The city of Tijuana occupies a special place in Mexican folklore. Situated right on the border with the USA and regarded virtually throughout its existence as one of the country’s most important northern outposts, it is home to people of many different nationalities, backgrounds and walks of life.
Over the years it has acquired a reputation for being a little bit out of the ordinary, a place with character, where passions are given free rein, without things getting totally out of control.
Yet in recent times Tijuana has been trying to combat the persistent menace of organised crime, which has become a scourge on its society. However, just as the city spirits dwindled, out of nowhere came a football club that has since provided the people of Tijuana with a beacon of hope and put a smile back on their faces.
Newcomers hit home run
Owing to the city’s northerly location, baseball has always been king in Tijuana. When they were not giving their support to local team Los Potros, Tijuana sports fans were cheering on Major League Baseball outfit San Diego Padres. Football went largely unnoticed, mostly because none of the teams to ever call the city home could reach the Mexican first division.
All that changed in 2007, when a group of local businessmen took over a franchise in the country’s second tier and founded a new club in Tijuana. The nickname they chose for their side was Los Xoloitzcuintles, in tribute to a breed of dog found only in Mexico and underlining the team’s national roots.
In the early days Los Xolos (to give them their shortened name) had to fight very hard to get themselves noticed, as Manuel Medina, the club’s then press officer, recalled: “We played in a baseball stadium to begin with, in front of 3,000 people. There was some interest in football, but not in local sides because they’d never had any success.”
He added: “The playoff matches and the start of the baseball season were huge events in the city, however. You were nothing if you weren’t involved in those.”
Nevertheless, when Los Xolos started to put some good results together, Tijuana’s demanding inhabitants began to sit up and take notice. Twelve months after flirting with promotion in 2009, the new boys achieved their promotion dream and then pursued an ambitious yet astute recruitment policy designed to make them competitive in the short- to medium-term.
While success continued to come the club’s way on the pitch, the board broadened its vision. As well as building a new, football-only stadium, they honoured Tijuana’s bi-cultural tradition by fielding a number of US-born players of Mexican descent. Where once the city’s sports fans looked north for their kicks, now it was people from San Diego who were crossing the border in numbers to see the so-called “Aztec dogs” in action.
And then last Sunday came the crowning moment everyone had been waiting for. The task facing Tijuana in their first ever Mexican championship play-off final looked to be a daunting one. There they were, the rookies, up against mighty ten-time champions Toluca, a case of David versus Goliath if ever there was one.
Reputations counted for nothing on the pitch, however. After winning the first leg 2-1 at the Estadio Caliente, Los Xolos turned in a vintage performance in the return, hitting their much-vaunted opponents twice on the break to run out worthy 4-1 winners on aggregate and clinch their first Liga MX title.
As the celebrations began, Tijuana’s Argentinian coach Antonio Mohamed spoke exclusively with FIFA.com, taking stock of what his side had achieved.
“People are thrilled to bits about this, because it means there’s something else to talk about now,” he said. “It shows that there is good news in Tijuana too, that’s it’s not just the unsafe city they say it is.”
The morning after the night before, the architects of Tijuana’s championship win climbed aboard an open-top bus for a parade of the city.
Local hero Fernando Arce, one of the stars of the Xolos line-up, told FIFA.com what the celebrations meant to him: “As a Tijuana boy born and bred, I can’t tell you how proud I feel right now. This medal doesn’t just belong to the players, it belongs to the whole of Tijuana. I feel like a champion today not just for being on the pitch but because I’m from here. Everyone from Tijuana is a champion.”
What better way to sum up a still short but intense love affair, one that has captured the hearts of the people of Tijuana?