Is Mexico's famous football franchise patriotic—or racist?

Famed soccer squad, Chivas, pushes Mexico to rethink what it means to be Mexican

David Agren

Herculez Gómez was born to Mexican parents, plays pro soccer in Mexico and switches seamlessly between Spanish and English. But he was born in the U.S., and suits up for Team USA when playing internationally—which means he’s not Mexican enough for the fabled fútbol franchise, Chivas.

For decades, the Guadalajara-based club, the country’s most storied and popular team, has strictly adhered to a policy of signing only domestic players. But with mass migration and Mexican attitudes toward foreigners changing—and a domestic league awash with imported stars—the club may be forced to chuck its antiquated approach. After all, “it’s increasingly difficult to find Mexican players that are going to win you the league,” says Guadalajara-based soccer journalist Tom Marshall.

Chivas, whose rabid fan base tops 30 million, hasn’t won a championship since 2006. The on-field futility is fuelling talk of the unimaginable: according to a recent ESPN report, Chivas was interested in Gómez. The football club, in denying the claim, said it would welcome anyone who fit the legal definition of Mexican—though not if they play for another country internationally.

Signing a U.S. star like Gómez still appears a step too far for a team whose working-class fans are so patriotic. “The team hasn’t won in ages, but it keeps filling stadiums,” says Ilán Semo, a history professor at the Universidad Iberoamericana. “The base of its popularity is nationalism.”

At the heart of the debate is the uncomfortable (and unspoken) question: who exactly is a Mexican? Mexico is not a nation of immigrants, Semo says, but the number of Mexicans with U.S.-born children—eligible to be citizens of both countries—continues to grow. Until recently, presidential candidates were barred from running if even one of their parents was born outside Mexico, and politicians of Spanish descent have faced xenophobic attacks. Some post-revolution restrictions on foreigners remain, such as owning property by the beach.

Ironically, Chivas fills stadiums across Mexico, but not in Guadalajara, where team owner Jorge Vergara alienated fans by building a new facility in a wealthy suburb with poor public transportation. The stadium boasts box seats and private suites, but abandoned the informal ambience of the old Estadio Jalisco, which had affordable prices and was ringed by vendors selling everything from tripe tacos to “family-size” bottles of Corona beer. Such missteps might make the Mexican-only policy a necessity, says Guadalajara sports-marketing consultant Héctor López Zatarain. “It’s the one thing that keeps fans united.”