Friday’s match between Veracruz and Querétaro offered little to fans who prefer to spend their time near the top of the Liga MX standings, but average plods of the two not so good, not quite bad teams shed light on the tough times faced by the top flight’s smaller city clubs. While Veracruz has enjoyed a mini-renaissance so far in Clausura 2015, it is still near the bottom of the porcentaje (relegation) table. Dropping is more than a possibility. Meanwhile, Querétaro has new backers and brought in Ronaldinho but still languishes outside the Liquilla playoff spots. Both teams, badly needing a wins to kick-start their tournaments, were left sharing the spoils after a 1-1 draw. Can either really take heart in the result?
As noted in detail in prior articles, Querétaro got new ownership, snared a Brazilian icon, and stole Camilo Sanvezzo, yet the team failed to qualify for the Liguilla this fall and have a single win so far this term. Why aren’t things clicking for the Gallos Blancos? Is Ronaldinho out of shape? Perhaps the club should to steal another Major League Soccer player, or three? Surely, many speculated, the Gallos can poach a win at lowly Veracruz to jump-start a playoff push. Ah, that life were so simple.
The good news for Querétaro is that, rumors be damned, Ronaldinho looked relatively fit and extremely motivated. Granted, he hasn’t gone on a lung-bursting sprint in, say, almost a decade, but he dutifully patrolled the center of the park and opposition goalmouth. He was equally smart and creative in possession: alternating between simple give-and-gos and crossfield switches. He is no spring chicken, but he still has enough spring in his step to be a difference-maker in Mexico. He also went the full 90 minutes, and his dangerous set pieces resulted in the game-tying goal off a corner.
The bad news is that Querétaro still has major holes in the roster. Yes, on loan Sinha helped with passing out of the back, but his 38-year-old legs can no longer be counted on to win the ball back. More worryingly, aside from Camilo, Querétaro lacks the skill at forward and on the wings to take advantage of Ronaldinho’s creativity. He can dink balls over the top or feather delicious slide-rule passes through center backs, but the last pass is only as effective as the finishing touch. With only four goals in five games, the Gallos Blancos need a shoot-first winger and for Camilo to find his form.
For Veracruz, the picture also remains murky. During the Apertura, Tiburones fans felt an anchor tied around their chest. Recent scars from the 2008 relegation (when they narrowly lost out to Puebla) and 2011 disaffiliation (when they kinda sorta forgot to make payments to FMF, d’oh) lingered. Fans were ecstatic when local businesses went corporate-raider on Club Piedad in 2013 and persuaded that team to make the Estadio Luis Fuente home. However, two years later, rain clouds had already returned.
Even so, things aren’t so gloomy as they were in the 1980s, when the club relocated to the Yucatan Peninsula and rebranded as “The Deer.” Still, since seeing its team (teams) return to the first division, Veracruz’s results have been pretty crummy. The Tiburones Rojos came into the Clausura tied with Universidad de Guadalajara and Puebla at the bottom of the relegation standings. But this tournament Veracruz has played like a team possessed and are undefeated in five games. Rather than a bare-knuckled relegation brawl, the team can think about the Liguilla, even if the fans might worry about the wind tearing a hole in the sail.
The performance against Querétaro flashed a couple of reasons for hope. First, the salida: the backline is extremely comfortable and deliberate on the ball, helping to retain possession and pick the right moments to get forward. Second, the offense is clicking. The team the reminiscent of Spanish-side Villarreal, who attack with quick-passing triangles along the flanks. Veracruz’s goal in the 85th minute came from a slick sequence that left Querétaro with little chance. With U. de Guadalajara still slumping (as predicted), Veracruz find itself on a less calamitous course.
Still, in the context of Liga MX at large, both Querétaro and Veracruz represent mid-sized cities ravaged by the franchise and pro-rel system. At least once a decade, Veracruz has to deal with either relegation or a franchise relocation. In a twisted song-and-dance in two years ago, the city/club of Querétaro avoided relegation by buying and relocating Jaguares de Chiapas, the state/club of Chiapas bought and relocated Club San Luis, and then Veracruz plucked recently-promoted Club Piedad. Yet the continued struggles of Querétaro and Veracruz show that the franchise model (and nasty relocations) can’t totally game the promotion-relegation system. Eventually, under-funded teams and clubs in smaller cities will pay the Liga de Ascenso piper, even if a Ronaldinho or a one tournament’s quick start can temporarily stay that fate.
And then there’s the human toll. Dealing with the threat of relocation and relocation has taxed both clubs’ fan bases, with rebrandings and years without futbol becoming facts of life. Both clubs are mired in above-average-ocity, despite the loosened purse strings of new owners or a temporary surge in form.
Taken as a snapshot, neither team lost in Veracruz last Friday. That’s a positive. However, despite the Liguilla lingering as a possibility for either team, don’t expect either set of fans to be celebrating by the Clausura’s close. All success, like existence, is fleeting.