Cruz Azul dominated possession. Playing at home the team had over 23 shots. Still, La Máquina failed to score a goal. Its 2-0 loss to crosstown rival UNAM Pumas leaves Luis Fernando Tena’s team needing a miracle to make the postseason.
Yes, the first goal was the result of a referee blunder in the first minute. The ball clearly went past the end line before the goal; however, no referee or assistant can take the blame for Cruz Azul’s erratic finishing. Now, with one game left, the team is three points out of La Liguilla.
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.
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As a starting point, Cruz Azul is one of the bigger clubs in Mexico. Located in Mexico City, the club has existed for 87 years (as an amateur side until 1960), is allegedly the third most popular club in the country, and has never been relegated. In 1970, the team provided the spine for the Mexican national team that reached the World Cup’s quarterfinals, with a midfield pair of Héctor Pulido and Antonio Munguía providing craft and work rate while center back Gustavo Peña captained squad. With Javier Guzman shuttling between outside defense and winger, La Seleccion advanced out of a tricky group with a win over Belgium. Though the team was humiliated by Italy 4-1 in the quarters, Cruz Azul could still bask in the sweeter story of the club’s contribution.
Shortly after the World Cup, the FMF (Federacion Mexicana de Futbol) instituted the liguilla (playoffs) to “generate excitement.” What followed was a golden era of success for Cruz Azul, one that relied on the goal-scoring exploits of Mexican midfielder Fernando Bustos and Paraguayan striker Eladio Vera. The team went on to win six titles during the 1970s, including famous final wins over Mexico City rivals Club América and Pumas. Cruz Azul was not just the King of Mexico, it ruled the roost in the Distrito Federal, earning the nickname Máquina (machine) because of the comparison between it and a locomotive that rolled over the opposition.
The following decade saw a drastic reversal in fortune. Rival América, backed by Televisa money and signing South Americans left and right, enjoyed its own golden era of success. Even Chivas de Guadalajara enjoyed a mini-resurgence after hiring former player Alberto Guerra as coach, facing and defeating Cruz Azul in the 1987 final. Even worse, two years later, Cruz Azul returned to the final only to lose to América. Yes, La Máquina was still making finals, but after losing to the Aguilas in 1989, the club had gone 15 years without a title.
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And thing were about to get worse. La Máquina didn’t sniff a liguilla final for six more years before losing to Necaxa in 1995. Two years later, the league adopted the famous apertura/clausura split calendar. With twice as many “champions” each year, surely that would help Cruz Azul’s chances? Not so much. Yes, a youthful side featuring Francisco “Paco” Palencia (above) beat Leon 2-1 in the Invierno final, but the game turned on a disputed, dubious last second penalty. Also, León was relegated a few short years later. A championship, yes, but not something to beat your chest about.
It was also Cruz Azul’s most recent domestic title, though in fairness, the team has fared better internationally. In 2001, the team narrowly lost the Libertadores final to Boca Juniors. It’s also won numerous CONCACAF Champions League titles.
However, despite featuring international caliber players like Pablo Barrera, Gerardo Torrado, and Marco Fabián (on loan), recent years have been barren by Cruz Azul standards. Losing the 2013 final to Miguel Herrera’s electric Club América only added to the club’s collection of second place honors. If there was a runners up medal, La Máquina would have one for 2009, 2008 and 1999.
For neutrals, second place might as well be 10th, a feeling that only feeds the cloud around Cruz Azul. The loss to Pumas and de facto elimination from the liguilla is not surprising but may be historically predetermined. It’s been over three decades since La Máquina won seven of its eight titles. Based on recent trends, that’s unlikely to change anytime soon.