clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Atlas’ historic win almost didn’t happen

A feel-good story about Mexican soccer almost didn’t happen at all.

Atlas fans celebrate the victory during the final second leg match between Atlas and Leon as part of the Torneo Grita Mexico A21 Liga MX at Jalisco Stadium on December 9, 2021 in Guadalajara, Mexico. Photo by Alfredo Moya/Jam Media/Getty Images

When Edgar Zaldívar’s header from point-blank range missed in the 80th minute, it felt like history was repeating itself. It seemed like Atlas was going to come close once again, just like they did in 1999 when they could have ended what was at that point only a 48 year drought only to have a bad miss lead to penalties. And in penalties, Julio Estrada’s miss from the spot in that 1999 Final against Toluca was fresh on the minds of Atlas fans as Julio Furch stepped up to take what could be the shot that ended 70 years of misery.

It’s easy to forget history, especially when so much of it has been bad. It’s not entirely fair to say Atlas hasn’t won anything in 70 years. They won two Copa MX titles in the 1960’s a Campeon de Cempeones in 1962, and the Segunda División three times, in 1954-55, in 1971-72, and again in 1978-79. But for those it also meant suffering relegation to the Segunda División in the seasons preceding the title wins.

It was a history that was almost certain to repeat itself just a few short seasons ago. When Grupo Orlegi purchased Atlas in May of 2019, Atlas was in severe jeopardy of being relegated to the Ascenso MX. While mostly survivable in the 1970’s, since 2000 the only Puebla, Necaxa, and León have survive relegation completely unscathed. Querétaro survived the drop in 2006-07 but had to buy out Chiapas in 2012-13 to stay up. Veracruz also survived in 2007-08, but their return was marred by mismanagement and corruption by owner Fidel Kuri, leading them to be disaffiliated in 2019. Atlante, Dorados de Sinaloa, and Leones Negros have all been remained in the Ascenso, while Tecos, Indios, Lobos BUAP, and Jaguares all folded upon going down, being replaced by phoenix clubs.

History is always being written, and of course there will always be things lost to the memory hole. But how much poorer would Liga MX be without Atlas’ win? Contemporary soccer journalists who often look past Liga MX or see it as a rival to be vanquished were in awe of the crowd at Estadio Jalisco, singing in unison to cheer on their team, seamlessly switching to the Mexican National Anthem, and then singing “Volver, Volver” in remembrance of ranchero icon Vicente Fernández, who had passed away earlier in the day.

Alejandro Irarragorri, president of Grupo Orlegi celebrates with a fan after winning the final second leg match between Atlas and Leon as part of the Torneo Grita Mexico A21 Liga MX at Jalisco Stadium on December 12, 2021 in Guadalajara, Mexico.
Prior to being bought by Grupo Orlegi in 2019 Atlas was perilously close to being relegated, a death sentence for most modern clubs.
Photo by Hector Vivas/Getty Images

According to a Univision spokesperson, the match was the most watched club soccer match in the United States since the 2021 Clausura Final between Cruz Azul and Santos, with an average of 2.4 million total viewers watching. Atlas’ win also has garnered international attention beyond the US, with outlets from Germany, Perú, France, Poland, Argentina, and Italy among others talking about the club exorcising its demons and painting the league and Mexican soccer in a positive light. This stands in stark contrast to the usual stories about el grito homofóbico, fan violence, and the mistreatment of Liga MX Femenil players.

It should also be lost on absolutely no one that Atlas Femenil has become one of the better teams in the league, making the Liguilla every season they’ve had the playoffs since the 2018 Apertura and only losing in the 2021 Apertura semifinals by being the lower seed. Had the men’s team been relegated, Atlas Femenil would also likely have been wound down, with players like Adriana “Boyi” Iturbide, Fabiola Ibarra, Joana Robles, and IFFHS U20 Best XI player Alison González all being forced to scramble to sign elsewhere. When Veracruz and Lobos BUAP’s varonil clubs were relegated, it was rather easy to dismiss the dissolution of the Femenil programs because of their limited amounts of success, but the loss of a program like Atlas Femenil would be a stain on Mexican soccer as a whole after making significant improvements in both the men’s and women’s spaces over the past decades.

When Furch’s shot touched twine, it signified the end of a an era for Atlas. The 47,548 fans in attendance all cried out in unison, perhaps at last knowing that their beloved club was safe, at least for now.