What Johan Cruyff's Flameout Says About Mexican Soccer's Problems

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Benjamín Galindo is the current manager of Chivas de Guadalajara. Galindo's tenure at Chivas, his second, began in January, three days before the start of the 2013 Clausura, as the spring season is known in Mexico’s bi-annual tournament setup.

It should be a plum gig. Chivas is Mexico’s most popular club, and plays in its newest stadium. Jerseys bearing the team’s famous red-and-white stripes pop up in every corner of the republic, as well as in Mexican neighborhoods throughout the US, where its cousin, Chivas USA, plays in the MLS. Chivas is currently loaded with talent, nicely balanced between reliable veterans and precocious youths. Their home of Guadalajara is one of Mexico’s most appealing cities, replete with all of the goodies—distinctive music, ancient cathedrals, cheap and spicy food—travel writers inevitably love.

Despite these advantages, Galindo did not get off to a blazing start on his second go-round. The team’s first win in the 2013 Clausura did not come until the sixth match, weeks after the new manager felt obliged to deliver a public plea for patience from fans. Chivas finished the Clausura 17th on an 18-team table, with just three wins in 17 matches.

Galindo’s very likely firing would bring to an end a short, thoroughly disappointing tenure. Much of this is due to the results on the field, but his arrival was in and of itself a disappointment, which complicated Galindo’s time at the helm even before he got started. For Chivas and its vitamin-magnate owner Jorge Vergara, Galindo was the most conventional hiring possible. Over the course of 35 years and close to 1,000 games as both a player and coach, Galindo has worked for six different clubs, all of them Mexican. Though a quality player in his day and a successful manager, Galindo is a product of the Mexican league if there ever was one. His name is familiar to only to avid followers of Mexican football; mention Galindo to casual fans and you will likely receive only a blank stare in return.

The regime that preceded Galindo’s could not have been more different; it was as inspirational and flashy as Galindo is solid and unremarkable.

The news that Johan Cruyff was coming to Chivas de Guadalajara sparked great fanfare in February 2012. Vergara sounded less like Cruyff's new boss than his biggest fan, promising, “It will be a jump in quality. A brand... that will help us be like Barcelona, the best in the world.” The team’s best player, Marco Fabián, said, “It’s a privilege [to] work with such a legend.” Former Chivas manager (and Cruyff countryman) Hans Westerhof said “I’m sure Johan can help Chivas very much.”

The excitement was justifiable: one of Mexico’s biggest clubs was hiring one of the sport’s greatest men, albeit in a part-time gig with uncertain responsibilities. In his new post as “sporting advisor,” Cruyff was supposed to lay the foundation of a ... well, no one was quite sure, but it was going to be great. And long-lasting: Cruyff’s initial contract was to last three years, more than enough time to work whatever magic with which he is endowed. Said magic is not insubstantial; Cruyff used it to rake in scores of individual honors and team trophies during his nearly half-century as a player and coach at Ajax, Barcelona, and with the Dutch national side.

Nine months later, a couple of weeks after Chivas’ postseason elimination, Cruyff was dumped from his post. At the time, the team promised that personnel hired at Cruyff’s behest would be retained, but that proved impossible; the new staffers brought in by the Dutchman quickly followed him out the door. The de-Cruyffinization of the team was completed in January, days before the 2013 Clausura kicked off, with the firing of John van’t Schip, the manager hand-picked by Cruyff.

According to Vergara, the reason for Cruyff’s sacking was a simple lack of results, though the only full season under his guidance fell far short of disastrous: after stumbling out of the gate with two points from the first four games, the team righted itself enough to slip into the playoffs in the eighth and final spot. They were then eliminated in the first round by eventual finalist Toluca, but this was just the sort of baby step you’d eagerly hang your hat on at the outset of a three-year process. (This was also far more than Galindo is likely to accomplish, barring an unlikely turnaround.) Moreover, the initial setbacks stemmed largely from the absence of three of their best players, farmed out to the Gold Medal-winning Mexican Olympic team. After a season of gradual improvement and with a full side on board, Chivas seemed poised for a breakthrough in 2013. Instead, Vergara fired Cruyff and his crew.

The union between Cruyff and Chivas seemed an odd one from the get-go. The Mexican league is a hub for talented Argentines, Colombians, and (increasingly) Americans, but European greats, whether coaches or players, have never shown a particular interest in Mexican soccer, and the Mexican league has always managed well enough without them.

Vergara’s ownership has added little to the Chivas trophy case, but under his ownership the club already had a successful formula for one of the key aspects of any football club: developing young talent. Sir Alex plucked Chicharito Hernández from Guadalajara, Chelsea prospect Ulises Dávila came from Chivas, and two of the most talented players of Mexico’s U17 World Cup champions in 2011 were Chivas-bred. Two of the most promising young talents in all of Mexico—Fabián (author of this wonderful goal) and Jorge Enríquez—are both Chivas products. Cruyff was ostensibly brought in to reshape the organization from top to bottom, but in terms of building a supply of gifted players, he was to address a problem that was not particularly pressing, if it existed at all.

What Johan Cruyff's Flameout Says About Mexican Soccer's Problems

Cruyff himself betrayed little affinity for the team that was hiring him. In one of the opening press conferences, he declared that Chivas, with its 11 league titles, had never done anything special. He also referred to the team as a “cadaver,” presumably in reference to its string of poor results over the past several years. Living or dead, Chivas has more silverware than any Mexican team, which makes you wonder if there exists a plausible accomplishment in Mexican domestic soccer that Cruyff would qualify as special. If not, why would he bother coming to Mexico at all? (Of course, the short answer, which probably doubles as the complete answer, is money: his part-time gig was rumored to pay up to $5 million annually.)

Beyond Cruyff’s lack of enthusiasm for the institution that hired him, the protagonists’ personalities promised further difficulties. Profiles of Cruyff invariably reference his prickly nature. In Brilliant Orange, David Winner’s survey of Dutch soccer, Cruyff comes across as something of a footballing Picasso: by turns, he is greedy, hypersensitive, a hypochondriac, and monumentally self-important. In Morbo, Phil Ball, with a characteristically deft touch, describes Cruyff as “never one to waste too much energy on a self-effacing gesture.” He is a notorious nurser of grudges and an enthusiastic picker of fights.

There is, however, no denying his credentials. Many lists place Cruyff behind only Pele and Maradona as the third-best player in history, and there is certainly a case to be made for setting him at the top. He captained the best team never to win the World Cup, the 1974 Dutch finalists who, despite their conspicuous superiority, fell to the West Germans. Fully professional soccer in the Netherlands didn’t even exist well into the 1950s, but by the 1970s, the Dutch side was mentioned in the same breath as West Germany and Italy as the best in the world. The fact that a small floodplain in northern Europe suddenly achieved such status is the work of many, but it is a tribute to Cruyff more than any other single Dutchman.

At the club level, Cruyff won piles of trophies at Ajax and Barcelona, including (with the former club) three straight European Cups in the early 1970s. Among the sport’s finest players, Cruyff has also enjoyed atypical success as a manager. Prior to Pep Guardiola, no one had accomplished more at Barcelona’s helm than Cruyff, who won four Ligas and a European cup in the early 1990s. Cruyff was, not coincidentally, responsible for bringing Hristo Stoichkov and Guardiola (among other stalwarts) onto Barcelona’s first team.

As both a coach and a player, Cruyff was integral to the development of Total Football, a philosophy emphasizing positional fluidity, technical skill, and stylish attacking. Cruyff also inculcated the same values across the organizations he managed, among them Barcelona. In so doing, he laid the groundwork for the recent successes of Xavi, Iniesta, Messi, and the rest. It’s easy to overstate the influence of the brand—few teams have the players to execute it as effectively as the Dutch did, and bus-parking sadly remains a common approach to football—but Cruyff’s philosophical heirs at Barcelona and the Spanish national team are the gold standard for modern greatness.

Cruyff is a genius whose body of work has few rivals in the history of the sport, but he is also a pain in the ass.

Only the second clause of the preceding sentence applies to Jorge Vergara, who purchased Chivas in 2002 after building a fortune at the head of Omnilife, a direct-sale vitamins business, but has never demonstrated any particular footballing knowledge or insight. When he took over the team, Vergara was open about his lack of sporting pedigree. He told the wire service Notimex shortly before the acquisition, “I’m not interested in knowing about football, that’s why I’m planning on hiring capable people that know how to manage things in football, it’s a mistake to want to do things that you don’t know.”

Nonetheless, he did not simply stand aside and let the pros manage the team, and life at Chivas underwent sudden and unusual changes once Vergara took over. The players were obligated to attend yoga classes, and were subjected to mandatory group psychotherapy. As one might expect, these adjustments were not particularly popular among the players. Many fled Guadalajara for other teams, taking shots at the new regime on their way out the door.

The 2007 hiring of Angélica Fuentes, an oil and gas exec whom Vergara married a year later, as an Omnilife director magnified Vergara’s idiosyncrasies. (About that wedding: in addition to a civil ceremony in Mexico, the couple threw a five-day wedding bash in India, with the nuptials taking place in a palace. Guests reportedly paid $30,000 to attend the ceremony, though the fee was all-inclusive, Cancun-style.) She currently serves as the CEO of Grupo Omnilife, Chivas’ parent company, and her authority over the team is second only to her husband’s.

Like Vergara, Fuentes openly admits to a limited understanding of soccer. As with Vergara, she affects a non-conformist bent that frequently verges on the bizarre. A 2008 interviewer, José Ramón Huerta, noticed that one of the only decorations in her office displayed the slogan (in English), “Fill their sssoulesss carcasssesss!” [sic] He also described her habit of resorting mystical-sounding cliches to explain her marriage’s dynamism: “Jorge and I are one plus one equals a thousand,” and, “I give order and structure to his ideas,” and, “Professionally we complement each other almost perfectly.”

Presumably, Vergara and Fuentes see themselves as outside-the-box innovators dragging a hidebound institution into the 21st century. But for the most part, their quirky Zen bullshit has not worked out, and the new approach has led to flop after flop on the field. For all the team’s recent success in molding talent, over the course of a decade-plus and more than 20 seasons since Vergara arrived, Chivas has won the league championship just once. Since that title in 2006, the team has missed the playoffs more often than not, and has never returned to the finals. Chivas made a surprise run to the Copa Libertadores final in 2010, but the balance of the news surrounding the team in international competitions has been negative.

The result is a genuinely poisonous atmosphere. Following Cruyff’s ouster, Goal.com and ESPN pundit Brent Latham called Chivas “arguably the most mismanaged team in Mexico,” which is true, but doesn’t quite capture the visceral negativity swirling about. Vergara and the word “cancer” appear together with regularity on Chivas fan sites. In response to fans’ boos at Cruyff’s introduction, Vergara said, “Shut up, [show] more respect, you are guests in someone’s house and you show respect.” A confrontation with a fan at a November game almost escalated to punches, and left us with this delightful photo. Following the same contest, Vergara went to the locker room to berate his players, stopping only after van’t Schip stepped in to defend them. It’s a real hate-fest.

For fans, colorful though the Chivas royal couple may be, the enmity stems not from the fact that Vergara and Fuentes are weirdos or that Omnilife’s business model resembles Amway’s or that they had a tastelessly garish wedding. It is because have meddled, breaking repeated promises to leave soccer to the soccer people.

All of which is to say, once more, Chivas and Cruyff were ill-suited to one another, perhaps uniquely so. But even if the end result was embarrassing and predictable, it is nonetheless instructive. Mexican soccer’s lack of success is something of a puzzle; despite the largest Spanish-speaking population in the world and a manifest love of the sport, Mexico has never fielded world-class squads, and, relative to comparably sized nations, they underproduce world-class players.

Explanations for this paradox run the gamut. Jorge Castañeda, formerly the nation's foreign minister and currently its foremost US-media talking head, argues that it’s due to Mexico’s cultural bias against teamwork. Conservative pundit/race baiter Steve Sailer says (predictably) that it’s because Mexicans just aren’t very athletic. A popular explanation within Mexico points to the club owners, and the footballing system they have erected. The owners thrive (at least, within the narrow confines of Mexican club soccer) despite a range of character flaws: they are insular, they are uninterested in genuine competition, and they think they know more than the pros. As a consequence, the league and its players suffer.

While this last argument certainly strikes me as more worthy of consideration than Sailer’s or Castañeda’s, it doesn’t quite convince. One problem is that poor club ownership is symptomatic of deeper problems within Mexico. Namely, a lack of commitment to competition afflicts much of the business elite, and it’s hard to finger football owners as especially dastardly in a monopoly-laden middle-income nation that has given us the world’s wealthiest man. (Worth mentioning here: the aforementioned ricachón Carlos Slim bought a stake in two Mexican teams last year.) This argument also leaves us largely without any obvious solutions. If we are to accept that fixing Mexican football means fixing Mexican owners’ approach to the business of the sport, and we accept that Mexican owners are symptoms of a far, far broader set of ills, then it follows that to fix football, we also need to fix the incentive structure guiding virtually all business activity more extensive than that of a taco stand. Sadly, this is a prospect too daunting to contemplate.

Moreover, it’s not clear how a dozen big-time owners alone are not responsible for a huge nation’s persistent failure to find 11+ worthy performers. A comparison with Mexico’s peers is perhaps instructive here. The men who run football in Brazil preside over a chaotic system whose infrastructure keeps FIFA officials awake at night, staring with wide eyes at the calendar entry for June 12, 2014. Some of the foremost football executives in Argentina have turned out to be, quite literally, criminals. Yet both countries produce world-class footballers by the busload.

But that does not absolve Mexico’s owners of the charges frequently leveled against them. They are indeed an insular, anti-competitive bunch of meddlers. And even if they are not the cause of the problem, Mexico’s owners are manifestly incapable of generating solutions to the nation’s soccer ills.

The marriage between Vergara, a wannabe iconoclast, and Cruyff, a genuine innovator and one of the most accomplished men in the sport, was a chance to, just maybe, address that defect. It was a chance for Vergara to renounce so much of what is unappealing about his cohort. He and his wife could have disappeared from public view, could have ceded total control, and could have given Cruyff the three years that he was initially promised. In so doing, Vergara could have turned Chivas, once again, into the class of Mexico, if not the Western Hemisphere, rather than lingering as a famous team with shelves of trophies collecting dust. Doing so at Chivas instead of a small club like, say, San Luis Potosí, made the potential benefits of Cruyff’s arrival in Mexico all the more significant.

But while he bathed in the attention that the Cruyff signing brought him, Vergara was unwilling to make the sacrifices necessary to capitalize on his new hire’s talents. He and Fuentes ultimately sacrificed no authority, nor do they appear to have fundamentally rethought the causes of their disastrous decade at the helm. Instead, they embraced insularity and intervention. Vergara remained Vergara. And Cruyff went back to Europe.

Patrick Corcoran writes about Mexican politics and public security at Gancho, InSight Crime, and Este País. He is writing a book on drug trafficking for the Mexican publisher Editorial Océano. He squeezes gratuitous soccer references into as much of what he writes as is possible without irritating his editors. Follow him at corcoran25.


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