By Jason Davis – WASHINGTON, DC (May 29, 2020) US Soccer Players - Mexico's Liga MX is going through some things. To be fair, every nation is going through some things. Mexican soccer isn't alone. It's just that some of what Mexican soccer is going through it brought upon itself, before the Coronavirus pandemic and the complications it delivered.
Liga MX officially abandoned its Clausura tournament last week, an acknowledgment that the pandemic makes it too difficult to resume a season initially suspended on March 15 after 10 rounds of play. The Mexican split-season format crowns a champion after 17 rounds of games and a playoff tournament featuring the top eight teams in the standings.
For the first time since Mexican club soccer turned professional, a season will end without a champion. The top two teams in the standings at the time of the suspension of play, Cruz Azul and Club Leon, get spots in the Concacaf Champions League for 2021.
It's an unsatisfactory end to a campaign that Mexican soccer leaders talked of completing as recently as a few weeks ago. Ongoing discussions with the Mexican government looked primed to help Liga MX return to the field until scheduling concerns ruled out the plan.
While most leagues on similar calendars don't start new seasons until August, Liga MX typically kicks off its Apertura tournament in July. The league still plans to begin the 2020 Apertura on that schedule. Rather than race to finish a season already compromised by the suspension of play, Liga MX will work towards making sure the start of the next campaign is well-planned. Rising infection numbers in Mexico convinced authorities to err on the side of caution.
The economic hit to the league will be significant. Big clubs like Tigres, Club America, and Chivas de Guadalajara will likely be fine when soccer returns in its full form. However, there are other clubs in Mexico's topflight that will feel the loss of revenue brought on by suspension of play.
Liga MX isn't just dealing with the effects of the pandemic. The richest league in the Americas is also wrestling with fundamental questions about its competition and future. The recent strengthening of its relationship with Major League Soccer points to a recognition in Mexico that the status quo won't always hold. Liga MX will need help to not only retain its place as the top league in the region but grow enough to gain entry into the list of the world's top leagues.
Monarcas Morelia, a 70-year old club based in the largest city in the state of Michoacan, is pulling up stakes for Mazatlan, Sinaloa, more than 450 miles away. Like American sports, Mexican soccer operates with a franchise system. Like American sports, relocation of clubs is both a fact of life and a grotesque betrayal of the fans in the city left behind.
The franchise system has been abused in the past, allowing owners of relegated clubs to buy their way back into the first division by swapping a license and "relocating" a first division club to the city of the relegated team. For now, that's no longer a concern.
A month after the suspension of play, Liga MX announced that promotion and relegation between the top division and the second division, Ascenso MX, won't happen for five years. The move came after Liga MX officials instituted criteria in 2017 to "certify" second division clubs for promotion to the first division. None of Liga Asecenso's 12 teams could meet it. Now, the top division is closed off entirely.
The outcry over the end of promotion and relegation from a segment of the Mexican soccer community feels out of step with the recent reality of the country's pyramid. Even before the certification system was in place, only one club per calendar year could make the jump. Relegation from the top division was determined by a points-per-game calculation over six tournaments. Any club of reasonable size was unlikely to face the drop thanks to those protections.
Liga MX made an economic argument to the second division clubs to get the votes to shutdown promotion and relegation. Financial considerations paid to Ascenso MX clubs will help mitigate the solvency problems in the division. A "development league" concept seems to be the future of the league.
Effectively closed or not, Mexico's move away from even a restrictive version of promotion and relegation caught the attention of FIFA. The global governing body of soccer issued a warning of sorts to Liga MX, demanding that promotion and relegation return in the future. FIFA, like many in Mexico, appears concerned that the "temporary" halt of pro/rel could easily become permanent.
The cynicism is well-placed. It's not just because of Mexico's history of franchise-swapping and power-consolidation among the richest owners. Some of whom own multiple clubs, another issue FIFA warned Mexican soccer over. It's also because the greater soccer world appears headed in a similar direction.
Talk of a European super league and the strong belief that club owners in first divisions across the continent would be happy to see the end of promotion and relegation puts Mexico's move squarely in the zeitgeist of this soccer moment. The Coronavirus shutdown made it easier to push through the closing of pro/rel, but few are naive enough to believe the plan wasn't in the works for some time.
Though FMF leadership made cursory comments assuring "temporary" really would be temporary, Liga MX president Enrique Bonilla framed the warning differently when speaking to Fox Sports.
"FIFA suggests a system but doesn't impose it. If you establish a project in which you determine an origin, the reasons, the steps to take, and the final goal you hope to achieve in time, FIFA will understand, it has to understand and shouldn't oppose it."
If that statement feels familiar, it's probably because it's the same one MLS uses to avoid complying with FIFA's statutes on the principle of promotion and relegation. Despite MLS operating in direct violation of those statutes, FIFA hasn't levied any sanctions against it. A challenge to the closed league system in the United States ended with the Court of Arbitration for Sport ruling that the FIFA statutes only applied to leagues with an existing pyramid that incorporates promotion and relegation.
Liga MX will face a challenge over the suspension of promotion and relegation. Three Ascenso MX clubs have already expressed their intent to take the league to CAS. If the opinion of the American case holds, that could put Liga MX in danger of FIFA action.
There's reason to think the challenge won't amount to much. FIFA's saber-rattling is rarely followed by significant sanctions, as long as government interference in soccer isn't at issue. The governing body also won't be keen to cause problems in the region ahead of the 2026 World Cup set for North America.
As MLS and Liga MX deepen their partnership, it's not hard to see the Liga MX decision as a precursor to a combined league with the American competition. The more control Liga MX has over its membership, the easier that becomes.
No league will come out of the pandemic that same. In Mexico, that change looks to be more dramatic.
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Logo courtesy of Liga MX