Can Atlas FC, once the most cursed team in Liga MX, continue to win?

As with most plans that have been hatched in a bar, the reality of Atlante FC it has rarely lived up to aspirations.

Mexico’s most unfortunate soccer team was founded during the country’s revolution by three groups of brothers who came together to toast their college days. It would be 35 years before they toasted their club’s championship.

It would take twice as long for Atlas to win a second title.

“It’s part of our history,” said team president José Riestra. “We can’t keep saying, ‘Well, it’s Atlas. Sometimes we won. ‘

“One every 70 years? No. We have to change it. “

Riestra has. When Atlas FC beat Leon on penalties in the Apertura final last December, he marked the team’s first league championship since 1951. No Mexican team had gone longer between titles.

Now the club is looking for another one, opening the quarter-finals of the Liga MX Clausura playoffs on Thursday with a 2-1 win over rival Crosstown Who goes. The second leg will be played on Sunday at Estadio Jalisco, Atlas’ old home, with overall goals determining which team will advance to the semi-finals.

Winning, however, brought a whole new set of challenges for a franchise and fan base that has long been defined by defeat.

“The league has removed that black cloud, that bad atmosphere that was in all people,” said in Spanish striker Julio Furch, whose penalty kick decided the December final. “Perhaps many people are satisfied with what has been achieved. But we are not. “

One of Mexico’s oldest clubs, Atlas FC have a large and devoted following and a rich history, having produced iconic players such as Jared Borgetti, Pavel Pardo, Andrés Guardado and Rafa Márquez, who all rank in the top four of all. times in both appearances or goals with the country’s national team.

But in recent years, the franchise has lost its ambition. Its facilities were old and dilapidated, and investments in cutting-edge technology such as analytics were scarce. It wasn’t that the team was performing poorly; it wasn’t getting at all.

“They have been abandoned,” said Aníbal Fajer, the club’s new executive director, of the club’s fans, including golfer Lorena Ochoa, singer Alejandro Fernández, director Guillermo del Toro and figure skater Donovan Carrillo.

Think of Atlas FC as the Mexican version of the Boston Red Sox, another team with a rich history and loyal fan base who once viewed the drought of their title as a kind of suffering that made them more noble, for example , of the Yankees, whose fans rarely knew the disappointment.

Then the Red Sox won a World Series and became the Yankees, winning triple the championships of their New York rivals in the next 14 seasons. And like the Red Sox, Atlas saw his fortunes change with new ownership that challenged a longstanding culture of a cursed club he could never win.

Just as hedge fund manager John Henry saw potential with the underrated Red Sox, Grupo Orlegi, an innovative sports and entertainment company led by Mexican billionaire Alejandro Irarragorri, saw untapped possibilities with Atlas.

“When we decided to buy the team, we said it had a lot of potential,” said Riestra, a banker before joining Orlegi. “They have a huge fan base. They have a huge fan base in the US, I thought if you did things differently you could win. “

So Irarragorri, who bought a majority stake in Liga MX rival Santos Laguna in 2013 and won two league titles over the next five years, bought Atlas FC from Mexican television giant TV Azteca in 2019 and sent Riestra and Fajer to Jalisco to turn the team around.

The squad shares Guadalajara, one of Latin America’s largest financial and tech hubs, with Chivas, another tradition-bound club with a large fan base. Chivas have captured many of their supporters with a promise to never sign a non-Mexican player, and while that worked well in the 1950s and 1960s when the club won eight first division championships in 13 years, Chivas are fallen in difficult times since then, winning only two league titles in this century.

So even though Chivas is generally considered to be Mexico’s second most popular club, much of its fan base lives outside of Jalisco. In the city, it has long been rumored that the real Guadalajarans are rooting for Atlas FC, not Chivas.

For decades, teams shared a stadium as well as a city, but in 2010 Chivas moved into a modern 48,000-seat home, leaving Atlas FC behind in the run-down Estadio Jalisco, an iconic venue that has hosted two World Cup but opened in 1960.

Atlas FC's Diego Barbosa celebrates his team's opener against America.

Atlas FC’c Diego Barbosa, in center, celebrate his team’s opener against America during a game in Mexico City on January 22.

(Ginnette Riquelme / Associated Press)

The success of Orlegi, say its members, is based on three pillars: the infrastructure, the structure and the processes to which they are subjected. All three were missing from Atlas FC. In addition to its old stadium, which stands unannounced in the center of the working-class district of Colonia Independencia, Atlas FC trained on the grounds of an abandoned country club too small to house the first team as well as the team’s academy and women’s team.

Orlegi didn’t make a decision on what to do with the stadium, but spent $ 15 million on a vast 18-acre high-performance center in nearby Zapopan. Yet it was the people around the club who represented the biggest challenge in changing the direction of the team. Most of them had given up.

“We had to change the mentality,” Riestra said. “Nobody was taking responsibility. We said we need to change this. We have to transform the minds of the players and the staff, the people who work here and the fans. “

The problem, Fajer said, was that after decades of losing, no one believed the club could win. Never. So he took a different tact, arguing that if it wasn’t possible to win, it was at least possible not to lose.

“It came in several stages,” he said. “We started by convincing people that we can’t lose once on the pitch. Or financially we can’t lose.

“We try not to lose. And that’s what we have tried to do with culture “.

Atlas FC manager Diego Cocca instructs his players.

Atlas FC manager Diego Cocca, left, gives instructions to his players during the first leg of a Liga MX semi-final against the Pumas in Mexico City on Dec.2, 2021

(Eduardo Verdugo / Associated Press)

Not everyone believed it either.

“We had to say goodbye to people who weren’t convinced we could transform and that the team was cursed,” said Fajer.

Atlas has also made some changes in the field. Diego Cocca, a former Atlas FC player, has been brought back as manager and nine of the 16 players he used in last December’s Apertura final have all joined the squad after Orlegi took over.

One of them, defender Luis Reyes, made his professional debut with Atlas FC, then toured Mexico with six other teams before returning to Guadalajara last year. He said the difference in the club was evident.

“Before, the fight didn’t have to be relegated. Now he is looking for championships, he is trying to win the championship “, he said in Spanish.” Obviously for there to be a transformation like the one we are talking about, the change must also come from the scoreboard, from the players, from the coaches, from the fans. “

Vendors sell Atlas FC 2021 championship merchandise near Estadio Jalisco in Guadalajara, Mexico.

Vendors sell Atlas FC 2021 championship merchandise near Estadio Jalisco in Guadalajara, Mexico.

(Kevin Baxter / Los Angeles Times)

And what. And last summer Atlas FC brought that campaign to the field, stripping the floor transformation on the front of the Rossoneri jersey of the team where a sponsor’s name should have been. However, Fajer said it wasn’t until last year’s playoff run that he knew the transformation had taken hold.

“One of the people who didn’t believe we could do it, asked if we are champions, where will the celebration be,” he recalled. “I said, ‘Now you believe it. It’s not like Atlas is cursed. ‘ “

However, the knockout punch came from an unexpected source. On the eve of the final, world champion boxer and for life Canelo Alvarez, Chivas fan addressed the team in a video call.

“He said, ‘This is your chance,’” Riestra said. “’If you do this, you will forever change your life, the life of your fans, the life of all the fans. So believe it. You will make it. ‘ “

The players also walked away from that pep talk in believing. But the real test came in the playoff final, which went into extra time. If there really was a curse, this is the moment it would strike.

“There was a moment, probably the fifth or sixth minute, when the stadium was very quiet,” said Fajer. But this transformation, this belief that together we could change things, when Julio Furch was about to take the final penalty, everyone was so confident that we would become champions.

“Or was it this moment. Or never again. “

Furch’s success is commemorated on a cinder block wall across the street from Estadio Jalisco, where Atlas’ two title-winning teams joined in a mural. At the top of the mural the stadium is depicted, and below are its two stars representing the two titles, a trophy and the word “campeon, “In clear. The popular Cocca, in the middle of the cry, still one corner while the starting line-up of last December’s final still the other.

A mural depicts Atlas FC's latest league and line-up across the street from the Estadio Jalisco in Guadalajara.

A mural depicts Atlas FC’s latest league and line-up across the street from the Estadio Jalisco in Guadalajara.

(Kevin Baxter / Los Angeles Times)

Around the stadium are vendors in rickety wooden stalls doing a lively trade in Atlas campeón printed black and red scarves, hats, shirts and bracelets, some with the dates 1951-2021.

Canelo’s prediction, however, was a bit short. Though the December win transformed the franchise and altered Atlas’ expectations for this spring’s playoffs, Furch said the changes in his personal life have been relatively minor since he won the penalty.

“Now in a lot of places I go to eat, they give me a free dessert,” he said. “So I’m getting fat. I don’t know how many kilos I gained from the desserts. “