Atlas FC overcomes its cursed roots to win the Liga MX title. Can the club continue to win?

As with most plans brewing in bars, the reality of Atlas FC rarely lives up to expectations.

Mexico’s most star-studded football team was formed during the country’s revolution when three pairs of brothers got together to toast their college years. It was 35 years before they toasted the club’s league title.

It took twice as long for Atlas to win a second title.

“It’s part of our history,” said team president Jose Ristra. “We can’t keep saying, ‘Okay, this is Atlas. We win sometimes.

“70 years one? No, we have to change that.”

Ristra has. Atlas beat Leon on penalties in the Apertura final last December, marking the team’s first league title since 1951. No Mexican team has been between championships longer.

Now the club has to go the other way, beating city rival Chivas 2-1 on Thursday to open the two-leg La Liga MX Clausura playoff quarter-finals. The second leg will be played at the Jalisco Stadium, Atlas’ hometown, on Sunday, with the total number of goals to decide which team advances to the semi-finals.

The victory, however, brought a whole new set of challenges to a team and fanbase that has long been defined as a loser.

“The championship clears the cloud, clears the bad atmosphere for everyone,” said striker Julio Furch in Spanish, whose penalty decided December’s final. “Maybe a lot of people are happy with what’s been achieved. But we’re not.”

As one of the oldest clubs in Mexico, Atlas Football Club has a large and loyal following and a long history, nurturing Jared Borghetti, Pavel Pardo, Andres Iconic players such as Guardo and Rafa Márquez, who have finished in the top four in any one appearance or with the country’s national team in goal.

But in recent years, the franchise has lost its ambitions. Its facilities are old and crumbling, with little investment in cutting-edge technologies like analytics. It’s not that the team is underperforming, it’s that the team is underperforming. It’s not implemented at all.

“They were abandoned,” Aníbal Fajer, the club’s new executive director, said of the club’s supporters, which included golfer Lorena Ochoa, singer Alejandro Fernández, director Guillermo del Toro and figure skater Donovan Carrillo.

Think of Atlas FC as the Mexican version of the Boston Red Sox, another team with a rich history and a loyal fan base that once viewed its title drought as a pain, making it a better choice than the Yankees. Teams are more sublime, like the Yankees, whose fans rarely know disappointment.

Then the Red Sox won the World Series became Over the next 14 seasons, the Yankees won three times as many championships as their opponents from New York. Like the Red Sox, the Atlas’ fortunes have changed with new ownership that challenges the long-standing culture of a cursed club that can never win.

Just as hedge fund manager John Henry saw potential in the undervalued Red Sox, Grupo Orlegi, an innovative sports and entertainment company led by Mexican billionaire Alejandro Hiragori, saw Atlas’ untapped potential. possibility.

“When we decided to buy this team, we said it had a lot of potential,” said Riestra, a banker before joining Orlegi. “They have a huge fan base. They have a huge fan base in the US, and I believe if you do things differently, you can win.”

So Hiragori, who bought a majority stake in Liga MX rival Santos Laguna in 2013 and won two league titles within the next five years, bought Atlas from Mexican broadcast giant Aztec TV in 2019. FC and sent Ristra and Fudge to Jalisco to turn the team around.

The team shares Guadalajara, one of Latin America’s largest tech and financial centers, with Chivas, another traditional club with a large fan base. Chivas has captured many supporters with its promise to never sign non-Mexican players, and while this worked well in the 1950s and ’60s when the club won eight Serie A titles in 13 years, Chivas has struggled since then , has won only two league titles this century.

So while Chivas is generally considered the second most popular club in Mexico, most of its fan base lives outside of Jalisco. In this city, it has long been said that the real Guadalajarans are from Atlas FC, not Chivas.

For decades, the two teams shared a stadium and a city, but in 2010 Chivas moved into a modern 48,000-seat home, leaving Atlas FC in the crumbling Jalisco Stadium, This is an iconic venue that has hosted two World Cups, but opened in 1960.

Atlas FC center Diego Barbosa celebrates his team’s first goal against the United States during a game in Mexico City on January 22.

(Ginette Riquelme/The Associated Press)

Orlegi’s backers say that Orlegi’s success is built on three pillars: infrastructure, structure, and the processes they go through. At Atlas FC, all three are missing. In addition to an aging stadium that has popped up in the heart of the working-class neighborhood of Colonia Independencia, Atlas FC trains at an abandoned country club too small to accommodate the first team and Team’s academy and women’s team.

Orlegi has yet to decide what to do with the stadium, but it has spent $15 million on a massive 18-acre high-performance center in nearby Zapopan. However, the biggest challenge in changing the direction of the team is the people around the club. Most of them have given up.

“We had to change the mindset,” Riestra said. “No one takes responsibility. We said we have to change that. We have to make a change in the minds of the players and staff, the people who work here and the fans.”

The problem, says Fajer, is that after decades of losing, no one believes the club will win. once. So he took a different tack, thinking that if it’s impossible to win, it’s at least possible not to lose.

“It’s divided into different phases,” he said. “We start by convincing people that once we play, we can’t lose. Or financially we can’t lose.

“Let’s try not to lose. That’s what we try to do with the culture.”

Atlas FC coach Diego Coca (left) gives instructions to his players during the first leg of the La Liga MX semi-final against the Cougars in Mexico City on December 2, 2021

(Eduardo Verdugo/The Associated Press)

Not everyone buys it.

“We had to say goodbye to people who didn’t believe we could transform and the team was damned,” Fajer said.

Atlas has also made some changes on the pitch. Former Atlas FC player Diego Coca was brought back as coach and nine of the 16 players he used in the Apertura final last December all joined the squad when Orlegi took over.

One of them, defender Luis Reyes, made his professional debut with Atlas FC before touring Mexico with six other teams before returning to Guadalajara last year. He said the differences at the clubs were palpable.

“Before, this game was not relegable. Now, it’s looking for a title, looking to win the league,” he said in Spanish. “Obviously, for the transformation to happen as we speak, the change has to come from the board, the players, the coaches and the fans as well.”

Vendor sells Atlas FC 2021 championship merchandise near Jalisco Stadium in Guadalajara, Mexico.

Vendor sells Atlas FC 2021 championship merchandise near Jalisco Stadium in Guadalajara, Mexico.

(Kevin Baxter/Los Angeles Times)

it is.Atlas FC brought that sport to the field last summer, stripped of the word transformation Across the front of the team’s red and black jersey, it should be the sponsor’s name. Still, Fajer said it wasn’t until last year’s playoffs that he knew the transition had taken hold.

“One of the guys didn’t believe we could do that and she asked if we were the champions and where the celebrations would take place,” he recalls. “I said, ‘Now you believe. It’s not that Atlas is cursed.'”

However, the knockout blow came from an unexpected source. On the eve of the final, world champion boxer and lifelong Chivas fan Canelo Alvarez spoke to the team on a video call.

“He said, ‘This is your chance,'” Riestra said. “‘If you do this, you’ll change your life forever, the lives of your fans, the lives of all your fans. So believe in it. You’ll make it.”

The players also believed in those pep talk. But the real test came in the playoffs final, which went into overtime. If there really is a curse, that’s when it will happen.

“For a while, maybe the fifth or sixth minute, the stadium was very quiet,” Fager said. “But the shift, the belief that we can change things together, and when Julio Fauci was about to take the last penalty, everyone was confident that we would be champions.

“Either this moment. Or never.”

Furch’s success is commemorated on a concrete block wall across the street from Jalisco Stadium, where Atlas’ two championship teams have joined the mural. The top of the mural depicts the stadium, and below it are two stars representing two titles, a trophy and “Campeon,” in the terse script. The popular Cocca took one corner in the midfield shout, while the starting line-up for last December’s final took the other.

A mural depicts Atlas FC's last championship and the line-up across the street from the Jalisco Stadium in Guadalajara.

A mural depicts Atlas FC’s last championship and the line-up across the street from the Jalisco Stadium in Guadalajara.

(Kevin Baxter/Los Angeles Times)

Surrounding the stadium are rickety wooden stalls hawkers who do a lively trade in black and red scarves, hats, shirts and wristbands emblazoned with Atlas campeón, some of which are dated 1951-2021.

However, Canelo’s prediction is a bit short. While the December win changed the team and changed Atlas’ expectations for the playoffs this spring, Fauci said relatively little has changed in his personal life since his championship penalty.

“Now I go to a lot of places to eat and they all give me free desserts,” he said. “So I’m gaining weight. I don’t know how many pounds I’ve gained because of dessert.”


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