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Sports

Ronaldinho in Mexico: Can This Work Out for Everyone?

Once the world's most enthralling player, Ronaldinho is now playing in Liga MX for a team whose history is as enthralling as their new star.

by Leo Waldman
Sep 19 2014, 2:15pm

Photo via Wikimedia Commons

The Mexican War of Independence began in September of 1810 after a conspiracy against the Spanish Crown was discovered in the city of Querétaro. Among the conspirators: Miguel Hidalgo, Ignacio Allende, and the corregidor, or mayor, José Miguel Domínguez.

A century later, in 1917, another generation of revolutionaries drafted the Mexican constitution in Querétaro. For many years, the city was not much more than that. But recently, Querétaro has grown up: its economy has expanded rapidly—over 5.5 percent GDP growth over the last decade—and big corporations have begun to move in. There is a big mall being built, and the new international airport is already open. Recently, Querétaro also became home to another big brand name: the Brazilian soccer legend Ronaldinho.

Querétaro F.C. was founded in the 1950s and has been changing its name and going up and down in division ever since. It has never won the Mexican league, but does have a beautiful stadium, where Germany, managed by Franz Beckenbauer and featuring Lothar Matthaeus played three games in the 1986 World Cup, including one against an Uruguay team featuring Enzo Francescoli and one against a Scotland team managed by Sir Alex Ferguson. The people of Querétaro have not seen soccer of this quality for a long, long time.

Then again, few people are fortunate enough to see their soccer heroes playing live in a stadium. To watch such a talent can be transformative. It can be a once in a lifetime experience. And Ronaldinho is—or was—such a talent. A decade ago he was recognized as the best player in the world. His magic was unthinkable. He dribbled past opponents with such delight that you could only feel sorry for the defender, beaten by a joyful man with a goofy smile on his face. Ronaldinho enjoyed the game as much as he influenced it. You could believe he was changing the world, or at least changing soccer.

But in Mexican soccer, joy has been hard to find for about fifteen years. It is not common for great international talents to come to Liga MX to ride out their careers. Those players choose the MLS now, since most Mexican clubs are not exactly financial powerhouses, and the one that is renowned worldwide, Chivas, only signs Mexican players. Nor is the Mexican league a paragon of fairplay. It's not uncommon to see clubs bought, relocated, and structurally changed in order to accommodate an owner or corporation's wishes, even if such a club has been relegated.

For example, in 2013, Querétaro FC was called Jaguares de Chiapas. The name change was not a decision made by the club. What actually happened was that Gallos de Querétaro had been relegated to the second division, and so they bought Jaguares de Chiapas, and relocated them to Querétaro, filling them into the preexisting corporate structure of Gallos. Jaguares then bought Club San Luis, which relocated to Chiapas and was named Chiapas FC. And so, poor old Club San Luis, who were not even threatened by relegation, bought Gallos de Querétaro and relocated them.

But not everything was smiles in Querétaro. In early 2014, the club disclosed that they owed their players almost 3 months of salary payments. Adolfo Ríos, former national team goalkeeper and member of the board of directors of Querétaro, announced the club had been facing financial trouble and rumors began spreading that the Mexican Federation would remove them from the league. It was not until April 22 that Ríos himself announced that they had paid players their salaries for January and half of February.

Results on the pitch were not exactly going in Querétaro's favor either as they struggled to finish 13th in the league, losing the last game of the season 3-4 after being 3-0 up in the sixty-fifth minute against Pachuca at home. Pachuca rode that win into the playoffs and eventually to the final, which they lost in extra time. Not only this game, but the whole succession of events, sum up both Querétaro and the Mexican league as a whole.

The league has lost some of its magic, if it ever had any. Only the occasional sparks like the crazy América-Cruz Azul final of 2013 actually catch fire. Star players are leaving at a very young age, mostly to Europe, which is quite beneficial for the national team but not so much to the league itself. Foreign players do not often stay at one club for more than two years and real soccer heroes have essentially disappeared, so much so that Cuauhtémoc Blanco is still playing as a starter for Puebla at 41 years of age.

But fans still want to believe Mexico can be a real soccer powerhouse. And this starts with a competitive domestic league: with developing the best Mexican talent, and recruiting promising South American players back over from Europe, such as Jackson Martinez and Enner Valencia. It starts with having a league people actually want to watch, and players who are actually excited to be a part of.

Photo via Wikimedia Commons

Ronaldinho is as talented as they come, and as watchable. A strong argument could be made that had he not been having as good a time off the pitch as he was on it, he would have reached heights few players could even imagine. But the specter of untapped potential does not diminish the magic that is his skill and personality. The fun-loving Ronaldinho on the field is the same as the fun-loving Ronaldinho off the field.

He has the chance to fill stadiums across the country, and lead Liga MX down a similar path to the one MLS has followed by importing high profile superstars to bridge the gap between Europe and the Americas. In Querétaro, Ronaldinho is playing his home games at the La Corregidora, a stadium named after Josefa Ortiz de Domínguez, the wife of the corregidor José Miguel Domínguez, famous for hosting meetings of the Querétaro conspirators in her home. So what conspiracy brought Ronaldinho here?

In 2013, a man named Amado Yáñez bought two clubs: the aforementioned Jaguares, and Delfines, and moved them to Querétaro and Campeche respectively (FIFA does not actually allow the ownership of more than one club). Yáñez owned Oceanografía, a marine engineering enterprise that provided services to Mexico's national oil company Pemex. In March of 2013, Citigroup accused him of fraud, and months later he would face charges and go to trial. In the meantime, Querétaro and Campeche were borrowing money to live another day. Hence the unpaid players.

In came Olegario Vázquez Aldir, owner of Grupo Empresarial Ángeles, a conglomerate with interests in health, tourism, and media among other industries. Olegario bought Querétaro to add to his portfolio, and now the cash is beginning to flow. But as a result of all the chaos, the club that signed Ronaldinho is essentially trying to build itself from scratch.

And since the signing, they have been handling their prized superstar with care, limiting his exposure to the media, and even distributing their own suggested content to members of the press after a local politician made racist remarks about Ronaldinho. The man himself has walked the company line so far as well, saying only that he is enjoying his time in Querétaro: "I'm happy about everything here, I can only thank the fans in the streets, the hotel where I'm staying, everywhere I go for the love I receive".

Ronaldinho's first game in the Copa MX did not go exactly as planned. He missed a penalty and was discrete throughout. And fans remain somewhat skeptical. It almost feels too good to be true. Imagine receiving a lavish gift from a parent who doesn't usually give them, and who might also be insecure because of all trouble they've been having lately.

"It's very good that they're bringing in players like him because we have never had big players here, we always bought guys who were past their prime or guys who never do anything," said one fan I spoke too.

"As long as he's not here just to get paid," said another.

However, if the form wasn't there, the smile was—and in brief flashes, so was the talent.They've already started selling fake shirts, posters, and more. Even if it isn't quite revolution, in the streets of Querétaro, the people are paying attention.