Tigres' Gignac signing a potential game-changer for Liga MX
When Andre-Pierre Gignac arrived at Monterrey's airport on Thursday, he probably didn't know what had hit him. Tigres fans packed the greeting area, chanted the Frenchman's name, while there was a media scrum on hand to get the first statements from arguably the biggest signing in the history of Mexico's first division.
Gignac scored more goals than Edinson Cavani and Zlatan Ibrahimovic in Ligue 1 during 2014-15 in Ligue 1, and at 29 years old, Gignac has just come off arguably the best season of his career under Marcelo Bielsa at boyhood club Olympique Marseille. The excitement in Mexico is understandable.
But the question sweeping soccer sites on the internet is why on earth would he want to spurn interest from the Premier League to join Tigres ahead of the Euro 2016 in France, at which he would've had at least an outside chance of making the host nation's squad?
The reported wage of close to four million euros (4.5 million USD) annually surely doesn't hurt, especially as Marseille was said to be unwilling to match the striker's current salary in order to renew his contract.
Tigres -- owned by Cemex, a cement company which claims annual sales of $15.71 billion USD per year -- has significant spending capability and has been making big moves of late, with Nigerian striker Ikechukwu Uche set to finally complete his move from Villarreal at any moment and Mexican starlet Jurgen Damm signing from Pachuca for around $7 million USD last week.
It is a historic outlay for a club that has won only three league titles and is not considered one of Mexico's "big four."
The additional attraction for Gignac has to be the fact that he will be worshipped by the Tigres faithful, who fill their 40,000-capacity Estadio Universitario at every single home game. One hastily put together sign at the airport read "Bienvenue Gignac," with an Eiffel Tower replacing the "A." It won't be the last show of affection toward Gignac, who will be the focus of attention and the hero of Tigres fans -- known as being among the most loyal in Mexico, organizing "invasions" to fill stadiums away from home and providing an atmosphere that is arguably the best in Liga MX.
He wouldn't have got a reception like he received on Thursday on arrival in, say, Birmingham or London and for a player with a history of doing things a little differently, the sheer emotion and anticipation his signing has caused in Monterrey and Mexico has to be a pull factor.
Then there is the Copa Libertadores, a tournament that has a mystique about it in Europe and in which Tigres will face Brazil's Internacional (July 15, July 22) in the semifinal. No Mexican club has ever won the tournament and there's no doubt the lure of making history would have appealed to the French striker.
For Tigres, the team has been crying out for an out-an-out number 9 and Gignac should fit ideally, with coach Ricardo "Tuca" Ferretti's side playing a possession-based game requiring a clinical finisher. Last season, almost all of Gignac's 21 Ligue 1 goals were one-touch. This doesn't seem like a gimmicky move; he can genuinely make an already good side a continental force.
From the Liga MX perspective, Gignac may not be as famous as Queretaro's Ronaldinho and may not even be as marketable as most Designated Players that MLS signs, but he's in much better form and condition to make an impact right now and over the next couple of years. If you are looking for a MLS comparison, it is 28-year-old Sebastian Giovinco signing for Toronto FC from Juventus. Tigres will be hoping for similar results on the field.
The deal has put the Liga MX's spending power and its potential on the map outside of North America. The wage for the average player in Liga MX is around $400,000 USD per year, with Gignac now topping the list of earners. Mexico isn't known as a league that can or is willing to go out and sign big stars to attract attention, perhaps because money created in the domestic market and in the United States doesn't necessitate it, but a steady stream of very good players have joined on the quiet over the few couple of years.
Argentine goalkeepers Agustin Marchesin (Santos Laguna) and Nahuel Guzman (Tigres) are full internationals, Colombians Dorlan Pabon (Monterrey) and Darwin Quintero (Club America) are no slouches and the likes of Dario Benedetto (Club America) and Djaniny Tavares (Santos Laguna) could easily end up in Europe in the near future.
And then there is the league's ability to retain homegrown players, with only a handful of Mexicans playing in Europe, which obviously causes a separate debate over whether the national team suffers as a result. For example, in the current Copa America, there are more players from Liga MX than any other league, with the Premier League second and Serie A in third.
The most obvious example came just last week when Mexico starlet Damm -- who has a European Union passport -- signed for Tigres and not Roma, reportedly simply because the offer from the Liga MX outfit was more lucrative. Then there are players like Oribe Peralta, Paul Aguilar, Jorge Torres Nilo and many more who would surely be in Europe if they were from most other South American countries where domestic league salaries rank much lower than Liga MX.
This Gignac deal is almost new territory for Liga MX. There will be a lot of focus on how the Frenchman does and how he adapts to life in Mexico, although he should be aided by the fact he does speak decent Spanish. He had problems at Marseille with former coach Didier Deschamps and his relationship with the hot-headed Tigres coach Ferretti promises to be fascinating.
Also of interest will be the reaction of other clubs. Tigres' neighbor and rival Monterrey won't enjoy them stealing the limelight just ahead of the opening of its fantastic new stadium, while it is worth remembering that there are some huge financial players in Liga MX who could also pull off similar deals should the desire arise. Take Pachuca and Leon, which are part-owned by the world's third-richest person Carlos Slim, or Club America and owning company Televisa, or Atlas and TV Azteca.
If Gignac takes off in a big way, he may not be the last European in his prime to make a shock move from the top echelons of the game in the Old Continent to Mexico in coming years.
Tom Marshall covers Liga MX and the Mexican national team for ESPN FC. Twitter: @MexicoWorldCup.