Tigres manager Tuca Ferretti is known for losing his cool. Fans and press call his histrionics “The Tuca Show,” one episode of which involved hiding behind his team’s bench after a referee sent him off for continual beratings.
After his team was knocked out of the Liguilla, Liga MX’s playoffs, on Saturday, the manager hardly even mustered a shrug. Sure, Ferretti was upset his team wouldn’t be contesting the Clausura after finishing in the top spot after the regular season. Tigres’ eyes, however, are on a bigger prize: South America’s championship, the Copa Libertadores.
Though they began competing in the competition in 1998, a Mexican team has never won Copa Libertadores. Cruz Azul was the first to make a final, losing to Boca Juniors in a penalty shootout in 2001 after earning a 1-1 tie on aggregate. Chivas didn’t get quite as close in 2010, losing both legs to Brazilian club Internacional. In 17 years, those are the only two Mexican teams to make Copa Lib’s final.
Even though the competition struggles for international relevance, the South American version of the Champions League captures the imagination of Mexican fans in a way no other club tournament does. The CONCACAF Champions League? That’s a given. Since the format change in 2008, no team from outside Mexico has lifted the prize. But the Libertadores has more history, more prestige. And for Mexican clubs, it’s also far more elusive.
Initially, the reasons for including Mexican teams in the competition were almost solely economic. After Mexico was the runner-up as a non-South American invitee to 1993’s Copa América, the Mexican soccer federation was eager to get its clubs in. That opportunity came via a deal make in late 1997, when Venezuela agreed to essentially let Mexico buy its way into a tournament called the Copa Pre Libertadores, pitting two Mexican league teams against two Venezuelan teams for spots in the 1998 Copa Libertadores. When Chivas and América beat out Caracas FC and Atlético Zulia in the round-robin tournament, Mexico had its first representatives in South America’s championship.
Pre Libertadores became dominated by Mexican sides. Of the 12 Copa Lib spots played for between 1998 and 2003, 10 were won by Mexican clubs. In 2004, when Copa Lib expanded, the arrangement ended. América and Santos went directly into the group stage, starting Mexico’s permanent place in the competition.
Becoming the first Mexican team to win the Libertadores would truly go down in the history of Mexican soccer, and Tuca Ferretti believes he has the team to do it. Thus far, passage to Copa Lib’s quarterfinals hasn’t been difficult. After taking 14 of a possible 18 points in group stage, Tigres emerged as the No. 2 seed and dispatched Bolivian side Universitario de Sucre in the Round of 16.
The high seed has again benefitted Tigres in the quarterfinal, where the club legitimately sits three aggregate victories from making history. This next round brings Emelec, an Ecuadorian side that struggled with Colombia’s Atlético Nacional in the first knockout round. The Guayaquil club could be prime for the taking.
Still, because of the timing of Mexico’s Clausura, that chase has created a delicate balance with the domestic campaign, one that’s more than a ‘once in a blue moon’ occurrence. Tigres themselves faced this decision a decade ago, making the Libertadores and the Liguilla in 2005. Again, Tigres bowed out of the league and chased glory in South America. Chivas did the same in 2010, playing Libertadores, Liguilla, Libertadores in an eight-day span. América had to deal with the conflict in 2011. Both León and Santos Laguna did so last season.
For all that winning Copa Lib might mean to Mexico’s first champion, Liga MX simply doesn’t seem to care about its teams’ conundrum. Unlike Major League Soccer, which regularly delays matches for its teams in the CONCACAF Champions League, or even major European leagues which do the same for teams facing mid-week commitments, Liga MX won’t flex its calendar to help its clubs win international tournaments. Understandably, the league wants its competitions to be prioritized, even if the posture seems odd considering the lengths officials went to get Mexican teams in the Copa Libertadores. It also hinders teams expanding the Mexican soccer brand outside the country, as well as waters down the product of the Liguilla.
It wouldn’t be an easy fix. The Clausura has to end at some point, but right now, even a one-day swap to help with travel has reportedly been out of the question. That rigid attitude leaves Ferretti (right) and those who have come before him forced to choose. And given the prestige that comes with Copa Libertadores, it’s really a no-brainer.
Adding to the equation, Tigres already know they won’t get a chance to return to the Copa Libertadores in 2016. With Mexico still obligated to show at least the appearance of loyalty to the confederation it’s actually a member of, the Apertura and Clausura’s champions and runner-ups head to the CONCACAF Champions League, while the two teams in the best spots in the Apertura but not qualified for CCL head to Copa Libertadores (a third berth goes to the winner of the Supercopa, between the season’s two cup champions). As runner-up in the Aperutra, Tigres is locked in to the 2015-16 CCL.
Ferretti’s side is a strong one, too; one that has also been well-funded. Tigres boasts one of the highest-paid rosters in the Copa Libertadores. The team brought in experienced players like former Libertadores top scorer Joffre Guerrón from Beijing Guoan and two-time champion forward Rafael Sóbis from Fluminense in Brazil. They provide the firepower, while a back line led by players like Hugo Ayala and Jorge Torres Nilo leading the group is among the region’s best, thanks in part to having played together for years and years.
Remarkably, Tigres have come this far without on of its more important players, Brazilian captain Juninho, who like Ayala and Torres Nilo has been with the team since 2010. But the veteran defender ruptured his Achilles’ tendon late in the Apertura and has missed the entire Clausura.
Perhaps Tigres could have used Juninho against Santos, but the Liguilla was never really a concern. Instead of being his typical feisty self after Saturday’s elimination, Ferretti was concerned about how the loss would affect his team’s chances in the competition it’s focused on.
“Physically, I’m not as worried, I’m worried about the other aspect,” he said after the match. “We’re not made of sticks or stones and naturally the elimination already is affecting us.”
The effect’s unlikely to be positive. Three days after Tigres lost in Nuevo León, Ferretti’s team will take the field in Ecaudor, concerned with its chance to make Mexican soccer history. The Mexican federation doesn’t seem to share that concern.