When anthropologists discovered pre-Columbus stone courts and thus uncovered the ballgame of Ōllamaliztli, a nasty surprise lurked. In some parts of Mexico, the players had met a grisly fate. From Chichen Itza to Aparicio, ballcourts featured statues or images of decapitated ballplayers. Some speculate that the winners were sacrificed — and regarded it as an honor. Hundreds of years later, winners of Mexican ballgames continue to get the shaft.
As we’ve already documented, the toxic combination of a franchise system, serious inequality in wealth, and promotion/relegation has given a black eye to Mexican soccer. Richer cities and business groups game the system. If their team gets relegated, they merely buy a newly-promoted team on the cheap. Thus, fans at aspiring clubs face two fears: will their successful team simply relocate, leaving them team-less? Or will their team be promoted, only to realize they can’t hack it with the big boys and be sent straight back down (or worse, go bankrupt like the Indios de Juarez)?
One city in Mexico has lived both horror stories. Repeatedly.
Irapuato FC was founded over a hundred years ago, but its tumultuous history really begins in the 1950s. Winning promotion to the first division in 1954 launched the greatest run in Irapuato’s history. No, the team did not win titles. Aside from the glorious year of 1963, it did not even really compete for titles. It just survived in the top flight, lingering for over a decade. Irapuato was relegated in 1972 and, during the 70s, reached several 2nd division finals (but always lost). Fans would soon learn that losing a Liga de Ascenso final is not the worst fate had in store for them.
Flash-forward a decade. The club reached Liga MX in 1985, only to be relegated in 1991. But by this time, professionalism and sponsorship had a firm grip of soccer in Mexico (and elsewhere). Small and medium-sized cities, like Irapuato, lacked and still lack the sponsorship and gate receipts to compete with big clubs, and struggle to pay players an enticing salary. After a Cinderella season and the sweet taste of promotion, reality hits. Players and managers get found out in the top flight. Losses stack up. Eventually, the club returns to the second-division to lick its wounds, regroup, and find a new bearing. Fans can still look back and smile, though.
But the free-for-all franchise system that is Liga MX makes it difficult for fans to wax nostalgic. Shortly after Irapuato beat Cruz Azul Hidalgo in the Liga de Ascenso final of 2001 — thus winning promotion — the club was sold to Veracruz. Given the abrupt nature of the sale, no replacement franchise could be bought, and the cavernous Estadio Sergio Leon Chavez, a 33,000-seater built when first-division football felt inevitable, stood empty for an entire season.
Local businessman were able to tempt a second-division side from Queretaro to relocate, and that team won promotion to Liga MX. Again, external economic powers extinguished the dream. In 2004, after only a handful of years in the top flight, the FMF forcibly dissolved the club due to financial irregularities. Like so many other times, though, hope would not be extinguished. A second-division club reformed, and, in 2010, aging Mexican striker Cuauhtémoc Blanco signed for the club. Despite having no legs, his first-touch and trickery inspired Irapuato to a Liga de Ascenso final vs. Club Tijuana in 2011. However, fate intervened yet again: Blanco was injured for the final, and Irapuato lost.
Can you say “double-slap to the face”? After a terrible 2013 Clausura, the club was relocated to Zacatepec. The city of Irapuato again managed to steal a 2nd-division side from Queretaro in time for Apertura 2013, but after just one season, the team returned to Queretaro. A local businessman then bought and relocated Ballenas Galeana Morelos from Cuernavaca in 20014, but how long they’ll be around, only God knows. If they get promoted, they’ll either be sold or relegated within a few years.
The current logo of Irapuato FC is a blue, white, and red flag with a Sungod hidden behind it. You can only see the top half of the Sungod’s face, and his eyes look like he’s crying. If so, it’s only fitting. Irapuato FC is a club with over 100 years of history, of which the cruel, whimsical mistress of fate has bestowed decades of suffering and false dawns.