Saturday , August 13 2022

After a dark day for Mexican soccer, why it’s time for Liga MX to ban ultras for good

The fan violence that erupted Saturday during Queretaro‘s Liga MX match against visiting Atlas at Estadio Corregidora was one of the darkest days in Mexican soccer history. I wish this was a hyperbolic statement, but unfortunately you cannot escape the grim reality of March 5, which resulted in 26 people injured and 14 arrests, so far.

To understand what happened, we have to take a step back to look at the big picture and see the warning signs. That’s right, this has happened before, just not to this magnitude.

Queretaro’s ultras were involved in a similar situation in October 2019. It was the Clasico against San Luis in San Luis Potosi and, as the field reporter that day — I’ve watched Mexican soccer as a fan and journalist for years — I remember there were smiling supporters of all ages wearing their team’s jersey with pride. But a fan base I had grown to love took a wild turn that afternoon.

It was during the second half that the storm began to brew. A young girl passed behind me, carried on a stretcher, and my naive mind thought maybe she was having a health episode. I looked away to respect her privacy. Little did I know she was collateral damage to a fight that had already sparked.

My colleagues in the booth, in the stands above me, were asking about the girl when, all of the sudden, they said a brawl was breaking out in the stands. No big deal; I’ve been here before, or so I thought. In the blink of an eye, I saw Queretaro and San Luis fans running from one side of the stadium to the other, like an army of ants carrying different objects (or weapons). From big trash barrels to seats ripped from the stands, anything was game.

Before I knew it, my security guard was pushing me toward the locker room, which I was told was my safe place if anything happened. Meanwhile, I realized the field was completely taken over by those who were in the stands minutes before.

I was scared, sure. I never thought I’d have to evacuate a field because of violence. However, what really hit me was an image that I still have today: a father trying to calm his young daughter, who was having trouble catching her breath, crying hysterically. I offered him water as he told me this was his daughter’s first soccer game. Honestly, probably her last. Who’s going to want to return after that kind of experience?

After a few hours, the surroundings of the stadium finally calmed and I was able to get back to my colleagues in the production truck. The producer and director were viewing images from ESPN’s cameras and some were not appropriate to air.

Following this nightmare in 2019, the Liga MX said two games with no fans and a large fine was enough of a punishment for San Luis. Let me tell you: Two games did not suffice after what we witnessed this past weekend. My experience was bad, but what happened between Queretaro and Atlas this past weekend was worse, much worse.

As I watched from afar, scrolling through social media, I said to myself, “What in the world is happening in Queretaro?” I came across a video and, after 20 seconds, I had to stop watching. I recommend taking great precaution if you’re curious to see footage of the brawl and its aftermath.

What was the Liga MX’s response? The league and country’s Football Federation (FMF) announced punishments on Tuesday that included Queretaro being forced to play behind closed doors for their home games for one year and a three-year ban for the barras supporters’ groups.

Frustration, shock, disbelief: I cannot seem to stick to one reaction because I have so many questions. Questions for the pseudo fans who think violence has a place in sport. Questions for the security guard who hit an Atlas fan with his belt and for the guard who opened the gate so a sea of Queretaro ultras could get by to reach their rivals.

But my biggest and most pressing questions have to be for the Liga MX president Mikel Arriola.

The culture with the barras, or ultras, in Mexico has been an issue for decades and this latest incident was a golden opportunity for Arriola to, quite literally, make history and ban the ultras for good. Instead, he addressed the situation by calling them “animation groups” rather than barras and banned only visiting ultras from stadiums, while Queretaro’s ultras were suspended from all grounds for three years.

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It’s like trying to stop a leak with duct tape. It’ll hold for now, but eventually the drops will turn into a flood. What Mexico needs to do is ban ultras completely from its soccer culture. Period.

What’s hard to understand is why these ultras are so protected, specifically by the Liga MX. What is Arriola afraid of? If then-Chivas club owner Jorge Vergara could call to end the barras years ago, why can’t the league’s president do the same today?

Speaking of Chivas, one of the most important clubs in the Mexican league announced that, from Saturday, the 10th matchday of the season, they will not allow the participation of ultras.

The game is Chivas’ most important of the season against Club America, their top rival, but the club has invited its fans to wear a neutral color — preferably white — to make it a “colorless Clasico.” Additionally, the vacant space where the ultras usually sit will be occupied by children.

Now that’s what I’m talking about, Guadalajara!

Meanwhile, the reality for Queretaro is that their existence was at stake, with disaffiliation put on the table to set a precedent for other clubs. They remain in competition in the Mexican league, though Queretaro’s ownership group (Gabriel Solares, Adolfo Ríos, Greg Taylor and Manuel Velarde) will also be banned from league-related activities for five years and the club will be returned to previous owners Grupo Caliente, which owns fellow Liga MX club Tijuana. Queretaro’s current ownership will also be fined 1.5 million pesos ($70,450).

As for the protagonists in Saturday’s fight, it took almost 36 hours for local authorities to put out 15 warrants for arrest; they had 10 in custody by Tuesday. Which brings me to something else the Mexican league can do: bring in fan IDs.

We saw this for the men’s World Cup in 2018. Every fan was accounted for even before they entered a stadium and FIFA used identification technology to identify anyone fan acting out of place to immediately ban them from any other match. Doesn’t that sound like a viable option for the Mexican league after Saturday’s events?

It is true that this level of intrusiveness / surveillance is not widely accepted in modern life, but events dictate that change is necessary. Indeed, Atlas has already taken the first steps to apply this to their home fans in the Estadio Jalisco and Monterrey has had individual credentials since inaugurating its new home in 2015.

I know that making these suggestions while writing from the comfort of my desk is easy and it takes a great deal of action to help this situation, but it also takes the right leaders. I hope the regrettable actions in Queretaro spark a wave of lasting change in the Liga MX.

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