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 By Tom Marshall

Santos president Irarragorri gives Liga MX perspective on 2026 bid, MLS ties

These are exciting and tumultuous times for Mexican football and the CONCACAF region. The 2026 World Cup bid was announced on Monday -- to a mixed reception in Mexico -- and Liga MX has undergone some radical changes in recent years.

To get an inside perspective on what is happening in the Mexican game, ESPN FC caught up with perhaps Liga MX's most progressive club owner, Santos Laguna president Alejandro Irarragorri.

In the following conversation, carried out in English and edited for clarity, 45-year-old Irarragorri discusses the 2026 World Cup bid, the future of Liga MX, the growth of the MLS-Liga MX relationship and more.

ESPN FC: What are your initial thoughts about the 2026 World Cup bid?

Alejandro Irarragorri: It is great news. I think it is sending a very important message, not only in sports, but also socially and economically. Value can be created when three countries work together ... This makes a powerful [bid] that has a great chance of being awarded the 2026 World Cup.

ESPN FC: Is Mexico ready to host again?

AI: A lot has been said about the chaos that was created in Brazil when they had the Olympic Games and the World Cup because infrastructure was created artificially for the event, whereas our infrastructure has been growing to very high standards based on real fan needs and real teams that are making those investments, rather than governments ... It is a great opportunity to look ahead for more value creation between the three countries.

ESPN FC: Do you think Santos Laguna's Estadio Corona in Torreon would be in the running to host a game, given Mexico would currently only be set for 10 of the 80 matches?

AI: I happened to be in London at Leaders [Sport Business Summit] when the U.S. federation announced their interest to go for the 2026 World Cup. At the time, I was actually with [Mexican Football Federation president] Decio de Maria, who put up his hand and said to the U.S.: "We should do this together."

The first reaction was very negative from the U.S. Since then, a lot of work has been done ... Along the road I think Mexico can end up adding a lot of value and that can possibly change [from 10 games]. I'm not saying it will, but I'm saying I'm sure that both Canada, the U.S. and, of course, Mexico should be looking to make this in a way that creates more value for everyone.

Santos originally planned to grow Estadio Corona's capacity from 30,000 to 40,000 in case Mexico hosted a World Cup.

Now, 10 games as opposed to no games is already an accomplishment. Of course, we dream about hosting a World Cup [game] ... We're prepared. We're investing $1.2 billion pesos (almost $64 million USD) this year into adding the commercial area and the hotel to our stadium.

The project from the very beginning with our architects HKS Inc. (who built AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas) was planned in case a World Cup came to grow the capacity from 30,000 to 40,000, so we're going to work diligently towards that.

ESPN FC: Given the current political climate, do you think the fact that the World Cup bid is being shared by three countries sends a message?

AI: Yes. Football is the most important of the least important things. It represents quite a lot of the essence of people and countries and I think that we have many differences between Canada, the U.S. and Mexico. If we handle those differences the right way that creates value. We also have a lot of things in common and I think that football is taking that positivity and showing the world we are much better off working together than working separately.

ESPN FC: Can and should Santos Laguna and other Liga MX clubs increase links with MLS with the impulse the 2026 World Cup bid creates?

AI: I have an ongoing relationship with MLS owners, sharing a lot of information, experiences, best practices, looking for projects together. I'm also in contact with MLS commissioner [Don Garber]. I believe that MLS and Liga Bancomer MX have a lot to do together ... I think what happened with the Libertadores is giving us an opportunity to look north, rather than south.

I believe that this league that is being worked out between our president [Enrique] Bonilla and MLS commissioner Don Garber has a lot to create in value and to grow through the years ... There are more than 2,000 miles of border between our two countries and the friendships we've built up over the years. Football can be a reason to grow [mutually] and actually compete against the major leagues both in South America, Europe and Asia, where the sport is also growing at a very high speed.

Santos is one of few Liga MX clubs that places an emphasis on English-language outreach to fans in the U.S. and Mexico.

ESPN FC: We published a story last week with the thesis that while MLS is clearly improving, so is Liga MX, in large part due to investment in youth programs and the changing 10/8 rule. Do you agree?

AI: You couldn't have put it better. There has been a lot of investment. There has been change in the system and the way we manage the teams ... A lot has taken place at this point, but there is much more to come in the way we restructure our business. The Mexican league and federation have gone through a 13-year process now of development and change, an evolution. And there is more to come. So yeah, MLS has grown a lot ... But we're not sat folding our arms waiting for them to become better, we're also making progress and trying to become as competitive as we can.

ESPN FC: If you could change one thing in Liga MX, what would it be?

AI: It's a difficult one. I have a lot of ideas ... [I'd say] relegation from the different leagues down and how much value it is actually creating ... Today, the Mexican team that gets relegated suffers immensely. It's basically left alone to deal with its own problems. I think that not only creates problems for the owners of that particular team, but I believe it affects our industry quite a lot ... In a way we are acting like South America, in another we are pretending to be Europe or the U.S. sports industry and there is no worse place to be than in the middle. Either you decide to go one way or the other. It is something that philosophically we need to understand and discuss much better.

ESPN FC: Changing the relegation structure sounds big. Do you think there is realistically the potential for such radical changes?

AI: Of course. I think there is the will. Again, I'm not judging what is the best way to go. I'm just saying we need to decide who we are, where to go and how to go. Those conversations are on the table and there are many opinions from different groups. At the end of the day there is one thing that unites us, which is that we all want the best for Mexican football. It has to grow not only at Liga MX level, but it also has to go down to Ascenso and the second division and third division to create better structures to develop our players in a better way ... It takes time and patience, but I also believe we have the right management both in the federation and in the league to take the lead and organize us.

Tom Marshall covers Liga MX and the Mexican national team for ESPN FC. Twitter: @MexicoWorldCup.


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