On December 2, 2012, Los Angeles were celebrating their second consecutive domestic league championship in MLS and saying goodbye to some as yet unknown portion of the Beckham/Donovan/Keane troika for the last time. 135 miles south from Carson, California, through San Diego and into another California, a champion of far more continental significance was crowned on the same day. Club Tijuana Xoloitzcuintles de Caliente of Baja California, Mexico defeated Toluca in the home and away final to win the Apertura in Liga MX.
The Xolos bear the nickname of the Mexican hairless dog – believed to have been indigenous to Mexico for 3,000 years – but the club has only been in existence since 2006. The Xolos’ rise from non-existence to league champions makes TSG Hoffenheim look as if they are dallying. In a league where four clubs from Southern Mexico – Cruz Azul, America, Pumas UNAM, and Chivas Guadalajara – can claim almost the entirety of club support from the entire nation, Tijuana’s upstart club on the northern border of the country in one of the most notorious cities in North America have somehow waltzed away with the first ever league title in the newly christened Liga MX.
Tijuana serves as a decent surrogate for the hopes and fears of the recent restructuring and repackaging of Mexican football. Mexican football, after years of having a largely isolationist global football policy, have performed a complete reversal. The creation of Liga MX this year was designed to create a more fan friendly, corporate friendly Mexican top fight that would make people want to come to matches, spend money, and see many of their favourite stars who had been coaxed back form Europe to participate in the first season. Liga MX was so clearly intended to be a Mexican football version of the film franchise “reboot” that one half expected Christian Bale and/or Daniel Craig to appear.
Liga MX represents awareness of an opportunity to bring in more fans to the game, increase revenues for clubs, and raise the global profile of Mexican football. The Mexican moment has been evident on the field. Club teams have become more serious about international club competition success in both North and South America (after years of largely sleepwalking through both competitions on both continents). The National team has seen renewed investment as well, with a demolition job of the United States in the last CONCACAF Gold Cup and Olympic Gold in London.
The meteoric rise of Tijuana fits the pattern of this larger sea change in Mexican football. The Xolos’ success promises not only the potential for expansion of the game in the Northwest region of Mexico, but Tijuana is also quite famously (notoriously, some may say) a stones’ throw from the United States. The USA’s rapidly awakening soccer market and large émigré community opens up a whole new set of economic possibilities for Mexican football. These possibilities appear to be real enough that Univision simulcast the Liga MX Apertura final in English for American audiences. What’s more, USA international Edgardo Castillo and US Olympic qualifying star Joe Corona happen to play professionally for Tijuana. Club America of Mexico City is one of Mexico’s most popular teams, but Club Tijuana plans to sustain its growth by becoming America’s Mexican club team.
The problem with this vision, as with all of the promise one can find across Mexico’s economic, political, and social life, is that “ifs” always remains so tantalisingly elusive south of the border. The richness of Mexico’s culture and people always offer so much promise, but the stilting social and economic problems of the country are such that Mexico can never seem to shake them off. Here too, Club Tijuana represents Mexican football in miniature.
While the Xolos’ story has been a chance for citizens of Tijuana to highlight the artistic and cultural elements of the city, Tijuana remains a place largely under the firm grip of Pacific Coast drug cartels, with violence receding only when everyone knows which organised criminals are truly the ones in charge. Human and drug trafficking remain major sources of income in the city. Even while Mexico tries to move into the future as a modern, model 21st century global citizen in the community of nations, Mexican households still pay in excess of two billion dollars in bribes in order to receive basic government services.
Tijuana’s story serves as a reminder that Mexico has a singular history, and that the power of the modernisation of Mexico lies in the potential combination of what is uniquely Mexican with what is comfortably modern. The Xolos’ Apertura campaign represents this image that Mexico can be better-organised, foster civic pride, compete, and display Mexican style to the biggest stages. But Tijuana is still Tijuana – good and bad – as Mexico is still Mexico. The seasons of Mexico’s economic and cultural future, like the seasons for Tijuana in Liga MX, promise never to be a completely finished story, for the next season might always bring new possibilities…or new disappointments.
Steven Maloney writes about football and politics. He also holds a PhD in Political Theory from the University of Maryland and is a political science lecturer at the University of Wisconsin-River Falls. You can follow him on twitter here.