Thursday, February 05, 2009

League Spotlight: Mexico / Primera Division

And so we head to the far-off sultry climes of Mexico for our latest League Spotlight. We're sure for many of you the mere mention of the word 'Mexico' will conjure up numerous Technicolor-rich images of Pele and Jairzinho scoring for Brazil in 1970 (or, if you're Scottish, the image of Gerd Muller hooking the ball over Peter Bonetti's head), and so for that reason alone it's right to be focusing on this fabulous football-mad nation.

'Mad' is actually not far short of the way football is run in Mexico, as indeed can be said of many Latin American countries. For a start, each season of their top-flight league, the Primera Division, is split into two parts - the 'Apertura' ('opening') from August to December and the 'Clausura' ('closing') from January to May. We saw evidence of this system in our Uruguayan League Spotlight and of course to us Europeans it seems unnecessarily complicated, but there we are.

To add another interesting twist, the eighteen competing teams don't play in one league but are instead split into three groups of six. The best eight at the end of the Apertura or Clausura then play off in the Liguilla - effectively a series of knockout rounds to determine who wins outright.

When it comes to relegation from the Primera Division, things get really quirky. At the end of the Clausura, the team with the lowest points-per-game average from the previous three seasons gets the boot, replaced by the best team overall from the Primera Division 'A'. Sheesh, even the names of the divisions are confusing…

No matter. The 2008 Apertura recently came to an end with Toluca being crowned champions for the first time in three years. They overcame Cruz Azul 7-6 on penalties in the Liguilla Final following a 2-2 draw after extra time. It was a remarkable turnaround of fortunes for the side located to the west of Mexico City as the start of their campaign was anything but successful.

New coach Jose Manuel De La Torre struggled to get Toluca playing consistently well at first and it was only a run of five wins at the end of the campaign that saw them surge into a play-off place. Having done so, they prospered from a relatively easy quarter-final draw against UAG before battling out a tough semi-final victory over 2008 Clausura champions Santos Laguna.

Toluca could easily credit their Apertura win to two players in particular - Hector Mancilla, their Chilean striker and top scorer in the campaign with eleven goals, and goalkeeper Hernan Cristante who set a new record by keeping a clean sheet for 762 consecutive minutes. Quite an achievement for the man wearing the 125 shirt.

With the 2009 Clausura now underway, many are waiting to see if it'll be 'third time lucky' for Cruz Azul after finishing as runners-up in the last two competitions. Though historically they're one of the most successful Mexican clubs ever, they haven't won a league title since 1997 so success is considered somewhat overdue for this team from the southwest of the capital.

Mexico City is where you'll find three of the eighteen current top flight clubs, América and Pumas de la UNAM being the other two we're yet to mention. América won the Clausura in 2005 and is the richest club in the country on account of its owner having the biggest Spanish-speaking telecommunications company Televisa listed in his business portfolio.

Currently coached by former Argentine striker and Oxford United manager Ramon Diaz (we're not making this up, you know), América's most recent brush with glory came in the Final of the 2007 Clausura where they lost out to Pachuca in the Final.

UNAM, ironically, finished runners-up in the 2007 Apertura but the peak of their recent achievements was undoubtedly in 2004 when they won both league tournaments and numerous other competitions to boot. Their manager then was the star of the 1986 World Cup, Hugo Sanchez, who proved so successful that he went on to manage the national team just prior to Sven Goran Eriksson's arrival.

It's been five years since that last league win for UNAM, but that's untypical for Mexico's Primera Division. These days it's rare for any team to maintain a stranglehold over the competition as the league title changes hands time and time again.

Winning the Clausura in 2006 and 2007 was therefore something that Pachuca fans would have delighted in and it provided the basis for further success in the CONCACAF Champions League which they won in 2007 and 2008. Add to that a win in the inaugural SuperLiga in 2007 and you have a team that's as worthy of a top billing in Mexico as any other.

Pachuca currently have the best record in the 2009 Clausura after three games, and you wouldn't bet against them picking up another title when the current season ends in the summer. Just behind them in the overall rankings at the moment and looking for a return to better times is Guadalajara. Winners of a record eleven championships, the club from the north-west of Mexico that consists only of Mexican-born players have found success hard to come by recently, save for an Apertura title in 2006.

Their difficulty over the last few seasons has been to reach the Liguilla Final and have come unstuck regularly in the play-offs leading up to it. In the 2008 Apertura, they didn't even make the play-offs, but this may well turn out to be a blip as their current form suggests another title challenge could be on the cards.

Elsewhere in Mexico you'll find various other clubs who rise and fall on the tide of success. Monterrey, once managed by Daniel Passarella, are arguably at the top of that list. Their last piece of silverware came from a Clausura win in 2003 but in the last few competitions they've been among the lower placed teams and run the risk of incurring a possible drop into Primera 'A' at some point soon.

Atlante, on the other hand, were a team struggling to even get into the Primera Division a decade ago, but a series of behind the scenes changes led the club back to the big time culminating in a 2007 Apertura win. Their immediate future looks assured as a team challenging for trophies and it's this ability to survive, adapt and ultimately succeed that so many clubs in Mexico are capable of.

Ironically the national team must also now do the same. Under Sven Goran Eriksson's tutelage, Mexico have won just four games out of nine and only just scraped through into the final qualifying round for the 2010 World Cup. Whether Mexico can make it to South Africa remains to be seen, but the exciting and varied club football that goes on week in, week out will never be in doubt. The Primera Division in the land of the Aztecs is a fascinating one to behold and if there was any justice in the world would have a much higher profile here in Europe than it's had up until now.

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