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Keep The Faith: A Dispatch from Puebla

As Club Puebla’s last league championship turns 30 years old, we talk about game day in Mexico and rooting for a losing team.

Puebla v Boca Juniors - Friendly Match Photo by Miguel Tovar/LatinContent via Getty Images

“We are completely sold out of that location, sir.”

It’s a cold evening outside of historic Estadio Cuauhtémoc in Puebla, Mexico. As fans start filling out the 50,000 seat stadium, I’m standing in line to acquire a ticket with my girlfriend, who was willing to humor my request to attend a Club Puebla game on a Friday night instead of doing, literally, anything else.

“We have every other location available, which one would you like?”

I buy two for the AT&T Grandstand. A pricier ticket than the one I wanted to get originally, but since we are already here and the online purchasing system seems to be out of order, there are not many options left. After a while and as we head into the stadium and into our seats I quickly realize I should have probably pushed the vendor a bit harder on her “sold out” claim, as no more than 10 people are sitting in the allegedly sold out location.

After realizing that I was swindled by the official ticket gate, I also find out that in the AT&T Grandstand, ironically enough, my AT&T signal is dead. The kickoff for Club Puebla vs Toluca FC is underway.

Pictured: An allegedly sold out location.

Club Puebla is not what you would call a model franchise. It’s a club that is fighting off relegation far more often than being in consideration for a championship. After bouncing from the first to the second flight in the early 2000’s, Club Puebla secured a place in the first division in 2007 and have not been relegated since. Despite this relative stability, the successes of the club in the last 13 years of uninterrupted Liga MX football are slim.

One Copa MX win in 2015 against Chivas Guadalajara - played at home in a sold-out stadium that was decidedly more friendly towards the away team than the home team - marks the only trophy obtained by La Franja this decade. The lights malfunctioned during the match causing a delay of game and by the time Mexican legend Cuauhtémoc Blanco, playing the last days of a historic career as a Club Puebla player, lifted the trophy for the “home” team, he did so in front of a half-emptied stadium.

“The whole thing was very Puebla like”

I remember my brother mentioning at the time.

Very Puebla like was right, the team lives in a perpetual middle ground. Stuck in second gear for most of the century. Not only have they failed to be successful for any sustained period, they have also managed to be weirdly unlikable while doing so, a true accomplishment if you think about it.

All of these stories about Club Puebla are true. They have rotated through six different kit makers in the last decade, including one year where they failed to secure a kit deal and had to play with their own patchwork brand called Franja Futbol, a play on their nickname of La Franja given to the team due to their uniforms featuring an iconic blue diagonal stripe . The makeshift brand immediately folded after one season. Two of the most beloved players in recent history and part of the last squad to make the Liguilla in 2015, were stopped by police after getting caught shooting at people with airsoft guns from a car. Arguably their most successful coach of the century, Jose Luis Sanchez Sola, is a well-known hothead that has had several stints with the club and had a controversy where he endorsed the sitting governor of the state. That governor was believably accused several times of corruption and child trafficking, among other numerous unsavory acts and is, to date, one of the most loathed people in the state.

If you ask a Puebla fan under 30 years old what their best memory of the club is, the answer would probably be the 2009 squad led by the aforementioned Sanchez Sola. It was a tough scrappy team, led by youngsters and journeymen that reached the semifinals and were minutes away from reaching the final, only to be eliminated by Pumas UNAM in a last-minute corner kick. Pumas would go on to win the league title that year.

Despite making the Liguilla the following tournament and seemingly having a decent chance to sustain some measure of success for the first time in the twenty-first century, the team was quickly sold off for parts. Something that has become a recurring theme for Club Puebla, as they find talented players only to immediately flip them for profit.

That would be the last time the team made back to back Liguillas.

Attendance is often very sparse. A big reason is the less than successful club, but the kickoff times don’t help matters. The team currently plays on Friday nights at 9 PM - they have also rotated with earlier kickoff times on Friday and Saturday nights - a change from their traditional and still beloved by the fans Sunday at noon kickoff. The change was due to a contractual obligation with their current broadcaster TV Azteca and their Viernes Botanero time slot, in which they broadcast Liga MX football on Friday nights. the team could have negotiated a better broadcast deal with a different company that allowed them to keep their preferred home kickoff time, but since Liga MX teams negotiate their TV deals individually, a perennially losing team has little to no chance to secure a competitive deal on their own.

The best thing you can currently say about the team is that they have an amusing social media presence. The Club Puebla Twitter handle has made more positive headlines than the team itself at times, as it has adopted a troll-y, entertaining personality that has even led to picking up petty feuds with other Mexican football handles and a decent amount of positive coverage.

In general you can tell that the marketing and social media team for the club has been working overtime to make this club appeal to their fans once more, with photo opps in popular neighborhoods of the city featuring new signings and players, as well as trying to give fans as much access to the club as possible, with a number of online videos with members of the team. Of course, there is only so much a smart marketing campaign and a funny Twitter account can do when the team is objectively bad, as they have been for the majority of the last 20 years.

“Mexicans don’t run the world, because we don’t want to”

There is no place where this memeable phrase is truer than in the burgeoning, informal economy of gameday at a Mexican stadium. Where the institutions fail, there is an enterprising Mexican ready to pick up the slack.

The parking situation in the immediacies of Estadio Cuauthemoc is a nightmare; this is a well-known fact by the Puebla faithful at large. While the club does offer some parking space in inside the stadium, it is nowhere near to being enough for a place that large, so a majority of people rely on outside parking choices, of which there are plenty, differing in levels of illegality.

One such option is to park your car at a popular nearby gas station. Week after week, this establishment decides that it is more profitable to pack their working area with cars, and charge a fee, than pump gas during game day.

You can also find a place on a nearby, side street spot, however few they might be and however exposed they are to petty area thieves that will try to score a payday by swiping tires or rear view mirrors. The choice for your correspondent and my quickly regretful companion is to park our vehicle in a nearby public “green” area, filled with incipient half dead trees and something that might once have resembled grass. The only way to access said area is by a makeshift ramp, made out of dirt and debris, constructed by the operators of the lot.

After being ushered in by a woman with a small electric lamp into our spot, I quickly realize that there are too many cars packed into the lot, making it impossible for a lot of them to leave without having to move at least another couple of cars. Since this is not a valet parking situation, I quickly infer that once the game ends, the situation will turn critical in a hurry. In an effort to stop this from happening, we park in the farthest place available in the lot. The risk of being carjacked is slightly higher, but I will be damned if I’m sandwiched between two other patrons and unable to move when the game is over.

After paying the operating staff 60 pesos - approximately 4 USD - to keep watch over the car we make our way to the stadium. Estadio Cuauthemoc is a large concrete behemoth with a multitude of entrances, yet somehow, the entrance you need is always the one on the other side of the stadium. This happens without fault every time I attend a game, which admittedly is not that often. I’m 90% convinced they switch the gates on a game to game basis, or maybe only my choice of illegal parking changes game to game, I’m undecided.

Making way between the rivers of people and the uncountable street vendors, we finally make it to our door. It’s worth talking a bit more about the street vendors, because Mexican street vendors are a different breed. You will find your typical bootleg merch, shirts, stuffed toys, flags and hats. You also get your usual stadium fare, bottled water, sodas, peanuts and assorted number of snacks that will undoubtedly not pass through the entrance gate pat down.

(More on the gate situation later)

However, you will also get everything in between, including multiple taco stands and Cemita places, a regional dish only served in Puebla. A Cemita is a sandwich like item, filled with breaded pork cutlet, queso Oaxaca, avocado, onions, aromatic herbs, fried potatoes and your choice of spice, either pickled chipotle or jalapeños all packed into a Cemita, a salt bread that has hard shell but a soft inside. It is a well-known fact that stadium Cemitas are intrinsically superior to any other Cemita, this is not because they are prepared differently or with better ingredients, but because they are prepared at the moment. This was all a big roundabout way of explaining that yes, you will find large, oil filled vats under direct fire propped up by a few bricks, on the way to the stadium, where the señoras dutifully throw piece after piece of breaded pork and sliced potatoes until they are the right crisp.

There are a few questions worth asking; Is this a fire hazard? Yes. Has anybody ever gotten hurt by these large pots of hot oil? Almost assuredly. Is this regulated? Probably not. Still, men, women, and children line closely to these stands eating the delicacy, which if you were wondering it actually is quite excellent.

You will also find small stands selling, sweet traditional bread, counterfeit watches and wallets – I recommend the 200 pesos Montblanc accessories, a steal! – pirated DVD’s, Blu-Rays and CD’s with the latest movies, and even religious artifacts. It’s unclear whether or not the candles, rosaries, and assorted figurines are sold in hope of finally seeing a winning home team or just because Mexico is a wildly religious country. Regardless, the stand does have a few patrons.

While you could waste hours outside, we need to get into the stadium, because what I lack in other aspects of being a writer I more than make up for it in faux journalistic integrity. This is where the gate pat down situation I mentioned previously happens.

American fans might be used to metal detectors, X-Ray machines and clear bag policies. Mexican fans, however, are more used to the cateo. A phrase used to describe the act of a guy who we will generously call a safety officer, patting you up and down several times trying to find any contraband. It’s a wildly intrusive and uncomfortable process that I would hope is not necessary, but probably is considering the general insecurity situation in Mexico. After being vigorously patted down, I’m instructed to turn my pockets inside out to reveal the potentially nefarious contraband I’m trying to smuggle in. Keys, a cherry Chapstick and somewhere around 20 pesos in coins are not the crown jewel they were expecting to find, but they do get me past security. My girlfriend is not as lucky, as she gets her belt and prescription medication confiscated. Because we are already technically inside the stadium, the staff won’t let us go back to the car to leave her stuff and security starts motioning for her to just leave her things near a trash can and that it will be “still there when the game ends.

This is a relatively common practice at Estadio Cuauhtémoc and as you can imagine, the things that are left there will almost assuredly not be there when the game ends.

The best part of that video is the yellow vested gentleman, either a cop or stadium staff, merrily watching by as people run off with a large amount of stolen belts. This brings me to something that is essential and worth talking about, the police role in the game day experience. The truth is that they could very easily put a stop to a lot of these practices, shut off the illegal parking lots, regulate the street vendors and ensure the safety of every person in the stadium.

The reality is that they don’t do it because there is nothing to gain for them doing so. Neither the club, nor the government that owns the stadium is going to suddenly provide the necessary amount of parking spaces, and they will not get into the bureaucratic nightmare that it would entail to regulate all the street vendors. It’s significantly easier to allow for the status quo to remain and sure, the game experience is slightly worse for everyone involved, but who cares? Officers will probably get a cut of the illegal parking fees and maybe a couple of stolen belt buckles. No harm, no foul.

Coming back to the gate though. Quickly, and like a goddamn G, a small girl who could not have been older than 10 years old interrupts the discussion and offers to keep my girlfriend’s things secured for the evening. We quickly realize she’s there with her parents who have found the need in the market for a place to safeguard your stuff from the overzealous security staff. They take her things and give us a handmade ticket with a number written down to make sure they don’t mix up her belongings. While this transaction is occurring, I openly wonder how can we trust them to still be there when the game ends. To assuage my concerns the girl’s father activates their car alarm and we notice it’s parked not 10 feet from the gate and that that’s where the belt and medicine will be when the game ends.

“I wouldn’t teach my daughter to steal”

Feeling, rightfully, like the biggest POS in the entire universe we finally made it into the building. Estadio Cuauthemoc was built in the late 60’s and despite the flashy exterior renovations done recently; it’s noticeable that this place has stood for over 50 years. The inside is cavernous with little to no amenities in the concourse and only a few booths selling beers and soda. As we make our way through this concrete monster we are suddenly stopped by jumpy stadium staff placing security fences and making a make shift fenced pathway into one of the accesses of the venue.

Toluca FC fans have a reputation for hooliganism. You can often see Toluca FC fans shirtless, lighting puffs of carmine smoke and chanting entire matches. While most of these displays are all done in good faith, there have been a number of incidents that have led to violence in past years and have garnered Toluca FC fans an unsavory notoriety across Mexico. Whether or not that is entirely deserved is a topic of discussion, but it became clear that the fences that were stopping our passing were being used to lead the visiting fans into the stadium in the safest way possible.

You might think this was a bit of overkill, and you would be right. While the preparations were done as if we were expecting thousands of Toluca faithful only about 100 fans entered through the path, most of them on their phones or chatting among one another.

Toluca FC fans in red, being outnumbered by security.

After surviving the unimaginable horrors of the visiting fans march, we finally get to our seats and get ready for kickoff. AT&T branded tarps cover large parts of the upper decks, out of use due to diminished attendance, everything that could be branded has been. The AT&T Grandstand, the Tecate Terrace and the Government’s emblem painted in the seats are some of the most notorious examples.

Branded tarps to cover some of the unused seating in the stadium. A telltale sign of a well run organization.

As the game starts we both think Club Puebla is going to lose. Myself because I grew up a fan and I expect little of them at all times, my girlfriend because she enjoys poking fun at my sports disenchantment.

Constant failure breeds apathy, and people tend to drift away. The team has averaged one of the lowest attendances in Liga MX, a rarity for a club representing the fourth largest populated metropolitan area in Mexico after Mexico City, Guadalajara, and Monterrey. Constant rumors about the team moving to other cities do little to bond the club to a city that seems to have largely lost interest.

However Puebla come out to a roaring start. Despite starting this game on the heels of losing four out of their last five games, they are clearly outplay Toluca FC and they capitalize with a goal in the last minutes of the first half by the newcomer Angel Zaldivar.

The halftime gets going and we receive more corporate overkill, this time in the form of female aides parading around the field in skintight jumpsuits brandishing flags with sponsor logos. Large inflatable bottles of soda and beer are blown up on the field and a game between fans starts on the field, in which they have to score a goal while wearing giant inflatable bubbles around them. Hijinks ensue.

A weird mix of music plays on the speakers while this goes on, it goes from Kings of Leon to reggaeton classics to the club’s anthem without any noticeable logic. By far the best thing we see is a person inside a giant clam costume waving back to kids. The clam is the mascot of a local seafood shop, you see.

The clam mascot. Truly a great moment in Liga MX history.

After halftime, La Franja continued to push forward. Much like the first half it remains a surprising development for yours truly. Although, it is actually very Puebla–like to have their best game of the season after I spent thousands of words disparaging them.

Early in the second half, captain Christian Tabó heads in a pinpoint cross by Omar Fernandez. It’s a fairly impressive play. Is this team actually good? Toluca FC builds a couple dangerous advances, but they don’t amount to much as the defense holds steady. Despite all my cynicism I’m a fan at heart, I want this team to be good. Despite years and years of evidence against it, I buy in.

“Tabó is playing great, isn’t he?”

“Nicolas Vikonis is legit one of the best keepers in the league”

“I think Osvaldo Martinez still has something left in the tank”

“The defense is goooood”

The game is over, Club Puebla wins.

As we get up from our seats and go up the stairs, we see a young kid, jumping up and down on his seat, waving a blue and white rag over his head and elatedly chanting “Puebla!” over and over again. This Puebla team is a long way from truly contending for a title, but at least for that night and for that kid, they are the best team in the world.

I might not be as full of hope as that kid, but I do make a sincere argument to my girlfriend for this team being better than I thought they were. I cover it in layers of sarcasm and jadedness, but deep inside I want to believe just as much as that young fan does.

“It’s number 75, please”

The small girl is inside her parent’s car, playing a handheld videogame device and rummaging through a not insignificant number of small Ziploc bags filled with items. We give her 15 pesos – less than 1 USD - the established fee for this particular business and go back to our car, which I’m glad to see still has all its tires and accessories. We get out via another makeshift ramp and get back home half an hour before midnight.

After that game, Puebla would go on to beat Tijuana and Atletico San Luis and snatch a tie from Tigres UANL. They sit tenth in the table - tied with five other teams at 14 points – with a shot at a potential Liguilla spot. They boasted the best defense in the tournament, and were looking like a team in the upswing.

Of course the COVID–19 pandemic has put a stop to the sports world and the world in general. With people dying every day and world economies crashing, sports fall relatively low on the priorities list.

The hope for Liga MX is to continue playing as soon as things get better, but with no end in sight, the future of Club Puebla’s season is clouded in doubt.

It would be very Puebla like for the league to be cancelled when the team had the best defense in the league, for what it’s worth.

When you root for a perennially losing team, you cannot measure your fandom in trophies and successes. You measure it in goals, in games, in moments. You measure it in beating Toluca in a cold Friday evening despite neither team being particularly good at the time, and you measure it in talking yourself that maybe they can go into the Liguilla and then who knows? Maybe this year is the year.

Fandom is dumb and pointless. Its also very real and beautiful.

At the end of the day, that’s all I want sports to be.