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Nov 4, 2013

Why the faithful flock has abandoned Chivas

Just short of 17,000 fans attended Chivas against Pumas in Estadio Omnilife on Sunday to see a drab game between two struggling teams.

For some sides in the Liga MX that number would be substantial, but it left huge gaps in the ultra-modern, almost 50,000-capacity Estadio Omnilife and, considering the game between two of Mexico's most popular four has traditionally sold out without any problem, it was another indication of the problem Chivas have had in attracting fans to the stadium ever since it was opened to much fanfare against Manchester United in 2010. The empty seats at home games are the butt of jokes from opposition fans on social media and even those who show have, more often than not, ended up booing the team this Apertura season. To get some perspective on why and how this has happened, meet Eliseo Ruiz, who was born and raised a Chivas fan in the working class neighborhood of Polanco in Guadalajara. Ruiz was one of the founders of a group known as La Resistencia, which initially formed from online forums as a means of pressurizing the club and owners Jorge Vergara and Angelica Fuentes to maintain Chivas' long-standing traditions. It first drew attention in 2007 when it launched a publicity campaign against the sale of Adolfo "Bofo" Bautista and later when it protested the changes to the club's crest. Ruiz, along with other members of La Resistencia, are due to meet the club's owners this month to discuss ideas about how to improve relations between fans and the club's administration. But before moving on to the message they'll be delivering to the owners, it is vitally important to stress that Ruiz and La Resistencia preach civil dialogue with the club and not the kind of disgraceful threats written on banners ("Leave or die") that were seen in the stadium on Sunday, which they denounced via social media. The bottom line to Ruiz's problem with the club at present is a belief that a growing divide has formed between fans and the institution as a whole. "(The club) is run with an image of an elite team, a VIP team, a team that they maybe think is European in style," complained Ruiz. "We want to change the way they treat fans because Chivas is a working class club that belongs to the people, the media and the fans."

On this point, it is vital to mention that Chivas has always been a little bit different from any other Mexican club. The humble, working class origins, the fact that they play only with Mexicans and the provincial role of Guadalajara as the heartland of Mexican identity and culture is very much wrapped up in the folklore and history of the club. It is this that Ruiz feels has been tampered with as owners Jorge Vergara -- who saved Chivas from a perilous economic situation in 2002 -- and Angelica Fuentes' bid to modernize the financial side of the club and market it in Mexico and the United States to cash in on its previously untapped brand appeal. "It was the people's team, the fans' team and today it is Jorge Vergara's team," he lamented. "It feels like somebody took something away that belonged to you." Ruiz added: "They (the club) decide which players speak, who comes to sign autographs and if it isn't the player you want, you are not allowed to talk to them... There can be no justification from the directors for distancing the club from the fans." Paradoxically, building the new Estadio Omnilife has caused much of the friction, despite it being the most modern stadium in Mexico, with only Santos Laguna's Estadio Corona anywhere near it in terms of quality. But the Omnilife is located outside the Guadalajara Metropolitan Area's beltway in the municipality of Zapopan, 14 miles west of the center of Guadalajara and on the other side of town from the Estadio Jalisco. "Prices in the stadium are high, there is poor accessibility and while the kick-off time has improved, you have to make a big investment to go and see a game of football," he explained. "On average, a fan spends between 500 and 800 pesos (38 and 61 US dollars) to be able to take one or two family members to the game. And Chivas is predominantly a family club. You see whole families in the stands.

"If you put all that together with a fan who earns little and a team that loses, you have an empty stadium." That may not be entirely fair on the owners, who have dropped prices to 70 pesos (5 dollars) a ticket for the vast majority of games this season -- a price comparable with struggling city rivals Atlas. The club also gave into fans' demands to introduce cheaper, independent food stalls outside the stadium, in an attempt to replicate the rows of torta ahogada, taco, birria and other traditional outlets found outside Chivas' old home at the Estadio Jalisco.

There is also now free public transportation from different places around the city, but the point is that the perception has stuck around Guadalajara and it will be difficult to shed. Of course, a winning team helps any club get the punters through the turnstiles and Ruiz, like any fan of any club, wants to see the ownership spend big money to get Chivas away from the relegation zone and bring the type of icons to the club that actually mean something to the fans, players of the ilk of the tireless Ramon Morales. "We know Jorge Vergara signs contracts with TV companies for millions, why not use it to bring players?" questioned Ruiz. "We need players of equal or better quality than Aldo de Nigris." Unlike the fans that hoisted banners at the end of the Pumas game on Sunday demanding Vergara sell the club, Ruiz still believes the owners can turn Chivas around, if they make the right decisions. "It is possible, but he has to buy the best players in Mexico and bring the best coach," said Ruiz. "For example, Victor Manuel Vucetich, Chepo de la Torre or Marcelo Bielsa." Emotions surrounding the club are high and it feels like Chivas are at some kind of tipping point.

The reaction from Vergara and the club this winter should prove to be fascinating, but the fact they are prepared to meet and talk to disenchanted fans like Ruiz at least suggests there is recognition that things have to change. -- about.me/tom.marshall

@MexicoWorldCup