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Remembering Liga MX’s unique player loan practice in the Copa Libertadores

There used to be a real lore surrounding Liga MX clubs competing in the Copa Libertadores

The last big soccer competition postponed by the COVID-19 pandemic is back September 15. The Copa Libertadores will resume in the middle of its group stage, with all of South America’s historic clubs vying for the continent’s biggest title on the 60th anniversary of the cup’s inception.

Of course, this will be the fourth-straight year in which no Mexican clubs will compete in the tournament, something that has caused unrest in a large majority of Liga MX fans.

But today, let’s not focus on what’s not with us, but what once was. Because that ‘what’ was one of the most unique concepts done in the modern game.

The photos you see in the thumbnail for this article are not photoshopped. Well, I mean, they are to make the graphic, but the images themselves are unedited. The late ‘90s and early 00’s of the Copa Libertadores had Liga MX clubs at the forefront, and since the bulk of the competition occurred in the summer, during Liga MX’s offseason, some interesting transfers would take place.

Liga MX clubs participating in the Copa, whether because of national team call-ups or just general squad strengthening, would loan star players from other Liga MX clubs just for the summer, generally 45 days or fewer, to play for them in the Libertadores.

To compete with Riquelme and Palermo’s Boca, Crespo and Sorin’s River Plate, Robinho’s Santos and Luiz Felipe Scolari’s Palmeiras, Mexican teams had to get creative, and that they did.

Club America Announces Antonio Mohamed as the New Coach
Antonio Mohamed played two games for the club he would eventually lead to a league title in 2014
Photo by Miguel Tovar/LatinContent via Getty Images

The first high-profile player to make his kind of move was current Monterrey manager Antonio Mohamed. Turco had just ended his storied tenure with Toros Neza in 1998—he left as the club’s second-highest goalscorer of all time—and joined Carlos Reinoso’s Club America side for just two games in the Libertadores. Mohamed would later sign for Monterrey as a player, more than 20 years before he would lead them as coach to a league title over Las Aguilas (another club he has managed to a title) in 2019.

Perhaps the most successful loan move made during the Libertadores era, in terms of how far the buying team went in the tournament, was Cruz Azul’s move for Toluca legend Jose Saturnino Cardozo in 2001.

Jose Cardozo of Cruz Azul celebrates his second goal against River Plate in the Copa Libertadores, May 30 2001, inside Mexico’s Estadio Azteca.
Photo by RAMON CAVALLO/AFP via Getty Images

Cardozo is a Diablo through and through, so at first you’d be shocked to see him don the sky blue kit of Cruz Azul rather than the iconic scarlet red of early 2000s Toluca. Cardozo had just scored 24 goals in 40 games the previous year for Toluca and was the hottest striker in Mexico after already helping Los Diablos Rojos to three Liga MX titles.

Cardozo joined La Maquina in the knockout rounds and scored four goals en route to the final, where they would lose out to Boca Juniors on penalties. Cruz Azul was just a few years into their title drought back in 2001, and you have to wonder how being the first—and since the only—Mexican club to win the Libertadores would have impacted their national reputation.

The year where we saw the most short-term loan moves was 2005. In that year, Chivas acquired Jose de Jesus Corona from crosstown rivals Tecos UAG as well as Oribe Peralta from Monterrey, more than a decade before he would join the club permanently on a free.

Corona came to Chivas as a necessity for their now-infamous home and away matches against Boca Juniors as Oswaldo Sanchez was on international duty and Alfredo Talavera was out with injury.

Chivas of Guadalajara’s goalkeeper Jesus
Chivas goalkeeper Jesus Corona runs for cover after becoming target of missiles thrown from the stands on June 14, 2005 after eliminating Boca Juniors in their Copa Libertadores quarterfinal match at La Bombonera in Buenos Aires.
Photo credit should read DANIEL GARCIA/AFP via Getty Images

Elsewhere, Pachuca would reinforce their ranks with three Liga MX stars: Jose Cardozo from Toluca, Rodrigo Pony Ruiz from Santos Laguna and Dario Veron from Pumas UNAM.

Cardozo was past his best here, but it was only two years before that he registered the most spectacular individual season Mexico has ever seen, scoring 59 goals in 45 games with Toluca. Ruiz was a certified midfield maestro for Santos with over a century of assists and more than 300 club appearances, while Veron was just a few seasons into a historic tenure with Pumas at center back and would go on to record more than 400 club appearances and four league titles in Mexico City.

This wouldn’t be enough to hold off Chivas, though, as Guadalajara disposed of Los Tuzos in the Round of 16 before being eliminated themselves by Atletico Paranaense in the semis.

Salvador Cabanas of Tigres of Mexico wal
Salvador Cabanas of Tigres walks after losing to Sao Paulo in the Copa Libertadores quarerfinals
Photo credit should read ALFREDO ESTRELLA/AFP via Getty Images

Tigres would also sign a star striker for a few weeks; Salvador Cabañas on loan from Chiapas. Unfortunately, the Paraguayan sensation wouldn’t register a goal for the Felinos in four games as they met their demise in the quarterfinals to eventual champions Sao Paulo.

The last time Mexican clubs would make one of these weird loan moves would come in 2007. Club America signed both Felipe Baloy and Luis Ernesto Perez from Monterrey as Las Aguilas, on the back of a now-superstar Cabañas, would make it to the quarterfinals.

After that, the practice just kind of stopped, but it remains as one of the more unique things in sports that have come out of Mexico. Imagine if Champions League clubs could sign star players on loan from the remaining of Europe’s elite. Imagine if Tom Brady and LeBron James could put their well-documented recruiting skills to work before their respective playoff runs every year.

The fact that other Liga MX clubs would agree to such short-term loans, with the threat of injuries and the parent club losing important training days for their star players, shows just how much Liga MX was united in their efforts in South America.

They respected the cup, they knew how big it was, and treated it as such. The league—or country—came together to get its name up there in the lore of the Copa Libertadores. Mexican clubs liked being the outsiders, the ones coming to crash the party, they relished in it, and the league as a whole was determined to show its strength to CONMEBOL.

They came close on three occasions—Cruz Azul in 2001, Chivas in 2010 and Tigres in 2015—but no Mexican club could ever achieve what, in footballing terms, is a harder competition to win than the Liga MX or the Concacaf Champions League.

Mexico’s return to the Libertadores is not out of the question. According to Futbol Total, Liga MX as well as MLS clubs have asked Concacaf president Victor Montagliani to look into the possibility of joining the Libertadores in 2021. Conmebol president Alejandro Dominguez has kept the “door open” for Liga MX teams to return, but nothing is definite. Either way, we’ll probably never see this practice again in world football.

It’s hard to see a league come together to help their domestic teams in an international club competition. The money, logistics, team responsibilities, and marketing just wouldn’t let this work today, but at least we can look back.

You can follow Antonio on Twitter @antonio1998__