The Mexican championship continued running its peculiar mixed European-Northamerican formula. The 20 first division teams played twice against each other, as it is in Europe, but there was no one league table. The league was divided into 4 groups with their own tables, as North American leagues in any sport are usually organized. After every team played its 38 matches, the top two teams from each group moved to the next stage. As for relegation, the two teams with least points of those ending at the bottom of the group tables played a relegation play-off between themselves. The loser went down. The formula had a handicap in its design: it was possible that 3rd placed team in at least one group could have earned more points than some 2nd placed team, but was not going to proceed to the next stage. Also there was possible a 4th placed team to have fewer points than some of the last placed, but will keep its place in the league, because of finishing higher in its own group. Nothing like that happened this season – on the contrary: precisely two teams finished with least points and last in their own groups. As for those on top, the very same teams would have been at the top 8 positions in a normal league table – there was none lucky or unlucky. The divisions were quite refined: there was not even one club coming relatively close to the best – CD Guadalajara, 3rd in Group 2 lagged behind with the smallest difference and it was 3 points short of the record of 2nd placed Tampico. As for the largest difference, it occurred in Group 1, where second-placed Atlante was 15 points clear of the 3rd, Monterrey. At the bottom sunk Jalisco, Group 1, and Union de Curtidores, Group 2, both with 28 points. They were to face each other in the last effort to avoid relegation.
The first leg was played in Guadalajara, the home base of Jalisco, and they prevailed 2-1. Not a big cushion and the second match in Leon was difficult – once again, the home team won, but this time it was 3-1 victory. Just enough for Union de Curtidores to survive. The relegation play-off presents the confusing difficulties of understanding Mexican football in a nutshell: Union de Curtidores is an old club, founded in 1928. Jalisco – or rather Club Social y Deportivo Jalisco – were babies next to Curtidores: founded in 1970. But were they? That year either existent club or businessmen bought the old and quite successful in the past CD Oro, which was in financial crisis. Along with the club its franchise was acquired. The new concoction was named Club Social y Deportivo Jalisco, having the right to play professional football at the place of CD Oro. Thus, it was both new and old club at the same time and even its history was and is mixed with that of CD Oro – because of the continuation not of the club, but of the franchise. Usual case in Mexico… Guadalajara had a new club, without really changing the number of the clubs located in the city. Very likely the owners were ambitious, but as often happens with such projects, difficulties were quick to emerge: one typical problem is fan base. Guadalajara, having a few old and well established clubs, is hardly the place where a new club could attract immediate and massive following. Traditional clubs are also having enough money to keep at least at the same level of the newcomers. Even quick success could be perilous for a new club affronted by strong competition. Very likely Jalisco was not in great shape by the end of the 1970s, although they tried hard: before the start of the season they hired the Argentine star of Atletico (Madrid) Ruben Ayala. The ‘Mouse’ was getting old, but he was a big name – unfortunately, the neighbours had no difficulties getting good foreign players, so Jalisco hardly had an advantage. And they were relegated at the end.
Jalisco going down to Second Division – a move, usually signaling the end of such new clubs. Shocking experience for Ruben Ayala (second from left at the top row), used to playing for the title, but he left immediately after the end of the season.
Of course, the relegation play-off was small affair, compared to the race for the title – the 8 teams reaching the next stage were divided in 2 groups, where the participants played twice against each other and the group winners moved to the championship final. All or nothing, all teams started with clean sheets, from zero, therefore, anything was possible. Of the first phase of the championship, perhaps Deportivo Neza deserves mentioning:
The kings of ties – Deportivo Neza tied 20 of their 38 matches. They qualified to the next round thanks to that.
Unless a full unregulated draw took place, there is no reason for the making of the new groups: Group 1 consisted of U.A.N.L. (or Tigres, Monterrey, 2nd in original Group 4), America (Mexico City, 1st in Group 3), U.N.A.M. (or Pumas, Mexico City, 1st in Group 2), and Club de Futbol Zacatepec (Zacatepec, 1st in Group 4). Cruz Azul (Mexico City, 1st in Group 1), Atlante (Mexico City, 2nd in Group 1), Tampico (2nd in Group 2), and Deportivo Neza (2nd in Group 3) made Group 2. Three original group winners were Group 1, which, at a glance, favoured the single group winner in Group 2, which had to play against theoretically weaker opponents. Then, if earlier performance was indicative, the final was already known: 2 teams dominated the first stage – Cruz Azul and America. America finished with 57 points, Cruz Azul – with 55. The next best team – Atlante – earned only 49. But since no points were carried from the first stage, all teams were equal and may be those saving their strength for the finals had better chance than those dominating the first stage. The second stage did not really went into wild surprises – except for one team, the rest played as they did earlier.
Tampico finished with the worst record among the top 8: they got only 4 points. Nothing really shaking the Universe: if there was a ‘normal’ final table after the first stage, they would have been 7th. Weaker than the rest and never mind the menacing crab with big claws on their shirts.
The truly unlucky team this season was Atlante.
Atlante finished 2nd in their preliminary group – 6 points behind Cruz Azul. But they had the 3rd strongest point record in the league and also the 3rd strongest strikers. They were the only team scoring 2-digit number of goals in the second stage – 12 – but… 2 wins, 2 ties, and 2 losses gave them no chance to play the final. Once again they finished behind Cruz Azul. Atlante, twice second this season, had to wait for better next season.
On a better note finished U.N.A.M.
Bora Milutinovic made them champions the previous year and his work was going well. The team was good – but it was a club not yet used to winning. Pumas played well in second stage, but were unable to win and score – they ended with record number of ties: 4. They also scored the least goals – 3. With Hugo Sanchez leading the attack… But very likely nobody was disappointed: Pumas was just beginning their strong years. It was a stable season, the team had potential, so the coach.
A relative surprise was the play of America – the strongest team in the first stage.
Traditional powerhouse, they were not just favourites on reputation, but really were head and shoulders above all teams, save Cruz Azul, at first. A squad full of Mexican national team players. Add the Brazilian star Fumanchu, who is relatively unknown outside South America, but is well remembered name there. But America kind of stumbled in the second stage – not a big fall from grace, but just a bit misstepping. 2 wins, 2 ties, 2 losses – they could have been first only on goal-difference and nothing else. But there was a team with 7 points and America finished 2nd and exited the race for the title.
America was bested by the only visibly improving team in the second stage – U.A.N.L. was the team with the lowest record among the best of the first stage. Back then they earned just 40 points. 17 less than America! In a normal league, they were to take 8th place without any chance even for dreaming of a title. May be they preserved their strength at first, may be they got inspired in the second stage, may be they made fewer mistakes than the others, but they finished 1st in Group 1 with 7 points. Leaving America sulking behind.
Cruz Azul wee 1st in Group 2 – just like they were first in the their first stage group. Just like earlier in the season, they left nothing to chance – theirs was the best record in the second stage: 8 points. 4 wins and 2 losses. Obviously, attacking minded and determined team. If U.A.N.L. proved the wisdom of preserving form for the time when it really mattered, Cruz Azul proved the other wisdom – that a strong team is strong consistently. If you start winning early, you will win to the end. Nothing can be really concluded from such oppositional approaches.
Anyhow, the title was contested between Cruz Azul and A.U.N.L.. The first leg was in Monterrey and on home turf Tigres… lost 0-1. Looked like the final was over – winning away. Cruz Azul made the second leg a mere formality. Wrong! Tigres came back and fought to the end. Cruz Azul managed to tie their home game 3-3, thanks to the goals of Adrian Camacho and Rodolfo Montoya (2). Montoya was the big hero – he scored the winning goal in Monterrey too. The fans hardly minded that their team did not win in front of them, because it was enough for the title – the final victory!
7th title for Cruz Azul, all won after 1968. The 1970s decade is the most successful period in the history of the club, but at the real time nobody would have imagined that. Rather, it looked like Cruz Azul was going to win and win – they finished great decade and started a new one triumphant. Yet, to a point, Cruz Azul was unlikely champions: they had strong squad, but somewhat fell short, compared to America, Atlante, even U.N.A.M. Pumas. Most of the best Mexican players belonged to the competition. Even the foreigners playing for Cruz Azul were not well known. The scoring heroes of the final against U.A.N.L. Tigres were rather ordinary players – neither Montoya, nor Camacho became Mexican stars. Of course, Cruz Azul had strong players – Guillermo Mendizabal, Gerardo Lugo Gomez, Horacio Lopez Salgado, Ignacio Flores – who were current or former members of the national team, but all of them trailed in the shadow of Hugo Sanchez, Thomas Boy, Leonardo Cuellar, to mention a few. Salgado was at the end of his playing career, Flores did not play for Mexico after 1981, neither did Mendizabal. Gomez was occasional national team player anyway. Of similarly low standing were the foreign players as well – Carlos Jara Saguiar played now and then for his native Paraguay, but he was the only foreigner coming close to a national team player. The goalkeeper Jose Miguel Marin played twice for Argentina in the almost forgotten by now 1971. His compatriots Miguel Angel Cornero and Jose Luis Ceballos never donned the Argentine jersey – and were not well known names in their home country. Cruz Azul compensated the relative lack of great individuals by well-oiled squad, which played together for a long time and new each other perfectly. Marin joined the club in 1971, Saguiar came in 1975, Cornero – in 1977, but he already was playing in Mexico for America. Ceballos was the latest arrival – he came from Chilean Everton in 1978. Loyal to the club players – that seemed to be the secret of champions. Everybody was playing for years – Ignacio Flores, for instance, played only for Cruz Azul: his career started in 1972 , ending in 1990. With a good coach, such stable and experienced team was able to achieve quite a lot – and they had good coach: Ignacio Trelles. Like his players, he worked for Cruz Azul a long time – from 1977 to 1982. The only problem with such kind of a team is the future: inevitable aging of the whole bunch. But future was not a problem yet – the present was great: one more title at hand!