Zac Lee Rigg: Tijuana's unique culture comes across in unprecedented win

No club has spent as little time in the top division before winning a Mexican title as Club Tijuana, the Apertura champion.
"Don't get shot" is still the traditional rejoinder when Angelinos tell friends they are visiting Tijuana. In truth, the city is much safer than a few years ago, with the cartels having all but wiped each other out in vicious gang wars. And a sign posted along the southbound I-5 informs Americans that guns are illegal in Mexico. Nearly everything else goes, though.

La Sexta (sixth street) is the place to go for tequila. The Caliente grounds host several of the other vices: a casino, a racetrack, a zoo and a soccer stadium. Estadio Caliente hosts 22,333 fans (owner Jorge Hank Rhon's lucky number is three; the club plans to add stands until capacity caps at 33,333) as well as new Mexico champion Club Tijuana.

The Xolos didn't lose at home all (half-) season. They only conceded four goals in eight Apertura matches. Tijuana rode that home form to the joint-best record in the Apertura and now, 18 months after joining the top division, a championship over 10-time winner Toluca.

In the first leg, on Thursday, the Xolos won 2-1. They followed that up with a smash-and-grab 2-0 road win in Toluca on Sunday to complete one of the most astounding sports stories on the continent.

Part of the quick success – Club Tijuana was only founded in 2006 – comes down to a disciplined outfit shorn of superstars but coached shrewdly by Antonio Mohamed, nicknamed El Turco. "Turco has carried us on his back this whole entire season," defender Greg Garza said. In 50 games in charge of Tijuana, Mohamed has lost six.

Another big reason is the turf.

After Chivas Guadalajara laid real grass in Estadio Omnilife this season, Tijuana became the only club left in Liga MX with a plastic field. In this instance the disparaging 'plastic' jibes fit. The playing field is about as authentic as a Taco Bell burrito. It feels like concrete.

Opposition complaints only served to strengthen the Xolos' resolve to keep the turf. The club plans to replace the surface this winter, but only with a newer fake pitch. Nearby on the Caliente grounds is a natural grass training field, where Club Tijuana trains ahead of away trips; the players practice in the stadium ahead of home matches.

A poor pitch doesn't guarantee wins, though. And neither does voracious support, but it helps. TJ, with its heavy tourist traffic and geographical isolation from most of Mexico (the Xolos closes road trip is over 1,000 miles away), doesn't fit in well with the rest of the country. But its unique amalgamation culture creates a distinct support.

On Thursday night, for the first leg, ladies carried trays of bloody marys (marias?) in Styrofoam cups through the crowd. Fans chucked Tecate bottles on the concourse ground. Cigarette cherries punctuated the foggy night air. Voluptuous Latinas in bright garish orange and green spandex bottoms, their tops barely coming down to the first rib, milled about.

For the halftime show, scantily-clad cheerleaders wriggled on the sideline as several fans competed in a makeshift Wipeout course across the length of the field. One by one, they lurched across large rubber exercise balls. They leaped off a springboard over a high-jump bar and onto mats. They tumbled and rolled and ran, and then they had to take a penalty.

Whenever Club Tijuana won a free kick or scored, the stadium PA played the sound effect of a dog barking. The Xoloitzcuintles de Caliente are named after the hairless dogs that skulk across Baja California. The squad is scrappy. The owner's history is as convoluted and checkered as a stray.

Jorge Hank Rhon owns the club. The former Tijuana mayor has a history littered with rumors of drug cartel links, animal smuggling and money laundering. He's still the most powerful man in TJ and owns Grupo Caliente, a betting company. His son is the president of the Xolos.

Last year, in a raid on Hank's home, Mexican military seized 88 weapons and over 9,000 rounds of ammunition. He once tried to smuggle a White Siberian Tiger across the U.S. border. In 1995, he was arrested in Mexico City when customs discovered animal skins and ivory from endangered species in his suitcase.

But right now, of all the exotic pets he owns through his zoo, Hank's favorite animal has to be the Xolo. Not even the gambling mogul would have bet on Club Tijuana winning a title this soon.

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