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Violence, mismanaged protests, gunfights: Veracruz's problems cap off horror weekend for Mexican soccer

MEXICO CITY -- A child crying in the arms of his mother on the field of Estadio Alfonso Lastras presented an appropriate visual representation of what was a nightmare weekend for Mexican soccer.

Violence, mismanaged protests and a suspended game capped off a weekend that the Mexican federation (FMF) and Liga MX will want to move on from as quickly as possible but will need to learn from moving forward. These were events that flew in the face of the idea that the Mexican game is modernizing and on the rise globally, attracting headlines that suggested the opposite.

The protest about Veracruz's players' unpaid wages -- which stretch back six months in some cases -- and a potential strike dominated the buildup to the weekend. But even as the threatened players' strike for Friday's game against Tigres remained uncertain, news on Thursday of Dorados against Atlante being suspended in Culiacan, Sinaloa, had already made global headlines.

The match between Atletico San Luis and Queretaro had to been abandonded due to violence in the stands.

There was nothing Mexico's soccer authorities could've done about gunfights making security in Culiacan difficult, but Dorados goalkeeper Gaspar Servio's appearing to make fun of an eruption of narcos fighting in the city wasn't a good look.

As Veracruz's game against Tigres creeped up on Friday, Liga MX president Enrique Bonilla and FMF president Yon de Luisa held a news conference about the Veracruz situation. An emergency fund to pay players was announced, but only if they made official complaints. Players hadn't wanted to make such complaints previously, allegedly because some of their contracts were only verbal or with a third party.

The president of the Mexican soccer players' association (AMFproMX), Alvaro Ortiz, responded by saying that there was at last some "light," though the friction between the FMF/Liga MX and the players' association was clear.

Veracruz's players ended up traveling to the stadium -- perhaps because Bonilla said they could get relegated if they didn't take to the field -- and it appeared that the threat of a strike was hot air. But what transpired was more bizarre and made for greater reach than a strike would have achieved, though not necessarily for the right reasons.

When the referee blew his whistle, Veracruz and Tigres players remained static, not moving the ball around. It quickly became clear that this was a joint protest, but no one was sure whether it would be for a minute or two or would continue indefinitely.

In the end, Tigres' players thought it was for one minute and Veracruz's for three, according to statements from each side after the game. Tigres went on to net twice past motionless Veracruz keeper Sebastian Jurado before the opposition had begun to run. Veracruz players ended up sarcastically applauding Tigres off at the end of the game, and the northern club faced an almighty backlash for a perceived lack of solidarity.

Veracruz players, in red, stand in protest as Tigres player Eduardo Vargas dribbles the ball in a Liga MX match.
As a form of protest, Veracruz allowed Tigres to score two goals unopposed on Friday.

"We are an example, and yesterday we could've shown that football is about respect, honor," said Chivas' veteran striker Oribe Peralta, one of AMFporMX's leaders, said Saturday in Monterrey's airport. "We had the opportunity to show solidarity and empathy ... it didn't happen, and I'm not sure why."

The idea of a united front to shine light on Veracruz's issues wasn't helped by giant Club America, owned by media company Televisa and with close ties to the FMF, reportedly refusing to go through with a one-minute protest in solidarity with Veracruz's players. Indeed, star national team players such as America's Guillermo Ochoa and Europe-based duo Javier Hernandez and Andres Guardado still have not publicly backed the Veracruz protest.

Instead of a united front joining for minute-long protests in all the Liga MX games, the talking point became the disunity in confronting the problem of Veracruz.

After the game, Veracruz owner Fidel Kuri talked to ESPN and said that what the players did was "an embarrassment."

In truth, it's Kuri's Veracruz that has been an embarrassment to Liga MX for years, not the players. The 40-game run without a victory in Liga MX, unpaid wages, the lack of a doctor or changing facilities for the women's team, players' kids being kicked out of schools, not being able to afford ice bags and a host of other complaints paint a picture of near total collapse.

But this isn't recent. In January 2016, Kuri directed an aggressive outburst toward Edgardo Codesal, the technical director of the Mexican Football Federation's refereeing commission inside the team's stadium. He also appeared to threaten a journalist after a game in Puebla in September 2016.

Kuri faced widespread criticism when he suggested that the future of the team in Veracruz was at risk if his political party lost the June 5, 2016, state elections. Kuri said the club could be moved to Yucatan, Tamaulipas or Sinaloa, though his party did lose, and the club has remained in Veracruz -- at least for now.

Then there was the admission of double-contracts at the club last year and a deduction of points earlier this year because of non-payment of formation rights for Uruguayan player Matias Santos.

Fan in Queretaro shirt
Sunday's Liga MX game between Atletico San Luis and Queretaro was suspended after crowd unrest spilled onto the pitch.

All of which makes it bizarre that Liga MX allowed local politician Kuri to pay just over $6 million to stay in Liga MX last May after the team got relegated as part of a move to expand the league to 20 teams.

There's now a deep divide between Kuri and the FMF/Liga MX, as well as between the owner and the players, though it is expected that the players' association should be able to heal the wounds with FMF/Liga MX.

But as if things could've gotten worse, violence broke out between fans in the last 10 minutes of Atletico San Luis against Queretaro on Sunday evening.

It was the worst episode of violence Mexican football has seen in recent years, with running battles in the stands, bloodied bodies carried off the field and fans flooding the pitch to escape, causing the game to be suspended. It was perhaps fortunate that there weren't any deaths, given the lack of security and control of the situation.

The immediately obvious take was that this is an all-time low for Mexican football, and there were even calls for Bonilla and De Luisa to resign.

It's a quick-fire reaction. The reality is that though there are positive things going on in Mexican soccer, this weekend was a reminder that if Liga MX truly wants to compete internationally, there's still plenty that needs to be fixed.

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