Unpicking the convoluted threads of Mexico’s franchise system
It is difficult not to have a soft spot for a club whose badge looks as if it has been inspired by the Pathetic Sharks, so the return of Veracruz to the top flight of Mexican football for the 2013-14 season should be a cause for minor celebration.
After all, what is not to like about a team that come from a faded and steamy port on the Gulf of Mexico, call themselves the Red Sharks and once boasted René Higuita in goal? The club’s badge, a shark merrily juggling a football on its fin, could easily have been lifted from the cartoon strip in Viz magazine and, for a few seasons, the team shirt had the word ‘Bimbo’ gloriously sprayed across the front, thanks to sponsorship from a popular Mexican brand of sliced bread.
Sadly, however, there is nothing romantic about the way in which Veracruz won their way back to the top flight. Rather than a heroic campaign in the Ascenso MX, as Mexico’s second tier is known, Veracruz owe their return to the bewildering franchise system that allows clubs to hop around the country at the whim of their owners.
The team that was genuinely promoted from Ascenso MX last season was modest La Piedad, otherwise known as los Reboceros. Their long-suffering supporters, who have only ever enjoyed one season of top flight football, had 12 days to celebrate their team’s nerve-wracking penalty shoot-out win in the end-of-season play-off against Sinaloa before learning that the club’s owner Fidel Kuri Grajales had decided to uproot the franchise and move it around 800km to Veracruz.
This effectively meant the end of the La Piedad club: when a franchise moves in Mexico, it takes the players and the team’s relegation coefficient, another local idiosyncrasy by which relegation is determined on points per game over a three-year period, with it and all other connections are severed, including the name and strip. In fact, Mexicans tend to view it as a continuation of the last club to play in the new location. In this case, La Piedad have morphed into Veracruz, adopting the nickname (Red Sharks), red-and-blue strip and history of the previous Veracruzes.
The last team to play in Veracruz had, in fact, been de-affiliated from the Mexican league in 2011 due to a multiple financial difficulties. Yet, even there they managed to pull a fast one. Instead of quietly departing, they formed an “alliance” with an Ascenso MX team called Albinegros de Orizaba (‘the black-and-whites of Orizaba’, a nearby city), renamed the club Veracruz and continued playing in the second tier. When the new Veracruz (ie La Piedad) moved in last June, the old one headed off to San Luis.
This is actually the fifth different franchise claiming to be the Red Sharks of Veracruz.
The original Sharks were founded in 1943 and quickly became a leading force in Mexican football. They won the Mexican championship twice, spearheaded by Luis ‘The Pirate’ Fuente, whose name was given to the stadium.
Their success was short-lived, however, and they were relegated in 1951-52. One year later, they disappeared amid financial problems. The club was re-born in 1964 under the leadership of the businessman Jose Lajub Kuri and managed to elbow their way straight into the first division when it was expanded from 14 to 16 teams.
They stayed there for 15 fairly unremarkable years before suffering relegation in 1978-79, the year that Hugo Sánchez burst onto the scene as a top-level striker by scoring 26 goals in 38 games for UNAM. After a few years in the second tier, the franchise moved to the city of Mérida and became known as Venados de Yucatán before eventually folding.
There were several attempts to buy a new franchise and negotiations were held with Angeles de Puebla, but in the end they moved to Torreon and became (and still are) Santos Laguna. Veracruz were finally reincarnated in 1989 when the top-flight club Potros Neza sold their franchise to a group of local businessmen, who were helped by funding from the city government. This time, they enjoyed some modest success, reaching the quarter-finals of the 1991-92 championship before losing to Necaxa. (The Mexican championship uses a complex format involved a league stage followed by knockout matches, but that is another story).
Eventually, another decline set in and Veracruz were relegated in 1997-98. But in 2001-02, the almost unthinkable happened and Veracruz actually won promotion on the field, fair and square. There was a catch, however: halfway through the same season, the Liga MX side Irapuato had re-located to Veracruz. This caused all sorts of confusion, with supporters unable to decide whether to support the ‘real’ Veracruz in the second tier or the top-flight impostors, disparagingly known as Verapuato. When (second-tier) Veracruz won promotion, it meant that for 2002-03 the city would have two teams in the top flight, something which it clearly could not sustain. Accordingly, the state government organise a vote which was won overwhelmingly by the promoted side and Liga MX Veracruz (Verapuato) moved off to the jungle state of Chiapas.
While this was going on, Grupo Pegaso, which by now owned the ‘real’ Veracruz, sold the club to Rafael Herrerias, a local businessman whose activities included organising bullfights. A spending spree brought in several top players including Cuauhtemoc Blanco (famous for bunny-hopping between Belgian defenders at the 1998 World Cup), giving the Red Sharks real bite. They had one of their best campaigns in the 2004-05 Apertura, when they qualified for the quarter-finals only to lose 4-1 on aggregate to UNAM. Shortly afterwards, Herrerias sold the team but the new owners ran down the squad, resulting in relegation in 2008.
Three years later, Veracruz were de-affiliated due to debts owed to the Mexican federation and their own players, but then joined forces with Albinegros de Orizaba in a manoeuvre engineered by the state governor Javier Duarte. Albinegros, who were playing the second tier, came off worse; the club was renamed Veracruz and moved its home games to the Luis Fuente stadium, although it kept the Albinegros black and white striped shirts as a symbolic gesture. Then in June, when La Piedad moved in, Veracruz headed off to San Luis.
As for La Piedad, their supporters have seen it all before. Founded in 1951, the club finally reached the top flight for the first time in 2001. They had one year to enjoy it, before the club departed for Queretaro. La Piedad then had to wait until 2009, when Petroleros de Salamanca moved to the city and became Reboceros, playing in the second division.
Immediately after they won promotion, the club owners assured them that La Piedad would not be moved. “It’s all speculation, we have been clear about this, we have said our project is here so I don’t want people think differently,” said the president Fidel Kuri Mustieles, son of the owner Kuri Grajales. “We’re all in this together, the directors, the coaching staff and the players.”
That quickly changed when the owners found out they would have to add new seats to the stadium, while the state government of Veracruz offered all sorts of incentives for a move.
“I understand that the public are unhappy but we have explained to them that to play in the first division there are certain requirements, a large number of things such as the stadium which we couldn’t fulfil,” said Kuri Grajales. “The people of La Piedad should just be grateful for all the happy moments we have given them.”
The run-up to the 2013 season saw two other franchise moves, which is unusual even by Mexican standards.
San Luis, owned by Carlos López Chargoy, moved 1,200km from the chilly highlands of central Mexico to steamy Tuxtla Gutierrez in the south and were renamed Chiapas, after the state. In doing so, they filled the void which had been left by the departure of the old Chiapas who moved a similar distance northwards to Queretaro, who themselves had been relegated. To complete it all, Veracruz moved to San Luis.
The net effect was that Queretaro, who should have been relegated, stayed up; Veracruz, who should have stayed in the second division, were promoted; San Luis, who should have stayed in the first division, were relegated; and La Piedad, who should have been promoted, were left without a professional team.
It was arguably the most blatant misuse of the system since 1999 when Puebla were relegated but simply bought the franchise of promoted Unión de Curtidores and carried on as if nothing had happened.
Even the Queretaro supporters didn’t know what to make of it. “Obviously we would prefer to stay in the first division but for us the right idea would have been to play in the second division,” said Amilcar Godínez, the leader of the organised supporters’ group known as Resistencia Albiazul (Blue and White Resistance). “Historically, Queretaro have never been gifted anything, it’s been completely the opposite, so the fact that it has been manipulated in this way does take a bit of the excitement away.”
Mexican club owners, who vary from conglomerates such as Grupo Pegaso, to television networks such as Televisa and eccentric businessmen such as Guadalajara’s Jorge Vergara, argue that the system allows them to take their clubs to more profitable locations when crowds dwindle.
History suggests that it simply confuses and alienates supporters, prevents a real fan culture from developing and makes a mockery of the promotion/relegation system.
One of the oddest moves came in 2002 when Atlético Celaya moved from Celaya to Cuernavaca. They spent one year in the top flight before being relegated, and were then liquidated due to financial problems. Unfortunately for Cuernavaca, they had also inherited Celaya’s dismal relegation coefficient.
Apart from the players and relegation coefficients, everything else stays where it is. Therefore, when San Luis moved to Chiapas, most of their players went with them. But the Chiapas official website lists the club as being founded in 2002 (the year that Veracruz mark III moved there) and it gives the previous Chiapas history rather than San Luis It briefly mentions the new owner Chargoy at the very bottom, portraying him as some sort of heroic rescuer, but makes no reference whatsoever to San Luis. The new team play in the same orange strip and have the same nickname (the Jaguars) as the previous Chiapas, but their relegation coefficient is considerably worse than the old Chiapas, so they are now fighting relegation instead of sitting comfortably in mid-table. Meanwhile, “relegated” Queretaro have inherited the old Chiapas’s coefficient and are in little danger of going down.
“You can feel some sadness, some disappointment; the supporters had identity with their team and the squad,” said José Guadelupe Cruz, coach of the old Chiapas (now Queretaro) at the end of last season. “There was a serious, long-term project here which was producing results.”
Back in La Piedad, hope springs eternal. The old club also has a franchise in the so-called “League of New Talents”, effectively the fourth tier, and has entered a team. They can now try to work their way back up the pyramid — or simply wait and buy the first higher division franchise that comes up for sale. Far easier than playing their way through a long season and winning a play-off match on penalties.
On the trail of Mexican football franchises:
1. Irapuato 1948-2001 > Veracruz 2001-2002 > Chiapas 2002-2013 > Queretaro 2013-
2. San Luis 1957-2013 > Chiapas 2013-
3. Petroleros de Salamanca 2001-2009* > La Piedad 2009-2013 > Veracruz 2013-
* Previously existed between 1950-61 and 1964-1986. Refounded in 2001.
>4. Correcaminos UAT 1980-1988 >PotrosNeza 1988-89 > Veracruz 1989-2011: wound up
4a. Albinegros de Orizaba 2002-2011 > Veracruz 2011-13 >Atletico San Luis 2013-
5. Veracruz 1943-1952 and 1964-1984; Venados de Yucatán 1984-98.
The club was wound up in 1952 and refounded in 1964. Venados de Yucatán were wound up in 1998.
6. CF Laguna 1953-1978 >DeportivoNeza 1978-1988 >Correcaminos UAT 1988-
7. Union de Curtidores 1997*-1999 > Puebla 1999-
*One of three new franchises founded when the Primera Division A expanded from 17 to 21 teams
8. Unión de Curtidores 1948-1984 >Chetumal 1984-?
*Unión de Curtidores apparently moved to Chetumal in 1984 when they were playing in the second division. They were replaced by their neighbours Bufalos de Curtidores, who then changed their name to Union de Curtidores. However, it is not clear what ultimately happened to this version of the club, or the Chetumal team.
9. Oaxtepec 1979-1984 > Angeles de Puebla 1985-1988 > Santos Laguna 1988-
10. Zacatepec 1948-2004 > Queretaro 2004-2013:
*2013 was apparently the end of the line for this franchise
11. Queretaro 1948-1981 > Tampico Madera 1981-1990 > Queretaro 1990-1999 (as Club Queretaro) merged with UAQ GallosBlancos 1983-1999 = Queretaro 1999-2002*
12. Cobras de Queretaro 1986-1988 > Ciudad Juarez 1988-?
13. La Piedad 1951-2002 > Queretaro 2002-2004*
*Wound up by the Mexican federation due to financial problems
14. Atletico Cuernavaca 1953-1994 > Atletico Celaya 1994-2002 >Colibries de Cuernavaca 2002-03*
*Relegated and wound-up at the end of the 2002-03 season
Teams that haven’t moved: America, Cruz Azul, UNAM (Pumas), Atlas, Guadalajara, UANL, Monterrey, Toluca, Morelia, Leon, Pachuca
Teams that have moved but kept their original name and identity: Atlante (Mexico City to Cancún in 2007)