On the Day of the Dead, you've stumbled across the Curse of the Super Leader
Photo: Jlfdz, CC-BY-SA-4.0
Can we agree topping the league seems the easiest way to determine the best team over the course of a season? Not so much in Mexico. Finishing first is rarely the champion's path there. Instead, it's a curse. La Dia de Muertos seems the right day to explain.
Mexicans love football. It’s the country's heartbeat. Several competitions with various, complicated rules and procedures across domestic leagues and intercontinental contests aren't a hindrance. The rules change in Mexico from place to place and administration to administration. Why not in football?
FEMEXFUT divides Liga MX into two half-seasons. The Apertura [opening] campaign runs from July through December. The Clausura [closing] carries on from January through May. In each session, the 18 clubs play a single round-robin. In one, they play eight teams away and nine at home. In the other, they play the return legs, losing their home advantage in the table. Each mini-season awards a trophy to the winner, but it doesn't come at the round-robin's end. First, there is an eight-team playoff which, you guessed it, the top team rarely wins.
A club might finish eighth in the season then claim the honours with a good post-season. There’s no real benefit to finishing in first place. In years past, it did win you the continental qualification and a lovely laminated certificate. Not anymore.
“La Maldicon del Superlider" literally translates to the Curse of the Super Leader. Liga MX table-toppers so rarely go on to win the post-season that the curse receives widespread credibility. Supporters want their club to play well. Just not too well.
Mexico City’s finest just locked horns. This Apertura's Classico Joven was not only Cruz Azul's biggest derby, coming against neighbouring giant Club America, it was a top-topping clash between first and third.
While Los Cementaros formed in Hidalgo and moved to Mexico City in 1971, the working class team formed an immediate animus towards the high-flying Aguilas. You'd anticipate both sides desperately wanting victory and bragging rights in the city of 8.9 million, over 21 if we're talking metropolitan area. But at what cost? The winner on the day would enter the Apertura's final three rounds occupying the top spot in the table. Bad juju.
How bad? The Apertura/Clausura has awarded 69 trophies to date. First place teams have won the title only 20 times, less than one in three. Cruz Azul are afflicted frequently. They've never won a playoff. It's yet another reason to hate Club America.
Los Aguilas seem immune to La Maldicon. They've claimed the trophy five times after finishing first, most recently in 2014. Even if Cruz Azul tanked with an eye for the post-season, it would do them no good. Coming into the derby, America were leading the Apertura, looking good value for another title. Would their blue-collar rivals dare clip their wings when it meant putting themselves in the curse's crosshairs?
Is it any wonder the game finished 0-0? Both teams knew the risk, even if the hex affected one less than the other. With only three games to follow, wisdom dictated discretion. Keep what you have. Don't cut off your hand trying to grab more.
If it seems like I'm romancing the stone, both clubs usually get in among the goals. America are the most prolific Mexican attack, bagging 27 goals in 14 games. Cruz Azul are above average with 20. Neither squad is what you'd call resolute in defence. Add the blood and fire of a Mexico City derby and the game should have lit up the scoreboard.
Playing to avoid the curse is the only answer for their timid display. Cruz Azul committed more fouls on average over the course of their previous three games, as did America. The home side took six shots. Curiously, none were on target. The visitors were a little more successful going forward, but not much. Santos Laguna had already won their game by the time the derby kicked off. They took first place. One can almost image opposing fans in blue and yellow kits cracking open cervezas in cantinas surrounding the Azteca, toasting one another on a job well done.
With three games remaining only two from 18 clubs are eliminated. Two points separate the top four: Santos, America, Cruz Azul and Pumas. You can just see the boffins in the boardroom working out how to avoid finishing first without looking too bad in the process.
In sport, desire is always questioned. How badly do you want it[?] is a question we often hear. Only in Mexico is the answer 'bad enough to lose'.