly, for the past two decades sporting merit increasingly has had less and less to do with promotion and relegation in Mexico and Argentina. And the culprit is not unpaid witchdoctors.
Unlike Europe, the Mexico top flight has two seasons per year: the Apertura and Clausura. Also, both mini-seasons have their own playoff, liguilla, to crown a champion. There is no promotion and relegation every six months though. Rather, it happens at the end of the Apertura-Clausura calendar year. Liga MX only relegates a single club, and it’s based on their cociente: their percentage of points-per-game from the past three seasons.
From a European perspective, the deck looks pretty stacked for top-flight clubs. Only one team drops and the cociente allows a powerhouse like Club América or Monterrey to have a bad season without going down. One Monterrey fan I spoke with admitted that the system was “absolutely skewed”.
Cesar Hernandez, a freelance writer based in Tijuana/San Diego who regularly reports on LigaMX, noted that the league’s promotion/relegation system was “not ideal” and “made attaining a spot in the first division incredibly challenging.” Also, “once there, those teams [are] at a huge disadvantage when it comes to staying up.” That’s because newly promoted sides have no prior survival seasons to rely upon: each and every point that first season constitutes their cociente.
The opposite is true for the other teams who have survived relegation. For example, Liga MX fans annually check the cociente table at Mediotiempo and ESPNDeportes every spring with calculator in hand, figuring out mathematically just how many more draws Puebla need in the last month of the Clausura to stay up.
Also distinct from Europe and most other leagues, in Mexico the clubs are franchises. Like a Subway on the high street, they can be bought and sold on a whim. Most frustratingly, at least to fans, they can also change cities in the blink of an eye.
For example, in 2014, the Liga MX club Querétaro signed the ageing Brazilian star Ronaldinho to media fanfare, but one detail got glossed over: Querétaro had been relegated the previous season. No matter. Corporate behemoths – Delfin Group – already conveniently owned both Querétaro and the newly promoted Jaguares de Chiapas, and expeditiously renamed and relocated the Chiapas franchise.
A second-division franchise earning promotion only to be immediately sold is no anomaly. Just two summers before, Veracruz pulled the same stunt: the club had been relegated to the second tier in 2008, but in 2013 they bought the newly promoted La Piedad franchise and, poof, the Tiburones Rojos returned to Liga MX.
Could you imagine if Derby won promotion on the last day of the season, only to then be sold during the summer, rebranded, and relocated to Watford? The emotional toll on fans and even clubs cannot be overstated. Liga MX’s unique combination of the franchise model and pro/rel makes fans wary of success – if your team wins, it can become an acquisition target for corporate groups that operate like vulture funds.
Accordingly, the second division of Mexico is a wasteland in which clubs frequently go insolvent. Ambitious clubs in Michoacán and Chiapas don’t just have to worry about wealthier clubs buying their best players: deep-pocketed oligarchs can just buy the whole club, lock, stock and barrel. So, for the fans, why bother? Why root for a team to see them struggle, or, worse, win but then disappear?
Some of the most endearing, feel-good underdog stories in Mexican football in the last decade have come from teams earning promotion. For medium-sized cities in northern Mexico often ravaged by organised crime and gun violence, football has offered a ray of sunshine amid otherwise cloudy days. As Robert Andrew Powell observed in his excellent book, This Love Is Not For Cowards, when Indios de Ciudad Juárez drew the second leg of the promotion final in 2008, earning promotion, “a festival erupt[ed] in Chamizal Park, near the stadium. Horns, drums, flags coloured Indios red and black. Police cruisers inching through crowded streets, fans rocking one squad car like a teeter-totter.” When Club Tijuana won the second leg of the promotion final in 2011, winning ascenso, the packed 27,000-seater Estadio Calientesimilarly rocked with chanting fans, banging drums and waving flags.
Sadly, the big clubs in Liga MX care more about one of them going down than about the fans in medium-sized cities. Not content with the heavily rigged cociente model, in 2019 the league statutes were changed so that the relegated club could pay a US$6million dollar fee to remain in the top flight if, and only if, the newly promoted club from the second division was “not certified” – they lacked the stadium, infrastructure, investment, etc. Lobos BUAP, a club that had existed for 50 years, avoided relegation that year by paying the fine, to the detriment of the second division champions Cafetaleros de Chiapas.
Yet then the Lobos BUAP owners sold the Liga MX franchise to FC Juárez, los Bravos, a second-division club founded in 2015, a few years after Indios were relegated, and soon after went bankrupt. One long-suffering Juarense football fan noted: “It’s sketchy as shit. Ideally, los Bravos would have earned their way into Liga MX rather than buying their way in. That being said, los Bravos have brought a welcome distraction to Juárez, and, to a lesser extent, El Paso.”
And FC Juárez may have bought a place in Liga MX just in time. Reports have leaked that Liga MX is considering a moratorium on pro/rel for a few years. No club goes down, no club goes up. The motivating factor seems to be that, yet again, economic powerhouse – and sporting lightweight – Chivas de Guadalajara are dangerously close to the drop.
If the moratorium were to happen and then end in a few years, with a new cociente based on the following few seasons, then Chivas would be the major beneficiary of a clean slate, along with any other currently struggling Liga MX team.
But a moratorium would be a travesty. On sporting merit, Chivas have slowly edged themselves closer and closer to relegation with consecutive bad seasons. A moratorium would let El Rebaño rest easy, but long-suffering second-division fans and players, and owners who have invested significant funds, would be left to ask just what they are playing for.
In the summer of 2011, a video made the rounds on YouTube of an older, balding Argentinian man – known as Tano Pasman – watching a match on TV and screaming ¡La CONCHA de su madre! and ¡Que te parió! while shaking his hands violently and rocking back and forth. The cause for this outburst? River Plate had just drawn the second leg of the relegation playoff at home, losing on aggregate, and so were relegated to the Primera B for the first time in 110 years.
The irony was delicious because the system meant to keep big clubs up had pushed River Plate down. Decades earlier, in 1983, the Argentinian league re-instituted a long discarded coefficient rule like in Mexico, known as the promedio, to avoid another relegation of one of the Big Five clubs: River Plate, Boca Juniors, San Lorenzo, Racing and Independiente. San Lorenzo had just been relegated two years earlier, so the fears were well founded.
However, as River Plate found out the hard way, like Chivas in Mexico, promedios can be a double-edged sword. Bigger clubs can avoid one bad year, but if you suffer two bad years back to back, your team suddenly finds itself being slowly pushed off a cliff.
Unlike Mexico, at the time of River’s relegation, the Argentinian Primera División relegated three teams at the end of each Apertura-Clausura calendar year. The league automatically relegated the bottom two clubs and then the top two clubs from the second tier, Primera B, automatically earned promotion.
For the third spot there was a playoff between the third- and fourth-place Primera B clubs and the third- and fourth-bottom Primera División clubs. Thus, River Plate fell through two safety nets: first, the promedios and, second, the playoff. In terms of sporting merit, they earned their relegation badge with double distinction.
However, the giants seldom stay down long. River still had massive resources compared to other local teams and were able to sign former France international David Trezeguet to lead their line in Primera B. He notched 13 goals in 18 matches that year, a good strike ratio, but still short of Fernando Cavenaghi, a one-time starlet repatriated from the wilds of Russia (and western Europe) who bagged 19.
The Gallinas easily won promotion back to the top flight and have since been hugely successful. While in Mexico clubs skirt relegation by buying a promoted Chiapas franchise on the cheap, River Plate merely splashed the cash on wages for star strikers who were light years ahead of the competition. Both ways, wealth wins out, but, at least in River Plate’s case, there was a strong nexus to “sporting merit”. They paid for soccer talent that played well, not just a franchise.
The last decade has seen drastic changes in Argentina. In the first half of the 2014 season, three clubs were promoted from Nacional B to the Primera División with only one team relegated to fill out a 20-team league. In the second half of that 2014-15 season, the Primera División granted promotion to 10 teams from Primera B to fill out a 30-team Superliga. The league then did away with the Apertura-Clausura format.
However, from 2016 onwards, the bloated league relegated a few teams each season with no Primera B teams getting promoted. As of 2020, there are 24 clubs in the top flight.
This most recent season they decided in the middle of the campaign, in February 2020, to change the number of relegated teams from three to two. They had only just reduced the number of relegated teams from four to three in the summer of 2019. They are also reportedly in talks to bring back promotion next season as well as returning to the Apertura-Clausura format. Why would a league make so many changes in such a short period of time? And then suddenly change their minds on seemingly everything? The answer in Argentina is almost always the same: politics and money.
In 2009, the president Cristina Fernández de Kirchner announced a plan of Fútbol para todos: “Football for all”. The government in effect nationalised the transmission of Primera División games on television. The goal was at least ostensibly noble: more free-to-air games so all Argentinians could see their teams play on the glowing box. The means, though, were messy and possibly illegal.
Fernández accused the private cable TV company TyC of having “kidnapped goals” because they had owned the rights to the Primera División for over a decade. All the games were pay-per-view; the only free-to-air content was a Sunday night “goals roundup” special called Fútbol de Primera. Allegedly, only 10% of Argentinians could afford to watch their own domestic league games.
Fútbol para todos was popular, of course, but public records obtained by La Nación newspaper pinned the cost of the programme at roughly 3.7 million Argentinian pesos per day – roughly US$205,000 based on the 2017 exchange rate. That’s about US$6.16million per month.
In that light, the Primera División arguably expanded to ensure more clubs, more games, and more value for the Kirchner Fútbol para todos programme. Still, as the activist Hebe de Bonafini told La Nación, for the government, Fútbol para todos was about spreading and selling kirchernismo to a large, engaged audience. It was not to make money. In fact, after just one year they stopped selling in-game advertisements. The reason was that a local political ad ran afoul of kirchnerismo, upsetting the powers that be.
When Mauricio Macri assumed the presidency in 2015, the gravy train screeched to a halt. And so did the Casa Rosada’s emphasis on propaganda. Macri viewed the costs of the broadcast rights, then estimated at around US$125million per year, as excessive, and sought ways to exit the contract early. Marcelo Tinelli, the vice-president of San Lorenzo and host of a nationally televised dance competition Bailando por un sueño, was put in charge of re-privatising the TV rights and soliciting bids.
In December 2016, Fox and Turner offered a paltry US$2.5million dollars per year for the rights and wanted a long-term contract – 15 years. ESPN and Mediapro entered the bidding, and Fox and Turner ended up with what was then reported as a US$206million per year, five-year contract. The contract contained numerous performance clauses related to the number of new cable subscribers, etc. Of course, the not-so-secret silver bullet was that all the games would promptly be moved to pay-per-view.
The ink had barely dried on the new contract when a prolonged recession sunk the already stagnant economy, with the peso fluctuating daily – dropping 30% in hours at one point. Eventually, even the pro-market Macri had to implement currency controls.
The economic downtown hurt clubs with a dip in sponsorship revenue – many top clubs still have shirts without sponsors’ names – and also fewer dues-paying socios. Several key players had contracts in dollars. When the peso plummets from 16 to the dollar to 60, every consumer and business feels the pain.
To the chagrin of Argentinian clubs, the Fox and Turner contract was in pesos, not dollars, and only allowed for adjustment every six months and according to the official government exchange rate. One club executive complained, on condition of anonymity, to Clarín that they were only getting US$66million dollars per year, significantly less than the US$125-150million under Fútbol para todos. Allegedly, the performance metrics of the contract have not been met.
As of March 2020, not even four years into the Fox and Turner contract, the clubs are hankering for a TV contract renegotiation. In addition to seeking redress for the contract being in pesos and the payments being far below the projected levels, the clubs want at least three free-to-air games per match weekend: one each on Friday, Saturday and Sunday.
But it may not be all about those pesos. With Cristina Fernández back in power, now as vice-president, the clubs may be trying to use the shift in political winds to their advantage, even if the government has given no signs of bringing back Fútbol para todos.
If Argentinian football looks a mess with the constant change in league size and the pro/rel rules, it’s because the sport’s TV rights – the clubs’ lifeblood – are lucrative, but highly politicised and prone to changing hands suddenly. Sport reflects the political landscape, in addition to being influenced by it.
When Diego Maradona failed a drug test and was suspended from football in 1994, he held a teary press conference in which he accused the authorities of cutting off his legs. Fans of and players for Nacional B clubs who just want a fair shot at promotion know the feeling.
And while Fifa intervened in 2016 and put the AFA in administration, naming a committee to sort things out and hold elections, don’t hold your breath for them to force Argentina or Mexico to reform their convoluted pro/rel rules. In a lawsuit that targeted Major League Soccer, the Court of Arbitration for Sport sided with Fifa and ruled that neither the US nor Australia need to have promotion and relegation at all. In sum, Article 9.1 may enshrine “sporting merit”, but Article 9.2 states participation “may be subject to other criteria”.
Of course, the “other criteria” in Article 9.2 explicitly mentions “financial considerations”. And in both Mexico and Argentina, the power of the purse has tainted the game and forced sporting merit to the periphery.