Tijuana's football team bringing some pride, joy

Tuesday , March 18, 2014 - 4:11 PM

Omar Millan

TIJUANA, Mexico— Tijuana has a football club that’s finally bringing the border city some positive coverage, after long being known for the wrong reasons.

The team is aiming to win the Mexican league title, which would be a giant step forward for a club that was established just over five years ago. The success has given a big lift to football fans in the Mexico-United States border region, which has been battered for years by drug-related violence that has demoralized its citizens.

The club is coached by Argentine Antonio Mohamed, who came to Tijuana from Argentine club Independiente. A former striker, Mohamed played for years in Mexico and went on to coach several Mexican clubs, but has found his place with this one.

Tijuana reached the Mexican playoffs last season, only to be eliminated in the quarterfinals. Mohamed is hoping this time will be different with the team already guaranteed a place in the final-eight playoffs. The club has lost only one of 15 league games this season going into play this weekend.

"When you look at it, you realize this is the reward for our hard word and remaining humble," said Mohamed, who was famous in Mexico for playing with is hair dyed bleach-blond. "We have no reason to change now. The success won’t distract us. We have to keep our feet on the ground and keep thinking game by game. We can’t change."

The team’s success has led fans to forget the controversy surrounding the club’s ownership.

The owner is Jorge Hank Rhon, the former mayor of Tijuana and a gambling magnate. Rhon was arrested in 2011 and held on weapons charges, which were eventually dismissed by a federal appeals court.

Rhon was Tijuana’s mayor from 2004 to 2007, when he staged a failed run for state governor. He has long figured large on the national political scene, and not only because of the wealth amassed from his Caliente gambling empire. His father was one of Mexico’s best-known politicians as the leader of a faction in the PRI, which ruled Mexico from 1929 until 2000.

The club’s president is Rhon’s son Jorge Alberto Hank Inzunza.

Established in 2007, the club goes by the nickname of "Los Xolos," — pronounced HO-lows — which is short for Xoloitzcuintle, a type of Aztec dog. The popularity of the team has helped the city improve its self-image.

"The city was missing a team to give it an identity, but there was no expectation it would be done quickly," said Guillermo Alonso Meneses, a cultural anthropologist at the University of Barcelona in Spain. "I think this strong urge to have an important team has driven the so-called boom."

Meneses has studied issues surrounding U.S.-Mexico immigration. He said the team’s success has helped clean up the ownership’s image, and made people feel better.

"Los Xolos are a great business for the Rhon family, just like club America is for Televia or (Guadalajara) Chivas is for its owner and his company Omnilife," Meneses added.

The owner of Guadalajara club Chivas is Jorge Vergara, who also owns Omnilife, which sells health supplements throughout the Americas and in Spain.

Los Xolos have drawn tourists to the city, which sits just across the border from San Diego, California, and restored some of its nightlife.

"Not only has it brought happiness to have a team in the first division, it’s also a fact the club has produced jobs in difficult times," said Miguel Leon, a 60-year-old construction worker from San Diego.

In the streets and in the stadium it’s easy to see very young fans who know nothing about the politics of the owner, or his legal battles. It’s only about the football. The club says it has opened youth academies in the area with 1,300 children enrolled.

"The club opened a lot of doors for young people in the area and in the state," said Bruno Piceno, a 21-year-old club forward who grew up playing with its youth clubs. "Now you don’t have to travel so far south to get a tryout with a club."

The club’s sporting director Ignacio Palau talked with pride of the team, which is made up of players from all over Latin America and the United States.

"In Tijuana you can’t feel like a foreigner because we are all from many different places," Palau said. "But we all feel we are from here. It’s a very special magic."

Winning also helps.

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