Tom Marshall: Big four have mounting challenge to maintain status

The traditional big four clubs in Mexico have come up against unusually strong competition in recent years.
It’s a tendency that has been both consistent and marked: the declining popularity of Mexico’s “Big Four.”

Back in 2008, one of Chivas, America, Cruz Azul or Pumas was the first choice club for a huge 68.3 percent of soccer fans in Mexico. This year, that figure has gone down to 55.4 percent – almost 13 percent in just five years, according to Mitofsky’s annual poll on Mexican soccer.

So what has changed?

The most obvious factor is that the Big Four teams have not been lifting trophies. In the last 40 league championships in Mexico, those four teams have won the title just nine times, of which five were won by Pumas alone. Take away the university club and Chivas, America and Cruz Azul have won four titles in 40 seasons. Cruz Azul is still without a league title since 1997.

With that in mind, it is not surprising that support has dropped off, in spite of heavily biased promotion within Mexico in favor of those clubs; the most obvious example of which is the huge hype surrounding the Chivas versus America “clásico de clásicos” game.

Leading the pack to catch up with the big four has been last season’s runner-up, Toluca. The Red Devils won seven titles between 1998 and 2010 – the same amount as all the big four combined in that same period. Toluca sits on 10 titles, one behind Chivas and level with America.

Then there are the northern teams that seem to be generally much better organized than your average Mexican club.

Tigres is at the top of the league and has been challenging consistently in recent years, as has neighbor Monterrey, which has won two consecutive CONCACAF Champions League titles.

Santos Laguna has also got organized, reached four finals in the last six tournaments and looks set to remain a force in Mexican soccer.

Meanwhile, in the far northwest of Mexico, upstart Tijuana has big plans, a title already in the bag and seems intent to stay at the top of the Mexican game with its deep pockets.

Northern clubs have taken nine spots out of a possible 14 in the last playoff finals and that level of consistent success has led to a wider fanbase.

Santos Laguna won over five percent more fans between 2012 and 2013 and Xolos got an extra three percent, as did Tigres. With those figures, it’s easy to see where fans of the Big Four are heading.

Perhaps most importantly, those northern clubs mentioned are not short of a few pesos, but they aren’t the only ones.

The entrance of the world’s richest man Carlos Slim into the Mexican game via Pachuca, Leon and Estudiantes Tecos has lifted the bar even higher in terms of wealth floating around the league. The impact of Slim’s entrance into the Liga MX and Ascenso MX is still to be seen, but we can assume that he won’t be happy if his teams don’t do well. He’d likely find some spare change floating around to improve them if that was the case over a long period.

With San Luis and Puebla up for sale, it will be interesting to see what kind of investors come in and whether they become more competitive.

Those famous periods like the Campeonismo Chivas side of the late 50s and early 60s, the America of the 80s or the Cruz Azul team of the 70s are becoming more difficult to create.

America could previously prize away top quality players by simply offering more money. That is not so easy now with other teams also willing to splash massive amounts of money. Just look at Monterrey signing Colombian Dorlan Pabon for a reported 4.3 million Euros. According to Mexican press reports, he was wanted by a host of clubs in Europe and South America, but Monterrey was able to seal the deal. Money had to be a major factor.

Chivas used to be able to count on the very best Mexicans wanting to play for the Rojiblancos. Now they want to go to Europe.

To get those supporter numbers swinging back the other way, the Big Four are really up against it.

Other stats from the Mitofsky poll:

Chivas is the most popular club in Mexico with 20.4 percent of soccer fans supporting them. America is second on 16.6 percent, Cruz Azul third on 10.2 percent and Pumas fourth on 8.2 percent.

America was the most hated club at 41 percent, followed by Chivas at 15 percent and Cruz Azul on five percent.

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