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Mexican Primera 2011-2012: Welcome To Tijuana

Can Xolos' on field performances distract from the controversy surrounding the team?
Can Xolos' on field performances distract from the controversy surrounding the team?

It's a shady sounding tale - a family's gambling empire financing an ambitious profesional soccer team, its controversial patriarch arrested on weapons charges. Heck, if that wasn't enough, there's even a nod to us 21st century writers and bloggers in the form of a Twitter account gone rogue. However, it's not so much fiction from the imagination of a bored soccer fan as it is a snippet of some of the headlines made by Tijuana's first ever top flight soccer team.

Ever since beating Irapuato to earn promotion into the Mexican first division, Xoloitzcuintles de Tijuana (just Xolos will do) have left no shortage of drama in the wake of their fairytale promotion campaign. It all starts with the vast wealth of the eccentric former Tijuana mayor Jorge Hank Rhon and branches into arenas of politics and football in Mexico, two of the country's most dramatic and often times controversial pastimes.

As FMF State Of Mind's own Eben Lehman details in his excellent piece on the history and background of this young club, after Hank failed in his attempt to run for governor of Baja California, he took an interest in his city's soccer team. Founded in 2007 after the city's previous team, Dorados de Tijuana, was relegated to the third division, Hank acquired another Mexican team in the second division, moved them to Tijuana and announced a 33,333 capacity stadium on the grounds of the old Agua Caliente horse racing track, which had been a part of the family for decades.

While there was little horse racing to be found in recent years at Agua Caliente, there was no shortage of gambling, giving us the first inkling of why the Hank family's ownership of the team might stir controversy in some sectors. Jorge Hank Rhon, after all, is one of the wealthiest men in Mexico, and made his money in the sports betting and casino industry as head of Mexico's largest casino and sportsbook company, Grupo Caliente. Naturally, having the man who owns one of the biggest sports betting operation in Mexico also own a top-flight soccer team is going to raise a whole lot of questions about a conflict of interest.

If that weren't enough, Hank has also been linked with the 1988 murder of a Tijuana journalist who portrayed him in a negative light, as well as money laundering and drug trafficking. While the U.S. Attorney General's office has rejected these links, many in Mexico are still looking for answers in the slaying of the journalist as well as to why Hank has seemingly slipped by untouched by the authorities despite a seemingly clouded past.

This all changed just a few days ago, on June 4th, as Hank was arrested by Mexican military after they found 88 guns and thousands of rounds of ammunition, normally military grade, in his compound, with the AP also indicating the possible existence of charges dealing with Hank's alleged involvement with organized crime. It later emerged that two of the weapons found had been used in two separate murders in Baja California, and while Hank is yet to appear in front of a judge (and may never), the seemingly large amount of evidence and contradicting alibis issued by Hank, his wife and his lawyer mean that there will be some serious questions about the future of Hank and his multitude of business interests.

One of the interests that has sports fans most riveted is the fate of Xolos. However, for the time being, Xolos seem to be free of links to Jorge Hank Rhon thanks to the fact that his son, the 24-year-old Jorge Alberto Hank has controlled and ran the team for most of its existence. While nothing has been proven yet about how close the father and son collaborate when it comes to running of the team, the massive amounts of money being dropped on players after promotion seems to indicate that even if Hank Rhon is not actively controlling the team, his money is certainly playing a big part in Jorge Alberto's ambitious project to qualify Xolos for the playoffs in their first top flight season.

The biggest splash has been made by the signing of Colombian international Dayro Moreno, one of the hottest forwards in South America after an excellent showing with Once Caldas in the Colombian domestic league and Copa Libertadores. Moreno looked set to join Portuguese giants Sporting Lisbon, but at the last minute opted for a US$3.5 million move to Tijuana that paid more than the 600,000 annual salary offered by Sporting. It should be noted that even with the money involved in Mexican football, it is an extravagant sum for Jorge Alberto Hank didn't stop there.

The club has been heavily linked to River Plate's bruising forward, Mariano Pavone, and while he is still with the Argentine giants, Tijuana is still rumored to be in negotiations with the player, and it wouldn't be surprising to see him move at the conclusion of the Argentine Clausura. In the annual draft, which took place last week, Xolos acquired, among others, two more big name players, veteran Pumas midfielder Leandro Augusto, a Brazilian-born former Mexican international, and Santos Laguna attacking midfielder Fernando Arce.

Longtime Tigres goalkeeper Cirilio Saucedo will shore up things in the back, while proven first division players like attacking midfielder Ismael Íñiguez (from Santos Laguna), forward Noé Maya (from San Luis) and defender Juan Pablo Santiago (from Santos Laguna), will ensure Xolos improve throughout all positions. Finally, the team re-signed two of the key components of their promotion campaign, team captain Marcelo Gandolfi and young San Diego native Joe Corona, who grabbed a goal and assist in the promotion playoff. Under the guidance of the well-respected former Mexico international Joaquín Del Olmo it looks to be a team that should have no problem staying in the Mexican top flight.

If that weren't enough, what appeared to be Xolos' official Twitter account (@Xolos), tweeted earlier in the week that the team was also in negotiations for Tigres' Chilean international forward Héctor Mancilla, Mexico international left back Carlos Salcido, rumored to be on his way out of Fulham, and Peñarol's Uruguayan international midfielder Egidio Arevalo. Given that the club had already splashed the cash on Moreno and was looking close to Pavone, it didn't seem all too far-fetched that names of that caliber would be on their way to Tijuana, but it ended up that the Twitter account, was not officially run by Xolos. An account that had been inactive since Tijuana's promotion campaign, @XolosOficial, claimed to be Xolos' official account, and the tweets on their match up to the transfer deals being reported by the media.

While the confusion threw plenty of fans and media members for a loop, it seems to be just another of the many bizarre tales coming out of Tijuana in the past few weeks. While the FMF has ensured Xolos will still be playing top flight soccer in the 2011-2012 season despite the controversy surrounding Jorge Hank Rhon, it has been just weeks since Xolos achieved their promotion, so you can expect plenty more tales of interest to emerge from the far northwest reaches of Mexico in the coming year. After all, the controversy surrounding the team plays right into Tijuana's notorious (if somewhat unmerited) reputation, and that will make for plenty of intriguing narratives in the already wild world of Mexican soccer.