A Tale of One City: Mexico City

A Tale of One City: Mexico City

This feature is part of A Tale of One City

The rain was thumping down on the Azteca turf but it failed to dampen the spirit of Miguel ‘Piojo’ Herrera. In the midst of a torrential downpour, the Club América head coach celebrated his side’s penalties in a shootout in mesmerisingly wild fashion. In fact, the cameras appeared to follow Piojo as much as it did the players. Every time the ball burst the net, Herrera exploded spectacularly, sending the world of social media into a frenzy, with his ‘Super Saiyan’ celebration now becoming the stuff of legends, immediately installing him as a Twitter phenomenon and attracting global attention for the Clásico Joven between América and their rivals, Cruz Azul.

For Herrera, the game was hugely significant in his career as a manager. Long regarded as a talented coach who had yet to fulfil his potential and deliver a Liga MX title, delivering glory for Club América in the most dramatic and thrilling of manners altered the public perception and propelled him to becoming the Mexico national team manager just five months later, when he would once again be thrust into the global spotlight at the 2014 World Cup. For Herrera, though, it wasn’t merely about a crowning personal accomplishment – it was hugely important that América defeated Azul to deny their rivals a much-coveted trophy.

It was the second leg in the 2013 Clausura final, taking place inside a packed Azteca Stadium on a wild spring evening in Mexico City. After a highly defensive and cagey affair in the first meeting, which ended in a 1-0 win for Azul, it was a slender advantage for Los Celestes to take back to the Azteca for a showdown to determine the outcome of the championship.

While the first game was largely forgettable, the second has become the stuff of legend. It’s important not to glorify the entirety of this match as, for 175 minutes, it was every bit as dull and predictable as the first leg. However, the final five minutes of extra time and the shootout that followed has catapulted that night into the rivalry’s folklore. The reason for the game being given legendary status was that Azul, who looked like having the league title wrapped up, crumbled at the final hurdle in such agonising circumstances, watching in anguish as their rivals ended their own 10-year wait for glory.

And it had all been going according to the script for Azul. Already holding a 1-0 lead from the first leg, Azul’s night started perfectly, with Jesús Molina being red carded for América after a rash challenge on Pablo Barrera when the winger was clean through on goal. Riding the momentum gained from América’s early setback, Barrera set up Teófilo Gutiérrez, with the Colombian international striker guiding the ball expertly past Moisés Muñoz to give Azul some daylight in the tie.

Two goals up and a man up, Azul seemed to be cruising towards a comfortable victory. But then, in a rather baffling tactical move from Guillermo Vázquez, midfielder Israel Castro was taken off for striker Javier Orozco. The move invited some pressure from América, despite being a man down, but Azul looked as though they were going to hang on. Then, in the 89th minute, Aquivaldo Mosquera gave América a lifeline when he rose brilliantly to head home a corner by Christian Bermúdez. The tension was intensified among the Azul fans, who watched anxiously from the stands just hoping that their team could hold on for a few more minutes.

Azul could almost taste their first title since 1997 but, as the referee glanced at his watch and readied his breath to blow the whistle, América won a corner and threw everyone forward. The keeper, Muñoz, pulled off the unthinkable and threw his head towards the ball from the corner, watching it deflect off Alejandro Castro and into the net. Heartbreak for Azul; ecstasy for America. In the 93rd minute, América had snatched the trophy away from Azul’s hands in the cruellest fashion, sending Herrera ballistic on the touchline, galloping around in the rain.

For so long in the game, the América fans had been frustrated by the Azul resistance but, in almost Roy of the Rovers style, their players carved out two stunning moments at the death and extended the game beyond regulation time. Again, the game suffered something of a tempo hangover following the pandemonium in the dying embers with extra time being mostly uneventful, apart from a fine piece of goalkeeping from Jose Corona, when he sprung athletically to palm away an effort by the late Christian ‘Chuco’ Benítez. It was the shootout and the brilliance of América’s kick takers that gave the world such an incredible array of Herrera celebrations.

Although there were sequences of dull football, it was an electrifying advertisement for Mexican football and as dramatic as they come for this particular football rivalry. However, Mexico City, of course, has played its part in some of the most famous matches in the sport’s history. It was the Estadio Azteca that hosted the greatest game ever played by the greatest team ever assembled.

Mário Zagallo’s Seleção, featuring legends such as Pelé, Jairzinho, Carlos Alberto and Rivellino, entranced and wowed the crowds in Mexico City for three weeks in the summer of 1970. That was 16 years before their South American counterparts and bitter rivals, Argentina, dazzled the Mexico City citizens equally thanks to Diego Maradona’s superhuman performances at the 1986 World Cup, to further cement the city’s special place in footballing history.

The city itself is booming in the tourist industry. Streams of magazines have dedicated features extolling the beauty of its historic architecture and it is now being uttered in the same breath as the likes of Paris, Tokyo and London. It’s been known as Mexico’s melting pot, a massive city jam-packed with over 20 million people where you will experience literally every facet of Mexican society and culture. That includes the footballing scene, where the fans are spoilt for choice. There are four major clubs in the city, with América and Azul forming a rivalry arguably as intense as any in the country.

Although both clubs have been around since the earliest years of the 20th century – Cruz were founded in 1910 and América six years later – the first fixture wasn’t played until 1964. Neither side have ever been relegated from Mexico’s top division, only adding to the illustrious status of the fixture. While both clubs carry serious weight with their names, it is América that has enjoyed the better of it in recent times.

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Of course, they are a goliath presence in the context of Mexican club football. Alongside Chivas Guadalajara, América are the most instantly recognisable footballing institution in Mexico – winning the Primera Division 12 times, as opposed to Azul’s eight. There is a shared sense of hatred towards Club América among smaller clubs, particularly Azul, because América represents the riches of their owners, Televisa, who are themselves owned by the eccentric Emilio Azcárraga. The Americanistas have a slogan for the club: ‘Ódiame Más’ or ‘Hate me more’. That about sums up the opinion of América for the rest of Mexican football.

Cruz Azul, on the other hand, maintain their image as a working class team. They were founded over a century ago by a cement company, which owns the club to this day, and this dissonance from América is a source of pride for the supporters. However, there is a sense of pain too in following Azul. That game in 2013 was an accurate snapshot of the emotional rollercoaster Azul fans have been put through over the years. Although they are one of the biggest clubs in Mexico and generally finish in the upper echelons of Liga MX, they have an unwanted reputation of failing in the biggest game, or at the final hurdle like they did in 2013 against their rivals.

In recent years, there has been a saying, rather cruelly attached to Arsenal in England, that to challenge for a title and ultimately come up shy is ‘doing an Arsenal’. Well, in a rather striking parallel, Cruz Azul references come to the fore when teams watch their title aspirations go up in smoke. It is this distressing characteristic, alongside a burning desire to defeat América, that keeps the club looking forward.

They came excruciatingly close in 2013 to lifting that elusive trophy and if they continue to apply themselves in a similar manner to recent seasons, their time will surely come again. Azul gained an iota of revenge for that title loss by hammering their rivals América 4-0 in October 2014, exorcising some of the Clausura 2013 ghosts and portraying their capabilities as a force to be reckoned with.

Cruz Azul’s history is an intriguing one. Their popularity grew massively during the 1960s and the owners decided to move the team from Jasso – renamed as Ciudad Cooperativa Cruz Azul – to Mexico City in 1970 where it shared the Estadio Azteca with América until 1996. That’s when they moved into the Estadio Olímpico de la Ciudad de los Deportes, now known as the Estadio Azul.

During their many years sharing a city and a stadium, the tensions between fans grew, giving the rivalry a fierce intensity. The Clásico Joven was truly born in 1972, when Azul smashed América 4-1 in the league finale inside an electric atmosphere in the Estadio Azteca. It was a scorching July day and emotions were running high as Los Millonetas were comprehensively outplayed and outfought by Azul on the pitch. The men in yellow looked weary and lacking spirit as blue waves of attacks came crashing against their defence, time after time. It was relentless, and relentlessly exciting for the Azul fans in the terraces of the enormous stadium.

It is perhaps slightly anachronistic that their rivalry began with an Azul win, especially seeing how America have grown to become the undisputed force in the rivalry. Nowadays, Azul long for the days when they frequently hammered América into submission, like in 1972. As Elliott Turner illustrated eloquently in a brilliant piece for Fusion, Azul’s 2014 Apertura was unsurprising.

“For fans of Mexico’s most infamous nearly men, the state is not particularly surprising. On the contrary, it’s another chapter in a long-standing novel on futility.

“Fans of sport can always point to years when their beloved team thrived at a pinnacle. For fans of bigger teams, that pinnacle is often decade-long spans when their teams went on big runs. In Europe, for example, Real Madrid aficionados reminisce about the 1950s and 1960s, when the team won several European Cups. Or in Mexico, Club América fans recall the 1980’s as an epoca dorada when they won the league five times. Fans of Cruz Azul, though, have to look way back to look back further, to the 1970’s, and the team’s subsequent results have been pretty poor.”

Azul’s halcyon days of the 1970s seem a distant memory now, thanks to a number of questionable decisions from their chairman, Guillermo Álvarez Cuevas. Highlighted by fans of Azul and their rivals, several of the foreign players signed under his watch have not come close to living up to expectations, with Joao Rojas, Ariel Rojas and Fernando Belluschi those flattering to deceive. Throw that together with a mentality hampered by a lack of silverware in the past two decades and you have a deeply unpleasant situation.

Azul is club that prides itself on being the historical spine of the Mexican national side. Back in the golden era of success, Azul were bolstered by the immense goalscoring exploits of Mexican midfielder Fernando Bustos and Paraguayan striker Eladio Vera. Winning six league titles during the 70s, including that famous 4-1 triumph over América in ’72, Azul earned the nickname Máquina (Machine) – a fairly useful one to have if you’re a football team.

But it’s been a painful journey since, starkly contrasting the euphoria experienced by the América fans, who have taken great pleasure watching Azul’s demise while they themselves, backed by Televisa’s money, signed South American players by the truck load and engineered their own era of success in the 80s. The dramatic reversal in trajectories for the two clubs has only served to intensify the rivalry and now, as Azul search for stability and to challenge América’s supremacy, the meetings between the two clubs are always an event on the Mexican football calendar to savour.

Yes, El Clásico Joven may mean ‘The Juvenile Classic’ because of its relatively new status as a rivalry, but don’t be fooled. It may not be the oldest, but it is certainly one of the best. If anything, it will always give us that brilliant image of Herrera unleashing his passion on the world in his rain-soaked over-sized suit. That is true footballing passion, and it’s this exact thirst for football that keeps the Mexico City derby thriving, thrilling, and one of the greatest matches to watch in the game of football.

By Matt Gault. Follow @MattGault11

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