Photo by Patrick Corcoran.
Photo by Patrick Corcoran.
After a soccer game in April 2007, I watched something like a riot unfold on the Paseo de La Rosita, a commercial drag in the northern Mexican town of Torreón. Though the excitement was prompted by a victory, the atmosphere was not entirely happy. Or rather, it was happy to excess, and it did not feel particularly safe.
Cars were surrounded, climbed upon, and shaken violently, with or without the driver’s consent. Silly string and airhorns were discharged in the faces of all present, with or without the face-owner’s consent. The mob of young men in the actual roadway (as opposed to those of us watching from the sidewalk), careened this way and that, moving with surprising coordination and without much warning, not unlike a school of fish.
People get fired up about sports, and it’s not unusual that a resident alien might be surprised by the intensity of a victory celebration. But the nature of the contest that provoked the bedlam was a bit odd: Santos Laguna had not won a championship, but had merely saved themselves from relegation. With a 2–0 victory over Cruz Azul, coupled with a loss by rival Querétaro, Santos climbed out of the basement on the final weekend of the season, and were permitted to stay in the big leagues.
Since that near-disaster and the near-riot that followed, Santos has turned itself into a perennial contender. For the third time in four tournaments, Santos reached the final of the Primera División in December. But their streak from relegation to the top of the table has often been punctuated with disappointment. As in the previous two occasions, the green-and-white Santos returned to Torreón from the second leg of their ida y vuelta as losers.
The nice thing about Mexico’s biannual tournament setup—one spring season, another fall season, each of them 17 games long and followed by an eight-team post-season tourney that determines the champion—is that, by virtue of frequency, it’s much easier for your team to bring home a title. (It also helps that compared with their European counterparts, Mexico's Primera División is a beacon of parity; in the past 10 tournaments, seven different teams have won a championship.) But the flip side, of course, is that there are twice as many chances for heartbreak, and Santos’ finals losses have been brutal indeed.
Santos’ opponent in December’s final, Tigres of Monterrey, took the series with victories by the score of 1-0 in the first leg and 3-1 in the second. That result suggests the clear superiority of one team to the other. The flow of the match on the field didn’t really contradict that. However, Santos played close to 150 minutes of the two games down a man. They were inferior the same way a boxer who separates his shoulder is suddenly an inferior fighter.
The refereeing in the second leg, responsible for 80 of those minutes of numerical inferiority and three of Tigres’ goals, was any one of a number of adjectives: abysmal, atrocious, horrifying, despicable, apocalyptic. (Only the last of these, perhaps, is an exaggeration. Also, I can’t complain about the first game’s red card. See here for the relevant footage.) The game’s decisive moment arrived in the 11th minute, when an errant clearance gave the Tigres’ Danilinho no one but goalie Oswaldo Sánchez to beat from about eight yards out. Sánchez charged him, Danilinho played it to his left. Sánchez slid on the slick field, Danilinho jumped up. Sánchez grazed him ever so gently, and Danilinho dropped as though he’d been tasered. Referee Marco Antonio Rodríguez—whose perfect hair and imperious style call to mind the archetypal hack politicians of the Partido Revolucionario Institucional, which is to say, what an ass—reached immediately for the red card, and awarded a penalty. Protests were ignored. Sánchez, the team’s goalie and captain, and Darwin Quintero, the second best scorer and one of the fastest players in the league, walked off to the bench.
Replacement goalkeeper Miguel Becerra came in cold and threw his ample frame to his right, coming away with one hell of a save of the penalty. Not that it mattered, because the game was settled the moment Rodríguez reached for red. Santos clawed a goal back in the 30th minute and managed to make it into halftime up 1-0, and level at a goal apiece in the overall series score.
The appearance of equality was deceiving. The 10 men left on the field for Santos had no chance of surviving a shootout, much less winning the game outright. The field was wet, the terrain needing coverage was extensive, and this was the second intense contest in four days. The players’ energy visibly ebbed. Streaking Tigres players found themselves in progressively more yawning spaces. With Santos unable to mount anything resembling a counterattack, the match eventually devolved into a half-field scrimmage. Santos had been the most electric offensive team in the tournament, but their one goal was the only shot they put on goal in the entire second leg.
In contests of even strength, Tigres, in contrast, preferred to play with some 17 men behind the ball at every moment. Their semifinal win over Querétaro was a miserable 180 minutes, with the lone score for either team coming on a horrific own goal. Only one of the eight playoff teams scored fewer goals over the course of the regular season than Tigres. Nonetheless, overcoming that natural inclination toward dreadful soccer, the Tigres attackers came at the net in waves in the second half of the vuelta. They scored their first goal of the night in the 51st minute, netted another 12 minutes later, and added a final dagger in the game’s waning minutes. Another two or three goals would not have outstripped the run of play.
As if intent on proving that his initial game-changer was not a one-off spasm of bad judgment, Rodríguez continued to seek the spotlight in a series of bizarre interventions. Like a two-pistoled gunmen in a Western—picture Kevin Costner’s move at the end of Silverado—he whipped out the double yellow card in the 56th minute, simultaneously warning Carlos Morales and Héctor Mancilla. (What ref carries around two yellow cards waiting for that moment?) He later awarded Santos’ defensive anchor, Felipe Baloy, a straight red card for a tackle in which the Panamanian actually clipped the ball first. That Rodríguez immediately followed it up with another red card to a Tigres player made little difference, though it probably kept an ugly loss from devolving into a massacre.
At this point, I should probably make explicit my biases. I lived in Torreón from 2005 through '10, the longest period I have spent in any area as an adult. I wouldn’t qualify myself as a Santos die-hard, if for no other reason than I always felt like a bit of a phony getting too worked up about a team I hadn’t even heard of just a few years before moving to town. But I remain a supporter, and as a supporter, the loss burns.
Torreón is an odd backdrop for what has turned into one of the league’s glamour franchises. It is part of the ninth-largest metropolitan area in Mexico, though it feels like a small town. A sense of provincialism that swings between pride and resentment periodically emerges among torreonenses. Much as I enjoyed my stay there, the city is something of an acquired taste. There is none of the colonial charm of Zacatecas or Guanajuato, and little of the cosmopolitanism that can be found in Mexico City. The businesses driving the local economy are auto parts factories and breweries. The region’s natural landscape is parched, and the climate varies between uncomfortable and wretched.
Since 2007, a wave of violence has swamped Torreón. During that time period, the murder rate has increased by a factor of 10, and crimes ranging from kidnapping to carjackings have exploded. Torreón’s nightclubs, where a partying player was not an uncommon sight five years ago, were all shut down when I returned to visit this summer, thanks both to extortion demands and a series of attacks on bars in 2010 that left dozens of innocents dead. A Santos game this past August was suspended in the first half when a gun battle erupted along a highway adjacent to the flashy new stadium, Territorio Santos Modelo. No one was hurt, though a small number of bullets did penetrate the facility’s walls.
So Torreón has long been a bit of a backwater, and is now an exceedingly violent one at that. The team has one of the most loyal fan bases and the most impressive stadium in Mexico, but I can only imagine that the Mexico City transplants, to say nothing of the many Argentine santistas familiar with life in Buenos Aires, have a reaction to life in Torreón that broadly mirrored my own ambivalence. When longtime favorite Matías Vuoso responded to a move to Mexico City’s Club América in 2010 with gratitude that he would now be able to play for an important club, it seemed a premeditated poke at the city’s perceptions of inferiority. América is an important club the way circa-now Notre Dame is an important football program, and if players are eager to leave Santos for bumblers like América, that says a lot more about Torreón than it does about Santos.
Much of the city’s sense of provincial resentment is directed precisely at Monterrey, which is far larger, more famous, and just a few hours east of Torreón. That distaste is longstanding and goes beyond sports, though the finals defeats to Tigres and another Monterrey-based club last year have turned soccer into an aggravating factor. Indeed, one of the first cultural lessons I learned after arriving in Torreón in 2005 was the following: Fuck Monterrey. (This came just after Fuck Mexico City.)
Much of this is the natural reaction of the smaller city: Monterrey lords over the rest of the region a bit like Chicago over the Midwest, though with less appealing food. Monterrey has also applied to itself the moniker ‘Sultan of the North’, which may or may not be a fair label, but it is not endearing. Losing is no fun, but losing to a bunch of self-styled sultans is particularly disagreeable.
As dissatisfying as the loss to Tigres was, the defeat to Toluca in May 2010 was far worse. After a 2-2 opener in Torreón, Santos traveled to one of the toughest venues in the league for the second leg. Playing at an altitude of more than 8,000 feet, Santos dominated the game, but muffed a half dozen easy chances in a scoreless draw. They built a two-goal lead in the subsequent penalty shootout, which they then blew, along with the title. This loss sparked a round of finger-pointing not unlike that recalled a failed presidential campaign, or Germany in 1918.
Santos again reached the final in the winter tournament that same year, taking a 3-2 lead into the second leg against Club de Fútbol Monterrey, Tigres’ crosstown rivals. Santos was steamrolled, losing 3-0, a result that seemed preordained after 10 or so minutes of play. Of the three finals defeats, this was the only one about which there was little more to say than, "Crap, they were better than us."
This trio of liver shots blots what has otherwise been a rather impressive run for Santos. In 2008, a year after the relegation near-miss, they defeated a capable Cruz Azul side to win the league title, their first in 14 tournaments. The consecutive finals losses have not been a lot of fun, but with a championship and three second-place finishes in four years’ time, all but three Mexican teams would willingly trade their results for Santos’ over that period.
They’ve also embraced an entertaining style throughout this period. The 2008 team in particular was loads of fun to watch; they scored 36 goals in 17 regular-season games, constantly racing up and down the field for 90 minutes. I haven’t enjoyed any of its successors quite as much as that squad, but to a lesser degree, this is always the case. Even as both coaches and strikers come and go—and there has been a great deal of turnover among both positions—Santos virtually always employs an open and attacking style of play. A procession of the league’s best forwards, from Oguchi Onyewu’s one-time tormentor Jared Borgetti to Cristian Benítez, have passed through Torreón in recent years. The squad that fell to Tigres featured a trio of capable scorers: Quintero, Christian Suárez, and Oribe Peralta, the last of whom Americans may remember for this goal. While it won’t be confused with tiki-taka, the product on the field continues to be reliably fantastic.
We’ll have another look at that product on Saturday night, when Santos kicks off its spring campaign at home against Pachuca. If the psychological scars of a third finals loss have healed, the team’s attack should grow stronger still next season: days after the Tigres defeat, the team announced the addition of American striker Herculez Gomez, who led the Mexican league in goals two years ago. Mexican soccer is rather unpredictable, in the sense that the froth rises to the top all too often, but Santos fans have every reason to expect another season of offensive outbursts ending with a deep postseason run.
The combination of entertaining fútbol and success in the wins column is an admirable one, and, to a certain degree, it represents an end in and of itself, whether or not trophies follow as a result. After all, a team can only control so much, and even a two-game final can be a fluky event, especially with the likes of Rodríguez as referees.
But this is true only to a certain degree; ultimately, entertaining without silverware isn’t enough. Losing sucks, and grows worse still as the most recent title recedes into the more distant corners of the memory, regardless of whatever other virtues the team’s current iteration might display. Just ask a Real Madrid fan.