Goal USA’s Tom Marshall hitched a ride with Atlas fans heading to Morelia for the Copa MX final as the club aimed to win its first major trophy in 45 years.
As Morelia’s hero Federico Vilar saved Lucas Ayala’s penalty to hand Monarcas the cup, grown men collapsed onto the floor crying in the Atlas section of the stadium, while objects – including a beer crate the size of a regular bath – were hurled forwards towards the security guards.
The final, which finished 3-3 after 90 minutes, was a hair-raising experience, both on and off the field.
As soon as Los Rojinegros overcame Alebrijes de Oaxaca on penalties to reach the final, plans got underway for Atlas fans to make the three-hour journey to Morelia en masse, as the relegation-threatened and trophy-starved club was presented with a rare opportunity for something positive to happen to the financially strapped institution.
After setting off on a coach with one of the club’s barra bravas around 3:30 p.m. for the 9 p.m. kick off, the omens seemed negative when news of a farmers’ blockade on the highway filtered through via social networks. For a while, it looked like the 4,000-plus Atlas fans making the journey wouldn’t get to the game, but after a delay, the farmers eventually relented, letting the Atlas coaches past. Most fans arrived at Estadio Morelos 30 minutes before the game.
That is when the problems started outside, with Atlas fans undergoing three separate and time-consuming revisions and the number of security guards carrying them out woefully insufficient. As kick off approached, tension increased, with Atlas fans desperate to get inside the stadium. It culminated in a mass surge from fans trying to get in. As word went round that Atlas fell 1-0 and then 2-0 down inside the first 15 minutes of the game, the atmosphere turned increasingly sour outside.
Temporary barriers collapsed, fights between fans started and the police waded in briefly with batons. There was a crush towards the electronically operated turnstiles that only opened when a ticket barcode was inserted. It was mayhem.
Once inside the stadium’s outer fence, fans again were forced to wait to get into the Atlas section and the more impatient instead attempted to force open gates to other areas of the stadium. Security wasn’t anywhere to be seen, with the stadium authorities seemingly ill prepared, even though it was widely known that thousands would be traveling from Guadalajara.
Security eventually relented, or were surpassed, just as Atlas won a penalty in the 39th minute and another surge ensued inside the stadium as people tried to get a decent view for Omar Bravo’s attempt.
Despite the problems getting in, the atmosphere in the stands was memorable. Fans chanted, danced and jumped in rhythm with the twists and turns of an epic game. The noise, color and intensity were reflections of the good side of the Mexican game, with Morelia’s fans also on edge and desperate to win only the club’s second-ever major trophy.
On the field, it was a real cup final under the pouring rain. Both sides went down to 10 men before halftime. Atlas pulled the score back to 2-2 before Hector Mancilla scored for Monarcas two minutes later in the 57th minute. Finally, a beautifully driven strike from Ayala handed Atlas a draw over the 90 minutes.
After the match, there were more violent scenes outside the stadium, with fights breaking out and some car windows getting smashed. There was little sign of the police.
Setting out from the stadium back to Guadalajara, a rock thrown by opposing fans smashed a window of the bus, making for a cold ride home.
It was an occasion that highlighted both the good and bad of fan culture in Mexican soccer.
On the positive side was the passion and emotion from both sets of supporters, the goal-filled game between two teams desperate to win, while on the other was poor organization, violence and a lack of order.
The experience emphasized that improving safety is another area where Mexican clubs and soccer authorities have substantial work still to do, before a real tragedy occurs.
For Atlas, it was the same old story of despair; more broken dreams for a group of fans not only accustomed to heartbreak, but that almost derive pride from the fact that the raison d'être of supporting their team is not glory.