It only involves one team from Mexico, but Thursday morning’s Club World Cup matchup between Monterrey and Chelsea could well prove the biggest game in the brief history of Liga MX - and indeed a much longer span for Mexican club soccer.
Monterrey wasn’t one of the best in Liga MX this Apertura, but the northern club is nevertheless the country’s representative in Japan, rubbing shoulders with top teams from around the world.
That means that what Monterrey does will indisputably prove important to the image of Mexican soccer worldwide, in times when the national team has carried the flag for the whole country.
On Thursday, Monterrey has a chance to bring Mexico’s much-improved club game into the discussion, a key component if the country is to be considered truly among the world’s elite footballing nations.
If by elite, we’re talking the best five or 10 soccer playing nations in the world - the level at which Mexico undoubtedly should aspire to be - it’s hard to find even one that thrives without an absolutely top notch league.
A handful of African nations and a couple in South America have triumphed intermittently on the global stage without a consistent national league, but no nation can be considered among the top powers without a league to match.
It’s no coincidence that the two countries from the Western Hemisphere consistently among the best in the world, Argentina and Brazil, also have the two strongest domestic leagues in the area.
Liga MX has the potential to get to that level - in fact it gets closer with each passing season - but it can’t be said to be there yet. But the money, infrastructure, willingness and technical knowledge are all in place. The improvement is coming in leaps and bounds.
One key ingredient left to be achieved is that signature breakthrough on the field. Though Mexican teams have come close a couple times, none has ever won the Copa Libertadores. Pachuca’s triumphant 2006 Copa Sudamericana campaign stands out, but that cup is considerably less prestigious and has had little staying power in terms of raising Mexico’s club soccer profile.
Despite a mediocre campaign in Mexico, this edition of Monterrey has already done some important work to that end in a week in Japan, dominating Asian champion Ulsan Hyundai and making a semifinal date with Chelsea.
To go that final stride and announce the arrival of Mexican club soccer on the international stage, however, the Rayados need to pull off the upset in the semifinal against Chelsea.
In the history of the Club World Cup, the South American and European champions have only failed to face off in the final one time - when TP Mazembe crashed the party in 2010, knocking off Internacional de Porto Alegre in the semifinal.
If Monterrey can match that feat, it won’t be the same sort of fluke, but rather a final confirmation that Mexico has arrived at the top international standard on the club as well as international level.
In fact, it’s probably unfortunate that the Mexican side will meet Chelsea and not Brazilian representative Corinthians in the semifinal. A true contemporary measuring stick for Mexican soccer in 2012 wouldn’t be the high-budget EPL side, but rather the Brazilian team, and the league and confederation it represents.
Still, for Liga MX to prove it’s among the best on the continent, the challenge is for Monterrey to beat Cheslea and then dispute the title, preferably with a Corinthians that it’s completely capable of beating.
It’s somewhat unfortunate that so much could be wrapped into what is essentially one high-profile exhibition match, but such are the vagaries of international club competition.
Without that statement win, Liga MX will be doomed to at least another year of being considered an also-ran by much of the rest of the world, despite the clear growth of the Mexican game at the club level.
That might not be such a terrible thing, but widespread recognition of the constant improvement of the Mexican league would be much better. That’s just what’s on the line Thursday in Japan.
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