The Growth of Liga MX Femenil Could Help Mexico Break the Curse of 'El Quinto Partido'
Why this matters
El Tri, the Mexican men's national soccer team, has not had a deep World Cup run since 1986. They could find better fortunes in their women's side thanks to greater investment and enthusiasm around Liga MX Femenil.
Though Mexican national soccer team fans are passionate, loyal, and forever hopeful, the men’s team leaves them heartbroken almost every year. After every World Cup, Mexico fans often join in saying “jugamos como nunca y perdimos como siempre,” which translates to “we played like never before, and lost like always.” The men’s Mexican national team last advanced as far as the World Cup quarterfinals, “el quinto partido” – the tournament’s fifth game – in 1986.
After another World Cup in which the men’s side failed to get past the group stage, Mexico fans nevertheless have good reason to believe their World Cup luck will turn around soon, though not necessarily because of El Tri, the men’s side. Thanks to greater investment in the sport, increased fan engagement, and a changing culture, the women’s side, La Tri, is perhaps ready to surpass the men’s side and become a strong presence in world football for years to come.
Across the world, women’s soccer has begun to be professionalized, but for years it was prohibited. The English Football Association banned competitive women’s participation in football from 1921 to 1971. The first women’s world championship took place in Mexico that same year but was not supported by FIFA, the international soccer federation. Until 2019 in Mexico, women were subject to a restrictive set of rules that limited their salaries to 2,000 pesos per month. In recent years, government intervention and corporate investment have combined to make the women’s game a major world sport in its own right.
The United States is a powerhouse in the sport, both in terms of putting talent on the field and in setting important precedents for other nations to follow like equal pay between men’s and women’s national teams. The U.S. Women’s National Team provides a blueprint for some parts of Latin America, where soccer is still seen culturally as a man’s sport and lacks necessary infrastructure and serious investment for women.
Still, while in the U.S. and other parts of the world women’s soccer has been seen as an opportunity to grow, expand, and make a positive impact, significant obstacles impeded the sport’s growth in Latin American countries. Mexico hosted the 1971 Women's World Cup, although FIFA did not officially recognize it. More than 110,000 people went to see Mexico play Denmark in the final at Estadio Azteca, setting an attendance record at the time. The logic was that having such a successful precedent for excitement and competition would propel women’s soccer in Mexico forward. Instead, because of bans on women’s participation in countries like Brazil and Mexico itself, it did the opposite, and women’s soccer was relegated to amateur status.
The Fight for Respect Toward Women’s Soccer in Mexico
One reason the women’s game was pushed aside is that the women’s national team was seen as posing a threat to the men’s team, which has never even reached a World Cup final. The patriarchal culture of the country created that impression in the minds of soccer’s leaders in Mexico and has been an obstacle to developing opportunities for women to play professional soccer worldwide.
In 1998, Leonardo Cuéllar was appointed head coach of the women’s Mexican national team, which raised the quality of women's soccer until the club began to field competitive teams that qualified for World Cups and Olympic Games and placed well in Panamerican tournaments. After 18 years, Cuéllar resigned in 2016 due to the poor results in World Cup matches, but his legacy as the man who brought La Tri to prominence has been cemented.
One year after Cuéllar’s dismissal in 2017, Liga MX Femenil, the largest professional women’s league in Mexico, was formed after a years-long push by advocates. From then on, it has grown immensely, to the point that the Liga MX championship final played between Pachuca and Guadalajara generated more than $20 million in revenue and attracted an audience of more than 1 million viewers.
The growth of women’s soccer in Mexico can be attributed to several factors, including policies (developing U-23 and U-17 leagues for young women; allowing foreign women athletes onto club teams) created directly to promote the sport in Mexico. The country took examples from other parts of the world and implemented them locally, from the organizational infrastructure and investment in the U.S. to the structure of women’s soccer in Europe. Although there is still a severe lack of structure and investment in some clubs, the future looks positive.
A Domestic League Comes Together
In La Liga MX, the highest level of men’s professional soccer in Mexico, 18 teams compete in two tournaments each year: Apertura and Clausura. Below Liga MX is Liga de Expansión MX, founded in 2020. La Segunda División or Liga Premier is the third level of competition in Mexican soccer. It is divided into Series A and Series B. In addition to the women’s sides in Liga MX, the country’s pro system also includes the Mexican Women’s Soccer League, SuperLiga Liga Mayor Femenil.
The Liga MX branch for women has grown tremendously in five years, allowing the women’s game to make a considerable leap forward. The women’s teams play in the same venues as the men’s clubs, giving the women athletes the same access to top-tier facilities. The use of shared space is similar to the use in France, where many Ligue 1 clubs support men’s and women’s sides, including the dominant Olympique Lyonnais FC women’s team.
Moreover, Mexico has learned that Mexican fans follow clubs they're affiliated with regardless of whether it is the male or female team. This gives Liga MX an advantage over the National Women’s Soccer League and Major League Soccer in the U.S., where teams are not typically owned by the same clubs and often play in different venues. Although the USWNT has elite training facilities and has become something of a dynasty, pro women’s leagues failed twice before the NWSL established a strong foothold.
First division clubs in Mexico invest in their women’s teams because doing so can boost their numbers of followers. Owners realized they are able to access a new base of fans with a women’s team.
“It allows club owners to extend to a new fan base entirely different from the traditional one,” says Diana Naim Gallegos, who runs Futbolera, a Spanish-language website dedicated to covering women’s soccer.
Total attendance for Liga MX Femenil during the last pre-pandemic season in 2019-20 was 576,889, a year-over-year increase and roughly 73% of the NWSL’s 2019 attendance mark, which was boosted by the U.S. Women’s National Team’s World Cup win.
Multicultural Talent Bolsters Liga MX
Liga MX Femenil allows the incorporation of four foreign players into each team, which means that more Mexican clubs are recruiting players from other parts of the world, attracting new followers, and growing their brands in those regions.
One example is Pachuca, based in central Mexico, which this year signed Charlyn Corral from Atletico Madrid and Jenni Hermosa — with two Pichichi titles, six league titles, and one UEFA championship — away from the budding FC Barcelona program.
“These kinds of signings make the league grow enormously because the international players give another perspective, share their talent, and teach us new things because they are trained differently from the players from Mexico,” says Gallegos.
What is drawing these women athletes to Mexico? Unlike games in many other leagues, all Liga MX Femenil games are televised, all the games are played in stadiums, and all statistics are instantaneous. The media visibility generated by playing in Liga MX Femenil throughout Latin America can lead to lucrative sponsorship opportunities in new markets, as shown by BBVA’s recent deal to sponsor Liga MX Femenil games in addition to the men’s league.
Another exciting factor in the globalization of Liga MX Femenil is the influx of Mexican players born in the United States. In total, the league has 36 Mexican-American soccer players, and the number is growing every year. These athletes were born in North American territory and either their parents or grandparents are Mexican, allowing them to claim both nationalities. The vast majority of these athletes are from Arizona, California, and Texas, and many have used this shared heritage to come to Mexico and make a living in Liga MX instead of the NWSL, which has fewer teams.
These 36 soccer players represent almost 10 percent of the registered Liga MX Femenil players. Fifteen of 18 Liga MX Femenil teams have at least one Mexican-American on their roster. Recent rule changes now allow two foreign-born players on each team. The Mexican-American market is one of the league’s main methods for finding and developing talent.
There are many reasons Mexican-American women decide to play in Liga MX over NWSL or other leagues: The culture is more familiar, there is a minimal language barrier, and there is an opportunity to grow within the club and have a significant role in the growth of the budding Mexican league.
Another reason is the opportunity to be selected and represent the Mexican National Team. The USWNT is one of the most selective rosters in the world. As a result, many Mexican-Americans choose to represent the Mexican women’s national team in international tournaments. At least 12 Mexican-American players from Liga MX have played on the Mexico women’s national soccer team, either in youth competitions or for the senior team. Many of these athletes developed through youth and college programs in the U.S. before coming to Mexico to represent the country.
How Liga MX Femenil Can Improve
There are many positive things in the Liga MX. However, some things still need to improve.
First, the salary gap between top-level players and formative players is enormous. Naty Cardenas, a former Liga MX athlete, says her low salary in the league made it difficult for her to make ends meet, which negatively affected her level of play.
“I was paid around $180 a month; it was a real struggle, but my love for the sport made me stick through it, and sure enough, after signing to a different club, my income grew, and I was able to focus on playing,” says Cardenas.
Another growing concern in the league is a lack of support for players who are pregnant.
“The policies about forming a family, many clubs do not have stipulated in the contract, so if you get pregnant, you have no protection. The club will automatically expel you,” says Cardenas.
But as Liga MX continues to grow, many clubs are beginning to provide benefits like health insurance to players, though details are specific to each player’s contract, Cardenas said. Liga MX Femenil instituted an official parental leave policy in 2020. Several high-profile players, including Renae Cuellar, a 32-year-old who’s played in Germany and the U.S., have taken advantage of this policy in recent years.
Club budgets are often five times larger for men. Although the attendance to watch women’s soccer matches has increased significantly, and most female players have active social media profiles with many followers, getting domestic sponsorship is still an issue for the women’s league and its teams, making women’s soccer still largely dependent on the revenue from men’s clubs.
A large economic gap persists between men’s and women’s players, as well as between top-level and lower-level women’s players. As time passes and talent grows, the hope is that as Mexico’s women’s clubs and national teams succeed, fans will follow. A larger fanbase solves many of the problems facing women’s soccer in the country.
In the meantime, club owners are seeing the economic potential women’s soccer can bring. They are learning that the sport is like any other business; you can’t make any money if you don’t invest.
For this reason, investing in women helps raise the level of competition and revenue, improve the league’s quality, and cement its future. And just maybe, we’ll see the women’s national soccer team play in that looming fifth game at the next World Cup in Oceania next winter.
Nestor Juarez is the director of Futmas, a soccer products brand based in Tijuana, Mexico. He was also a fellow at the Global Sport Institute through the Young Leaders of the Americas Initiative in 2022.
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