Estudiantes lost its name and identity and now, after three years of floundering, its top division status. In his first Goal.com column, Brent Latham says there's no tragedy here.
Tune into to any Mexican soccer show this week and you’re sure to catch the obligatory segment on the supposedly tragic relegation of Estudiantes. A self-styled, proud club that’s been part of the premier division for an impressive 37 years straight, it’s easy to find pundits and historians of the game ready to lament the loss of one of the league’s pillars.
But the truth is, this turn of events doesn’t include the suddenness needed to define a tragedy. Relegation for Estudiantes is the consequence of a long, flagging decline for a club that had plenty of chances along the way to fix its errors, but never stayed any one course long enough to stave off the perpetual threat of second tier soccer.
Relegation in Mexico doesn’t come easy, particularly for an established club. It’s no coincidence in the land of the “pacto de caballeros” that the deck is stacked against newly promoted teams.
In Mexico, relegation is a function of performance over a much longer time-frame than elsewhere. Rather than sending down the campaign’s last-place team, an average is taken of points won from each match over a rolling period of three seasons.
That means it usually takes much more than one bad year to get a team relegated. Instead, teams that have been in the league for the last three years have to be pretty bad over an extended period to find themselves in the second flight. The challenge is much steeper for newly ascended teams, whose average is calculated over just the first year (or first two, where applicable), meaning a team new to Mexico’s highest division can’t afford any time for adjustment to the new level.
All that helps explain why so many newly promoted teams go right back down, while some established teams stick around for years despite mediocrity. In fact, of the last six teams to drop down, four had been promoted either at the beginning of that same season or the year before.
Relegation for a more established club like UAG is just punishment for years of ineptitude, whether the club had a long history in the league or not. But regarding Estudiantes, it’s probably a little unfair to label its long stay in the league as anything much more positive than just that -- simply long.
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Over the decades, UAG came to be known as a tough team with a small budget and limited following that sometimes over-performed on the field. Guadalajara’s third or even fourth (until the demise of rival University of Guadalajara) most supported club, the feisty group waged a few notable campaigns, highlighted by an undefeated regular season in 1980-81 and a well-fought championship in 1984.
But more recently, the club once known as Tecos has come to represent the definition of mediocre, as it began to flirt annually with the specter of relegation. The results became less regular, and while the club at least prided itself on never finishing dead last in the table, a pair of recent second-to-last finishes put Estudiantes in dire straights. By the time newly ascended Tijuana, which had been UAG’s top rival in the relegation battle, re-armed for a stellar Clausura 2012, the writing was on the wall.
But with the relegation table three-years in the making, the strings of failure in Guadalajara can be traced back at least that far. Constant coaching changes, unwise investment in foreigners who never panned out and a lack of focus on youth development sewed the seeds for a disorganized group that never had the consistency to pull away from the drop zone as things got more desperate.
Tellingly, the three-year period in which Estudiantes earned relegation also coincided with a gradual move away from the previously well-defined identity of the club. A much-ballyhooed “rebranding” process left many unsure what to call the team long known as Tecos, and a rumored move to Acapulco threatened to undue permanently any traditional links to Guadalajara, UAG, and the local community.
Relegation for Tecos -- to use the moniker by which the franchise is still remembered by most -- is the result of a three-year process defined by poor performance and bad decisions both on and off the field. Relegation now comes as neither a surprise nor a tragedy. The only tragedy here, if there is one to be found, is the manner in which as it went down -- a historic Mexican club turning its back on its own identity.