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Santos Laguna, Toluca linked by their owners

Liga MX
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 By Tom Marshall

Liga MX ugly duckling Veracruz a soap opera as team slides toward relegation

There are a lot of reasons to be upbeat about the future of Liga MX. Average attendance is high, the quality of play and players is good and improving and there appears -- on paper, at least -- to be a drive toward promoting the league outside of Mexico.

There are ambitious and exciting projects at clubs like Queretaro, Pachuca, Tigres, Monterrey, Santos Laguna, Club Tijuana and Chivas. And at youth level, the Mexican federation is a model of consistency, benefiting from the fine work of many of the progressive Liga MX clubs. The fact that Mexican teams have won the past 11 CONCACAF Champions League titles also throws some light onto the relative level of the league in comparison to its regional rivals.

But then there are institutions and practices that are falling behind. Take Veracruz, an organization that's struggling to keep pace and is now in last place in the relegation table, one point behind Morelia, who beat Los Tiburones Rojos 1-0 last weekend. 

If there is one indicator that Veracruz is lacking ideas and a firm plan, the past transfer window paints a negative picture. The team signed a grand total of 14 players over the winter, headlined by former Mexico international Angel Reyna and veteran Uruguay midfielder Egidio Arevalo. Even before the transfer period had opened the whole squad was put up for transfer, with the organization's best players Julio Furch and Gabriel Penalba quickly snapped up by bigger clubs.

Of the 39 players listed as being in Veracruz's first-team squad on Liga MX's official website, 21 were born outside of Mexico. Considering that only 10 non-homegrown (foreign) players are permitted in the matchday squad for Liga MX games, it seems nonsensical to have so many. It is worth mentioning, however, that in last weekend's game Los Tiburones coach Carlos Reinoso started with seven Mexican footballers.

Carlos Reinoso steered Veracruz away from relegation in 2015 and 2016, but it's unlikely that he'll be able to repeat the feat.

There doesn't seem to be much method behind Veracruz's wheeling and dealing, aside from a loose attempt, perhaps, to bring in experience and depth for the relegation battle. The recent statistics, however, tell the tale of a team on the slide. Since the beginning of 2016, Veracruz has won just eight of 43 Liga MX matches (18.6 percent). This 2017 Clausura, it has scored just five times in nine games. The team hasn't won an away match since Nov. 2015.

Nevertheless, the message coming from the club is one of defiance.

"Since I arrived here I am a guy that has a lot of faith, a lot of confidence in what I do and in the work. 'El Tibu' isn't going down," said 72-year-old Reinoso after last weekend's loss. "That is very plain for us as I watch the boys work. There are a lot of matches left and we aren't going down to the second division."

Reinoso steered Veracruz away from relegation in 2015 and 2016, but did so with a much stronger squad. And any notion that the club's problems begin and end on the field would be wide of the mark. Indeed, the last couple of years have resembled a bit of a soap opera for a team that has become Liga MX's ugly duckling.

The major off-field issue attracting international attention so far this 2017 Clausura involved Veracruz and Tigres fans clashing in Estadio Luis "Pirata" Fuente on Feb. 17. There were ugly scenes as one fan wielded an ice pick. Tigres players and coach Ricardo "Tuca" Ferretti were visibly angry. The manager screamed at the police, while France striker Andre-Pierre Gignac intimated that the club deserved to go down. Mexico international Jesus Duenas had his hand sliced open in the mayhem.

Liga MX authorities slapped a veto on Veracruz's stadium, with Friday's match against Puebla set to be played behind closed doors, but club owner and local politician Fidel Kuri didn't take the punishment without protest.

Kuri insisted that it was the Tigres fans that started the violence and demanded that their Estadio Universitario should be vetoed. He also said that Gignac should "go back to France."

Fans of Veracruz fight against fans of Tigres
Veracruz has been at the center of off-field issues, most notably the fan clash that took place at Estadio Luis 'Pirata' Fuente.

But perhaps even more revealing and worrying is Kuri's admission that political bickering meant there wasn't enough security present inside the stadium for the game.

"The police that I contract is the police that the government controls and the secretary of public security isn't interested," he stated. "They don't even take calls or show up. They aren't really interested in the well-being of the people here in the stadium."

This is not the first time Kuri or Veracruz have been the subject of controversy of late. Veracruz's owner was suspended for one year from all football-related activities back in Jan. 2016 after an outburst directed at Edgardo Codesal, the technical director of the Mexican Football Federation's (FMF) refereeing commission inside the team's stadium. He also appeared to threaten a journalist after a game in Puebla last September, but then denied any wrongdoing.

And last May, 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, although his party did lose and the club has remained in Veracruz -- at least for now.

Veracruz is a historic Mexican club whose fan base once witnessed Barcelona legend Jose Mari Bakero and Mexico international Cuauhtemoc Blanco grace its stadium and whose history in Mexico's top division dates back to 1943.

It may sound harsh and difficult to swallow for residents of the pretty Gulf Coast city but Los Tiburones Rojos, in their current state, are dragging the image of Liga MX down. It is difficult to believe they would be widely missed should they be relegated come the last day of the Clausura regular season on May 7.

Tom Marshall covers Liga MX and the Mexican national team for ESPN FC. Twitter: @MexicoWorldCup.

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