Mexican refs' strike sends message that extends way beyond officiating
If complaints by Liga MX referees about their treatment by players and authorities were being swatted away without too much concern, the officials certainly have people's attention now. Their sudden strike caused week 10 of matches in the 2017 Clausura to be suspended on Friday.
When the news of a possible strike filtered through on Thursday, it didn't appear to be overly serious. And the fact both the Veracruz and Puebla squads arrived Friday evening at Estadio Luis "Pirata" Fuente for the opening game of the weekend to find the match officials there seemed to indicate that the game was more likely to go ahead than not.
But what was happening behind the scenes was a game of brinksmanship between Liga MX and Mexican federation (FMF) authorities on one side and the referees' association on the other. When everyone expected the referees' association to give in, it held firm and forced Liga MX's hand.
The primary complaint from the referees appears to be Liga MX's perceived inaction following a turbulent midweek of cup games. First, there was Toluca's match against Morelia, in which Miguel Flores sent three players off, including Enrique Triverio for pushing him in the chest. After the game, which Morelia won on penalties, Mexico and Toluca goalkeeper Alfredo Talavera -- who also saw red -- slammed the officiating.
"The refereeing is going from bad to worse. That man is crazy," the usually measured Talavera said of Flores.
Just a couple of hours later in Club Tijuana's fiercely fought Copa MX round-of-16 win against Club America, there were more ugly scenes involving the officials. Las Aguilas defender Pablo Aguilar was livid on the final whistle and charged up to referee Fernando Hernandez, pushing his head toward him and making contact.
In the tunnel, America sporting director Ricardo Pelaez had some stern words for Hernandez, but the America chief flatly denied reports he had threatened the ref and even said he would resign if someone could provide evidence to the contrary.
The referees' association, however, sent out a statement of solidarity with Flores and Hernandez on Thursday and then backed it up early Friday suggesting they wanted an "exemplary sanction" for the incidents, which they would argue put their referees' safety at risk.
In what appeared to be a direct response and last-gasp attempt to calm the issue and get play going this weekend, Liga MX and the FMF called a news conference a couple of hours ahead of the time when the Veracruz and Puebla match was due to kick off on Friday.
All of a sudden, it appeared the "exemplary" sanctions had arrived. Triverio received an eight-match ban and Aguilar was slapped with 10 matches, while Pelaez has to pay a fine of just north of US $7,500. They were significant rulings and may not have been so severe but for the prevalent atmosphere at the moment in Liga MX.
"If each side puts up a trench, nothing gets built," FMF president Decio de Maria said in an attempt to reach out to the referees' association.
Yet it wasn't enough for the defiant referees, who announced the strike shortly after. The move has been polemic, drawing praise from many quarters for its unity in standing up to Mexico's soccer authorities. "United for the common good" is the association's slogan and only a few weeks ago it was demanding higher pay for the officials.
The strike is a powerful message that extends way beyond Liga MX's officiating. In a league in which freedom of contract doesn't fully exist, players are sometimes traded without their consent and institutions have bought their way back after being relegated, the referees' strike is a reminder of the influence a unified, independent and organized body can have.
The strike comes at a time when Atlas captain and Mexico legend Rafa Marquez is laying the groundwork for an independent players' union to help end the issues outlined above, as well as others. If the referees can come together, imagine the threat Marquez's union could pose to Mexican soccer's status quo?
The strike is also a hammer-blow to the league's image at a time when president Enrique Bonilla has stated the idea is to internationalize Liga MX outside Latin America and talks continue about a MLS/Liga MX cup competition later this year.
Mexican football isn't new to scandals and the sooner a solution is found the better -- although, with the referees clearly in no mood to buckle lightly, that may be easier said than done.
Tom Marshall covers Liga MX and the Mexican national team for ESPN FC. Twitter: @MexicoWorldCup.