Saturday, February 16, 2013

Date of birth was important in another country as well, but in another part of the world – North and Central America. Nothing really changed there – only two championships worth mentioning. Mexico was elbowed by USA-Canada, thanks to the famous players moving to NASL, but still Mexico had the only good championship outside Europe and South America. The structure of the championship is very strange – a mixture of North American professional sports leagues and South American concepts. Like South America, championship went through different stages, mixing regular format with Cup-like direct elimination. Like North American sports, the league was not simple collection of clubs, but of franchises. The 20-team league was divided into 4 groups, teams playing against each other, but also playing against teams from other groups. North American formats are forever confusing for non-Americans, largely because it is never clear why clubs face some of the rest, but almost never other clubs. In Mexico was clearer – looked like every club met all others twice in the first stage. At least the total of games played – 38 – suggests so. Which makes a mystery of the division into 4 groups – the best two of each progressed to the next stage, but it would be just the same in regular undivided league. Anyway, it was not all – the US sports model is closed league: no relegation-promotion, same 'franchises' play always in the league. Bankruptcy is practically the only way of changing the members, a franchise can change owners and move to another city. Usually, the name is preserved – it is part of the franchise. The franchise concept in Mexico was a bit different: entirely different club can buy the rights of one playing in First Division and replace it in it. This was done fairly often, so the league members changed, but it was not entirely closed league like in the USA. There was promotion-relegation too – one club went down at the end of the season and another went up to replace it. Strange championship, but otherwise it was normal professional football: big clubs gathering the best players and there were many imports, generally from South America. The trouble with Mexican clubs is their location – some moved from place to place back then, but it is more frequent nowadays, so it is hard today to make sense – one sees Atlante, but is it the same club of 30 years ago? Now Atlante plays in Cancun... same name back in the 1970s, but for a club located in Mexico City. Yes, it is the same club after all – the only question is what happened to the supporters. Did they move to Cancun too?

No matter. Back in 1976-77 Atlante struggled to return to First Division. They were relegated the previous season, quite a blow for the old club, but eventually they reached the promotional final – facing Queretaro. Queretaro also played in the First Division not long ago and was eager to return, but it was not to be. Atlante won 4-2 at home and 2-1 away in Queretaro. Back among the big boys after a year in exile and getting powerful sponsors – a state owned mighty company, which poured tons of money, wishing to make Atlante the strongest club. This, however, happened after the club succeeded in winning a promotion. So much for second division and promotion.

Relegation, then. The rules were simple – among the last placed clubs in the 4 groups, the two with least points met in relegation play-off. Theoretically, it was possible for a club to finish with less points than one of the unfortunates – if playing in one group with the weakest one – but this year there was no confusion: UANL and Zacatepec were last with clearly less points than any other club. UANL are also known as 'Tigres', and the 'tigers' finally showed some teeth... not very sharp teeth, but enough for survival. They managed a 2-2 tie away and clinched a home victory in Nuevo Leon 2-1. Zacatepec was relegated.
Lucky tigers. The club is one of University-based clubs. Universidad Autonoma de Nuevo Leon. Students club, by the name – in reality, a professional club financed by the University. May be that is why such clubs are known by their nicknames, thus confusing foreigners: UANL is the official name and the one seen in most records. But in Mexico a glance at a newspaper shows no trace of UANL – there is Tigres. Now the nicknames are actually incorporated into the official names of such clubs. Clear? Better be, for Tigres survived difficult season and remained for the next. So much for bottom of the league.