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Why the Club World Cup is important to Mexico's Tigres

Mark Meadows | Hecko Flores
February 10, 2021

In Europe, the Club World Cup is not always respected. But the tournament means everything to the Mexican side Tigres and their fans, who are desperate to beat Bayern Munich in Thursday's final for more reasons than one.

Tigres players celebrating making the final of the Club World Cup after defeating Palmeiras
Tigres celebrate making the final after defeating PalmeirasImage: Karim Jaafar/AFP/Getty Images

Tigres sprung a surprise by beating Palmeiras of Brazil to become the first Mexican side to reach the Club World Cup final, but it is not just history that will drive the team in Thursday's clash with Bayern Munich.

Tigres UANL, from the suburbs of Monterrey, are bidding to cement themselves as Mexico's top team — handy given that they are bankrolled by the country's top cement company.

Most fans in Mexico do not view Tigres as a big club. The likes of America, Chivas (Guadalajara), Cruz Azul and Pumas (UNAM)  are traditionally the big four for many.

But Tigres are the most successful Mexican team over the past 10 years, winning five domestic titles, and are regarded as one of the best supported clubs in the country. Even training sessions regularly attract packed stands.

The Club World Cup has given them the chance to showcase their skills on the field and backing off it to a global audience and Bayern will face a real battle in Doha.

"We lost three CONCACAF Champions League finals in the past so not being able to reach the Club World Cup made the tournament even more desirable and important," says Jose Ivan Martinez Carreon, a Tigres supporter from Nuevo Leon, the proud northern region where people's loyalties often lie more with the state than with Mexico as a whole.

"Having the opportunity to play against clubs like Bayern is a dream come true and something unique for Tigres fans. We've carried a stigma in Mexico despite having passionate support. But now with the Club World Cup, the press and fans in general are recognizing our club."

Their colorful goalkeeper Nahuel Guzman, who headed in a stoppage-time winner in a CONCACAF Champions League game in February 2020, says their pursuit of the title is all about Tigres proving their worth.

"This is a Club World Cup and we are going to represent only Tigres and we are not going to represent anyone else who wants to support us," the Argentina international told the club website.

Changing minds

Mexicans are generally split about supporting Tigres in the final.

"If Tigres win, the victory only belongs to them and the same goes if they fail. You can't identify yourself with another club you compete against every season," Milo Assad, co-founder of the Mexican national team supporters' club and a big America fan, told DW.

But it is not just the country making a first appearance in the final.

Tigres are also the first side from CONCACAF, the North and Central American and Caribbean federation, to reach the showpiece. The federation has traditionally been seen as one of the weakest but the progression of Tigres is changing minds.

Tigres forward Carlos Gonzalez told a news conference: "No other Mexican team has gone this far, but now we want more. We came here hoping to lift the trophy and now that we're close, we're encouraged and motivated that we can achieve our goal."

Bayern Munich striker Robert Lewandowski and Tigres forward Andre-Pierre Gignac
World player of the year Robert Lewandowski will go up against Tigres' own hot shot Andre-Pierre Gignac

The Paraguayan shone in the win over Palmeiras, where strike partner Andre-Pierre Gignac scored the winner from the penalty spot. Former France striker Gignac is a rare export to Mexican football from Europe and has been there since 2015, another sign of the growing reputation of Tigres.

Palmeiras were distraught at losing. The Club World Cup is a big deal in Brazil, often enabling their club sides to go up against the cream of Europe. For Brazilian sides it is the biggest game possible and that Palmeiras didn't even reach the final stunned the country. 

In contrast, the tournament is viewed as somewhat of an afterthought to European sides. The money and prestige involved in the UEFA Champions League dwarfs FIFA's competition - something FIFA President Gianni Infantino is determined to change with his expansion of the tournament to 24 teams from 2022 onwards.

But that is not to say European sides don't take the Club World Cup seriously, having always reached the final in its current incarnation and having only lost out to Brazilian sides three times since the 2005 revamp.

Bayern played their strongest XI in beating Egypt's Al Ahly in Monday's semifinal and have made a commitment to the tournament by having to squeeze in the two games between a Bundesliga clash last Friday and another German top-flight match next Monday.

All that amid a global pandemic which has led some critics to question why the tournament is even taking place at all.

Migrant workers walking back to the Al-Wakra stadium building site in Doha, Qatar
European criticism of Qatar's treatment of migrant workers does not appear to be shared in MexicoImage: Maya Alleruzzo/AP Photo/picture-alliance

'Football is a global game'

Indeed, coronavirus restrictions robbed New Zealand's Auckland City of the chance to compete in the Club World Cup this year, much to their dismay.

"The FIFA Club World Cup is crucial to our club and in some ways it is as important to us as the UEFA Champions League is to clubs in Europe," Auckland City chairman Ivan Vuksich told DW. 

"The format has come in for some criticism outside our confederation but for our club, our country and region, it has provided a very welcome opportunity to compete on the world stage. 

"It is important to remind people, especially those close to the corridors of power, that football is a global game." 

Modest Auckland finished third in the 2014 edition, surprising the football world. A victory for Tigres against Bayern on Thursday would have similar ramifications in Latin America and show that the Club World Cup really does matter football-wise, even if human rights campaigners in Europe are aghast at host Qatar.

But concerns over the awarding of prestigious football tournaments to Qatar and the treatment of the migrant workers who have built the stadiums and infrastructure appear to be a less pressing issue in Mexico.

"Human rights abuses in Qatar is not a topic that makes headlines in Mexican sports media," says Marisol Rojas, a journalist at El Economista. "Corruption is an issue that is touched on in other sports in Mexico, but not necessarily in soccer."

But those off-the-pitch issues are becoming increasingly hard to ignore as the 2022 World Cup edges closer. For Qatar, the Club World Cup is a first dress rehearsal. For Tigres, it's a shot at footballing immortality.

"Here we are, with the stars in the sky shining down on us,' said striker Gonzalez. "We're very proud of what we've done and I imagine there are a few tears among our fans. This triumph is for them."