Liga MX and Mexican football worse off for 2017 Copa Libertadores exclusion
It's easy to play the blame game when it comes to the recent news that Mexican teams won't be participating in the 2017 edition of the Copa Libertadores.
Was CONMEBOL's handling of the situation correct? Probably not if the South American organization didn't actually even bother to consult with the Mexican clubs before announcing the February to November schedule, as Liga MX president Enrique Bonilla suggested on Friday.
Could the Liga MX have done more? Not without changing the whole structure of the Mexican game. And that isn't suddenly going to happen overnight.
Sure, Mexico's participation has always been as an invitee to the Libertadores fiesta, but it is an economic powerhouse in the Americas. And while the reputation of the competition itself won't be affected very much -- no Mexican side has won it in 19 years of participation -- it is a significant blow for the Mexican game and perhaps commercially for the Libertadores.
Chivas and Club Tijuana would've been the two qualifiers for the 2017 edition, as well as most likely Club America. It could've been a bumper year for Mexican clubs, including North America's two biggest clubs with fans all over Mexico and the United States. The interest would've been huge.
Mexican teams had used the competition as a benchmark. The Libertadores represents a true gauge of quality, something the CONCACAF Champions League simply can't and doesn't at the moment. The fact that Mexican clubs have won each of the last 11 editions of the CCL and made up 19 of the 22 finalists in that time paints a picture of absolute dominance. Can you imagine if teams from Spain won every the UEFA Champions League for 11 consecutive years? The legitimacy and interest surrounding the tournament would certainly take a hit.
Starved of the only international club competition that offered a real test against players, managers and atmospheres of genuine quality, the Liga MX has lost out. And it is even more of a shame because in the last couple of years there has been a growing rivalry between the Mexican clubs to become the first team from the country to win the competition.
Cruz Azul, Chivas and Tigres have all come close and finished as runners-up. With the financial power of Liga MX clubs to pluck talent from South America and even Europe to fill one of the 10 foreigner spots allowed in each match-day squad, a Mexican victory in the tournament was becoming an ever-increasing possibility. The 10/8 foreigner rule in the Liga MX may not be good for young Mexican talent, but is has been for the quality of the league.
To replace the Libertadores, Bonilla highlighted the relations the Liga MX has with MLS and even the Bundesliga and Premier League. But the Libertadores is irreplaceable for the sense of history, the level of competition and the sheer passion it generates. A tournament between MLS and Liga MX team could be an option, but it would be an extremely poor one in comparison. And then there is already the CCL, a tournament that has so-far failed to live up to its potential.
The path back to the Libertadores for Mexican teams is also difficult. Unless CONMEBOL suddenly sees that the schedule for 2017 doesn't work, the obstacles that seemed insurmountable this year won't be going anywhere next year. Bonilla was asked whether Mexico could change the league format to one that complimented the Libertadores, but the Liga MX president said studies showed fans in Mexico like the two seasons per year schedule as it is. Yet the option to change the format remains. What will be the future of the CCL? And the Copa MX? Could the Liga MX format be altered?
Something big would have to give, but it was hard not to sympathize with Bonilla on Friday. Logistically, the Liga MX was put in a difficult position. But wherever you lay the blame, the bottom line is that Mexican football is worse off as a whole for not competing in the Libertadores.
Tom Marshall covers Liga MX and the Mexican national team for ESPN FC. Twitter: @MexicoWorldCup.