There´s a pizzeria on one of the main roads out of Guadalajara with a permanent special offer.
“Free pizza…,” reads the sign outside, “… the day Atlas is crowned champion.”
Who knows how long the offer has stood, but it certainly started sometime after 1951, the last time the Guadalajara team – which will celebrate its centenary in 2016 and is one of the founders of the Mexican league - won the first division title.
It isn´t the only example of local humor alluding to Atlas´ long drought.
“I´m an Atlas fans, even when they win,” is a refrain that you often hear from Atlas fans themselves, while fans of rival Guadalajara team Chivas fans get kicks from a widely sold poster depicting the 1951 championship-winning team as cavemen. Even the name by which Atlas fans are known – La Fiel (The Faithful) –hints at an almost religious zeal for glory in spite of improbable odds.
The remarkable success of the team´s youth system over the years is a major source of pride and the standout feature of the club, but it is also like rubbing salt in an open wound when the teams on offer at the Estadio Jalisco over the years have not exactly been inspiring.
Rafael Marquez, Pavel Pardo, Jared Borgetti, Oswaldo Sanchez and Andres Guardado have all graduated, gone on to great careers and are amongst the very best players Mexico has produced over the last 20 years. They all talk with pride about coming from the Atlas youth system, as well as their sadness about the club´s current plight.
Then there is the crop of players like Hugo Ayala, Jorge Torres Nilo, Cesar Ibañez, Darvin Chavez, Nestor Vidrio and Jesus Corona, who have left over the last few years to establish themselves at top title-challenging teams in Mexico.
The Atlas fan thinks: What if they hadn´t been sold? Why were they sold? Why couldn´t we hold on to them for a year or two longer?
Many blame the directors and sometimes overstep the mark in criticism, but still turn up to the Estadio Jalisco. While Chivas – one of Mexico´s two best supported clubs – has seen attendances dwindle recently, the average attendance for Atlas home games last season was 34,000, according to Cancha. The team returned that support with just four goals in eight home and eight goals in total over the 17 games of the season. La Fiel indeed.
Organizational problems center on the fact that there are 124 owners. While the combined wealth of the 124 is astronomical, prying that wealth out of their pockets and into the club has proved a major stumbling block. Organizing transfer strategy, choosing personnel and even getting money together to pay the players´ wages – a regular source of discontent at the Zorros – is problematic with so many individuals. Many fans simply want a new owner and a fresh start.
But while fundamental problems remain, there has been a couple of signs recently that things may be starting to shift in the right direction.
The first was major investment over the summer. Responding to the fact the club scored very few goals, experienced forwards Matias Vuoso, Hector Mancilla, Luis Bolaños and Alonso Sandoval were bought at huge expense.
However, Bolaños and Sandoval failed to return on time from an away game in Cancún on Aug. 28, with the strong suspicion they´d paid a visit to one or two of the many nightclubs in the resort town. It suggested there was a real lack of discipline within the dressing room. Coach Juan Carlos Chavez left the club that same week and in stepped disciplinarian Tomás Boy. His attacking style and willingness to turn to younger players like Ricardo Bocanegra and Jahir Barraza was a real boost as Atlas drew 1-1 at Monterrey before the international break.
In one of his first press conferences, Boy seemed to attempt to lift the doom that seems to surround Atlas. He came out and said he has a team that can challenge for the title and that is his objective. Period.
It was back to set last Saturday though as the Rojinegros drew 0-0 in the Estadio Jalisco against relegation rivals Queretaro in a game that will have once again tested the faith.
Atlas fans would not be surprised if Boy is gone tomorrow and there is another dispute between directors and players over unpaid wages. But while he is at the helm and the club is spending a little more money, there is at least a slight glimmer of hope that the team could make the playoffs for the first time in five years.
The pizzeria´s offer, however, should be safe for the foreseeable future.
By Tom Marshall (@MexicoWorldCup)
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