From Rangers to Portsmouth, the global economic recession has accelerated a disturbing trend: the crippling of soccer clubs. Liga MX, with its toxic combination of a franchise model and promotion-relegation, is no stranger to the phenomenon, with clubs occasionally vanishing from the landscape all together. However, the four-letter word is not “winding up” or “contraction” or “close down.” Rather, it’s “desafiliacion,” and fans of Querétaro (and the second-tier Liga de Ascenso) can tell you all about it.
Despite thrilling soccer, some world class stars, and a pulsating liguilla twice a year, Liga MX has a seedy underbelly. For example, the payment of employees by employers? Not always so popular down south. As Robert Andrew Powell documented in This Love is Not for Cowards, small clubs in Liga MX sometimes struggle to make payroll. The tax man can be cruel as well. A few years ago, the national tax authorities actually seized assets belonging to Puebla FC as part of a tax dispute with the team’s owner. The federalis even seized soccer balls from the locker room.
Thus, we have to ask two questions: what should happen to a club mired in debt and payment disputes? Then, the more cynical question and inevitably disappointing answer: what actually happens to a club? The Federacion Mexican de Futbol (FMF) bylaws govern both the conduct of clubs and the requirements for “affiliation.” A club has no inherent right to be in Liga MX; the privilege includes responsibilities like paying players and the FMF, and not violating FIFA or FMF rules. Under Article 65, a club can be “desafiliado” if it commits a grave error as judged by an FMF Executive Committee or acquires a “bad reputation.”
Two recent cases of desafiliacion occurred in Liga de Ascenso: the Juarez Indios and the Carmen Delfines. In the case of the Indios, the club acquired a huge wage bill and debt in the topflight, got relegated, and things got worse. Sponsorships dried up. Attendance dwindled. The Liga de Ascenso desafiliated them in 2012 for failing to pay players’ wages. Two years later, when the government arrested businessman Amado Yáñez for financial fraud, the Delfines were eventually desafiliado due to nonpayment of wages. However, the President of Liga de Ascenso assured the league would pay the players their outstanding wages and they would become free agents.
As you may recall, Amado Yáñez also owned another team, Liga MX club Querétaro. Did they also owe some serious money to players? Yes. But this time, prospective buyers came forward. Miguel Sanchez, of Grupo Pegasus, required all debts be liquidated and resolved before purchase. But Decio de Maria, president of the FMF, stated the club would have to pay its debts. Up stepped Grupo Imagen, who promised to pay the debts, thus snagging the team.
The FMF’s goal is to coax a change of ownership, because if the team gets desaffiliated, it’s going to get stuck with wage bills and debts. For the most part, FMF has turned a blind eye to payment shenanigans and tax disputes, but when it’s the one not getting paid, action is taken. In 2011, Veracruz was desafiliado from Liga de Ascenso largely for not timely and fully paying the FMF quotas. If you want to join a country club, you gotta pay dues. And as long as you do, expect other members to often look the other way when you stiff over the tax man or employees.
MLS fans felt dirty when the league abruptly shut down Chivas USA, dispersing the players via draft. Compared to desafiliacion, it was a walk in the park. Fans got screwed over (perhaps only temporarily), but players got paid, and many landed new jobs. FMF’s blind eye and keep-your-hands clean policy allows bad apples to run, and then ruin, clubs. It also reveals clearly the pecking order of priorities, forcing fans and players to sit squarely at the bottom.