Much-needed transfer changes coming to Liga MX could spell the end of Pacto de Caballeros
MEXICO CITY -- "It's a historic day for Mexican soccer," Liga MX president Enrique Bonilla said Wednesday afternoon. Without explicitly saying it, Bonilla hinted at changes to the transfer system in Mexico and maybe even an end to the infamous Pacto de Caballeros.
Following the announcement of the Bosman ruling in 1995, European players at the end of a contract were given the freedom to move to another club without a transfer fee being paid. This rule basically opened up free agency in European football, but across the Atlantic in Mexico nothing changed. Instead, players in the country were governed by a separate set of rules, one that at times ignored the player's will to move to a new club.
The handshake agreement was coined the Pacto de Caballeros (Gentlemen's Pact); it was never written into the books, as it would potential open up legal holes in regard to labor laws.
"I didn't want to leave, but I was told the sale was made," said Braulio Luna, a former Mexico national team player who was controversially sold from Pumas to rival Club America in 1998. "It was a sour moment; every time I visited Pumas, I had to hide from angry fans and come out of the stadium with a security detail."
Luna's case was particularly noteworthy because, at the time, Pumas president Javier Jimenez said the player was in agreement with the transfer. The digging up of old quotes in which Luna said Club America had been his boyhood club compounded the story. "I was [angry] because it didn't happen the way [Jimenez] had said," Luna explained.
For the better part of the past two decades, situations like Luna's were all too common, with owners either denying the existence of the pact altogether or justifying their actions by noting salaries in Mexico were far superior to those available in most leagues around the world.
"Soccer players in the 21st century have the right to work with whomever they want, like any other type of worker, and not be treated like farm animals," said Jean-Marc Bosman, the former footballer whose legal fight enacted the homonymous ruling for player rights.
The deal reached beyond Mexico too. When former Tigres striker Alan Pulido declared himself a free agent at the end of his contract with the Mexican club, he ventured to Greece to continue his career with Levadiakos. Tigres, however, alleged Pulido had signed an extension. The player countered by saying the team had forged his signature.
Despite being the rare Mexican forward in Europe, Pulido was banished from the national team until the matter was resolved and Chivas, his current club, paid transfer fees to both the player's European club, Olympiacos and Tigres. The Court of Arbitration for Sport actually ruled in the club's favor, on the basis that Pulido had a valid contract with Tigres.
For years, it appeared the Pacto de Caballeros was bulletproof. Players had long submitted to an implicit deal in which they gave up certain rights for better pay. However, the nascent Asociación Mexicana de Futbolistas Profesionales (AMF Pro) made it Priority No. 1 to obtain rights for players.
The current environment of Mexican football, with top players performing in European leagues and MLS, allowed members such as Andres Guardado, Javier Hernandez and longtime Mexico captain Rafa Marquez to flex their collective muscle.
In a case of art foreshadowing life, Marquez recently appeared on an episode of Netflix's "Club de Cuervos," a show about a Mexican football club and its owners, the enfants terribles who take over for their deceased patriarch.
"It's time to do something about the Pacto de Caballeros" says Marquez, who appeared as himself on the show. "They don't take us into account. The owners do what they want with us."
In real life, with Marquez seemingly set to retire from his playing career after the 2018 World Cup, the need to regulate one of Mexican soccer's biggest inequalities was prioritized by the group. With the backing of heavyweights playing in and outside of Mexico, previous attempts that were quickly shot down were now being taken seriously.
When rumors popped up over a potential work stoppage during the final week of the season, Marquez was confident owners and players would come to an amicable agreement. "I don't think we'll end up going on strike," the Atlas defender said. "Both parties have the disposition to bond together."
Indeed, with the deadline looming, AMF Pro representatives met with Bonilla to hammer out an agreement at the 11th hour.
"We will work towards the establishing of new rules for transfers and contracts," said Bonilla, per the official Liga MX Twitter account. "These rules are set to be instated by the Apertura 2019 season. During the interim period, players will receive contract extensions."
Though the Pacto de Caballeros was not mentioned by name, there is hope that it will soon be banished. Though the short-term scare of a player strike has been eliminated, it is now the AMF's responsibility to make sure the league follows through on its promises.
Eric Gomez is an editor for ESPN's One Nación. You can follow him on Twitter: @EricGomez86.