Professional football, or soccer, in Mexico is a wondrous institution. It’s grossly over politicised, convoluted and downright confusing in it’s set up. The top flight league itself is split into three less visible leagues to help determine, in the most confusing way possible, the entrants into the final and most important stage of the season. The knockout La Liguilla, played by the top eight teams, sort of, sometimes, over two legs. And just to add a little more confusion to the scene, they don’t even play a season over a full…season? There is the Apertura (Opening) and Clausura (Closing) seasons packed into one calendar year.
The quality of the football played isn’t generally as high as in Europe, where the cream of Mexico’s footballers aspire to play. But all said and done, any football game can be exciting and dramatic. And so to the game my post is about, yesterday’s grand final between Toluca and Cruz Azul. I have been following Cruz Azul, a Mexico City team of some tradition, for a few years, and have been to see a few games at their home stadium of Estadio Azul, which sits near Insurgentes and next to the world famous bull ring. It’s been 22 years since they last carried home the top prize, however. They reached the final in the last tournament, narrowly losing out to Santos.
I didn’t have great hopes for the game yesterday. The first leg had already been played, at Estadio Azul, and Toluca had triumphed 2-0. The omens weren’t good for La Maquina, Cruz Azul. But one must be optimistic, and the game started and continued at quite a pace, end to end, with chances for both sides. Cruz Azul’s goalkeeper was kept busy, having a positively heroic afternoon. The first half finished 0-0 and I’m sure even the most die hard Azulians (if there be such a word!) were substantially less than pessimistic about their sides chances of finally becoming the champions of Mexico.
But in the second half a goal spurred them to life. A little trickery, a dash of luck and a stretched toe poked the ball home under Toluca’s prostate goalkeeper. Now losing just 2-1 on aggregate, they rode their luck defensively, going forward aggresively, looking for that desperate equaliser. A shout for a penalty came! And went. The referee not seemingly interested. The game continued and shortly after, the young Cruz Azul starlet Villaluz burst into the penalty area, looking to get a touch to help bring his team level, when an opponents knee, raised high and with some momentum, crashed into his rib cage with such ferocity that the game was stopped and the youngster taken to hospital. Penalty, surely? The referee declined. He seemed determined that this great affair wouldn’t be decided on, or influenced by, a penalty. Oh the irony of what was to come.
But forward came Cruz Azul, the game still end to end, the result still in the balance. And finally, a hopeful cross, a towering jump, a powerful header, and the ball flew into the back of Toluca’s net. Cruz Azul had done what seemed impossible. They had not only scored the two goals required, but thanks to the phenomenal form of their goalkeeper, who had spent much of the afternoon tipping 30 yarders over the crossbar, plucking balls from the air and sliding into the boots of Toluca’s strikers, they had not conceded.
Extra time beckoned and duly came, but now it was a different game. Cruz Azul looked spent, exhausted from their efforts to pull the score level. It was nothing short of a desperate last ditch stand in their own area. For thirty minutes Toluca laid siege to their goal. For thirty minutes the goalkeeper, Gutierrez, continued his valiant display, beating the ball out on a number of occasions. But the thirty minutes finally passed, and the referee’s worst nightmare came true – a penalty would decide the day after all.
A tense and dramatic afternoon would go down to the most dramatic and tense finale possible in football. A penalty shoot out. Five kicks each, then, if the teams still cannot be seperated, sudden death. Toluca had the first spot kick. Goal. One nil. But only for a moment. One all. Then two one. Two all. Three two. Three all. Four three. Four all. Would no one miss a penalty today? Both goalkeepers had performed well in the game, but neither could get in the way of any of these kicks. Not even the weak ones. And at four goals each, we were effectively at sudden death.
Up stepped the Toluca man, dressed in the bright red strip of his team, and fired in his shot….5 to 4. Then five all, level once again. The tension filled the stadium, as another shot slammed into the back of the net. Six five. And another. Six each. Mexicans everywhere sat transfixed.
Penalty number seven, and the Toluca man put everything he had into it, smashing hard and to the keepers right. Gutierrez had guessed the right way, but there was too much power for his to quite get near it. Too much power for his hand to stop it if he had. But the bar stopped it! The shot was just a little too high, crashing against the underside of the woodwork and rebounding out and down – Cruz Azul were finally going to have a chance to reach the promised land! One penalty more and victory was theirs! Only the ball hadn’t, to the surprise, delight, astonishment, dismay of the onlookers, finished it’s travels just yet. Down and out it came, till it found the back of Gutierrez and rebounded off the stricken keeper and into the back of the net. Seven six. Incredible.
Had Gutierrez used up all the luck at his disposal yesterday? It seemed so. The pressure was now back on Cruz Azul, needing to score to stay in the game. A sure footed kick and the ball flew to the keepers left, towards the corner, towards personal salvation. But the keeper flew too, and his fingertips were enough. The white globe of leather, or whatever synthetic it’s made of these days, spun beyond the goalpost, never meeting the net that it had been heading for just a fraction earlier. Cruz Azul hearts were broken. Again. And Toluca were the champions. Again. But there’s no need to despair for long. There is always next year.