Paco Jemez, Cruz Azul must handle recent controversy before it's too late
Cruz Azul shouldn't be making negative headlines early on this 2017 Apertura. La Maquina is undefeated in its first four games of the season and over all competitions, the club hasn't lost in 11 matches stretching back to April. Last Saturday's 0-0 draw against a good Toluca side saw Cruz Azul dominate the ball with 66 percent of possession and restrict the opposition to just two attempts at goal, neither of which was on target.
Spanish coach Paco Jemez said it was the team's "best game of the season" and while there is always room for improvement, particularly in the finishing department, Cruz Azul is playing a brand of football that is easy on the eye. Things are slowly starting to come together on the field after a tricky first half of 2017 for Jemez as he got used to Mexican football and its intricacies.
But the Mexico City club -- one of Liga MX's "big four" in terms of fan-base, but without a league title since 1997 -- and Jemez can't seem to steer clear of scandal off the field, jumping from one incident to another.
Jemez has frequently locked horns with the press in Mexico and there was uproar when a photo went viral showing the Cruz Azul coach raising the middle finger of his left hand towards the stands in Estadio Azul after the game against Toluca.
It was interpreted as Jemez reacting to a section of supporters who had booed on the final whistle and as journalists in Mexico City gathered for Jemez's press conference on Monday, the expectation was that the former Rayo Vallecano manager was going to apologize for his action. Instead, Jemez defended himself, insisting that one particular fan inside the stadium had insulted his daughters. The club then launched #yoconjemez ("I'm with Jemez") on social media to support its under-fire manager.
Liga MX, meanwhile, announced that the Mexican federation's disciplinary commission would investigate the incident.
On Tuesday, the explosive Jemez was handed a red card in Copa MX action towards the end of Cruz Azul's 1-0 win over Coras for remonstrating with the officials, making it a tumultuous few days for the 47-year-old, even by his own standards.
Cruz Azul president Guillermo Alvarez talked to ESPN Mexico Tuesday morning and defended both Jemez and his own long reign guiding the club, saying that often "the defeat of a big club is bigger news than the victory of a small one."
Alvarez also explained that the increasing use of the invented verb cruzazulear -- loosely meaning "to mess things up" -- isn't to his liking. But when you look at the club as a whole it is easy to understand why "to Cruz Azul" has become a source of light-hearted fun for those on the outside of the club. Cruz Azul hasn't reached the playoffs in any of the last six Liga MX seasons and continues to pump money into bringing in players, many of whom simply don't work out. And the club continues to score own goals by blocking critical journalists on Twitter.
Alvarez then got into a spat with club legend Carlos Hermosillo. The president indicated the doors had been open to the former striker playing a role in running the club, before he chose to enter politics. Hermosillo bit back late Tuesday on ESPN, calling Alvarez a "first class liar."
Bringing in someone like Jemez into this volatile environment was a risk for an institution regularly accused of being driven by powerful agents -- a claim that Alvarez denies. Jemez certainly needs to get to grips with the situation and the fact that the media in Mexico City know how to get under his skin is something he has to manage much better than he is doing.
Regardless of what was said about his daughters, Jemez was out of order in making his gesture towards the crowd last weekend; he should have taken the high ground and apologized. The last thing he needed to do Tuesday was draw more attention to himself by getting sent from the bench but at a club that has been scrambling in the dark for some kind of identity, La Maquina needs Jemez perhaps more than is generally accepted.
After going through a portfolio of Mexican managers like Tomas Boy, Sergio Bueno, Luis Fernando Tena, Guillermo Vazquez and Enrique Meza ahead of Jemez's arrival, a change of strategy was clearly required. And while it is easy to criticize Jemez, the players -- perhaps the most important people in all of this -- are backing him.
"[You journalists] do your job, which is normal, but you won't break us," said veteran Cruz Azul captain Christian "Chaco" Gimenez on Tuesday. "It's been a long while since I've seen such a strong union like this one between the coaching staff, players and fans as well."
Amid the current lack of clarity at Cruz Azul, the captain's words at least offer a glimmer of light.
Tom Marshall covers Liga MX and the Mexican national team for ESPN FC. Twitter: @MexicoWorldCup.