As the Clausura 2023 gets under way, we’re taking a deep dive into Cruz Azul’s recent history, chronicling how front office turmoil has spilled out of the sports pages and into the financial and political sections.
In Part 1, we outlined the beginnings of this proud Liga MX franchise and its remarkable run during its first two decades in First Division, then traced its decline into a snake-bitten team that suffered two extended title droughts.
The Cementeros finally ended a tortuous 24-year dry spell in 2021, a triumph that helped distract from the scenes of a front office being torn apart by scandal.
The unique organizational structure and the initial indications of internal turbulence are the subject of Part 2 of our Deconstructing Cruz Azul series.
Picking fútbol over béisbol
CF Cruz Azul is not technically an independently owned and operated soccer team. The club is controlled by Hidalgo-based Cemento Cruz Azul, a construction company founded in 1881 that, in 1934, morphed into a cooperative – eventually the biggest in Latin America.
In actuality, baseball was the more popular sport in the company town of Jasso, Hidalgo, the soccer team relegated to an afterthought. Management authorized the creation of a company baseball team in 1925, but two years later workers voted to scrap the baseball team for a soccer team, much to the chagrin of the American employees.
Cruz Azul enjoyed considerable success in the local and regional amateur circuits in the 1930s and 1940s. By the 1950s, management pushed to join Mexico’s professional league although Guillermo Álvarez Macías – general manager of the cooperative and a former midfielder on the company team – was opposed to the idea.
A committed socialist, Álvarez emphasized social well-being and focused considerable investment in cultural and recreational activities for co-op members. This included investing heavily in the soccer team and, in turn, proceeds from the club were used to improve the living conditions of the worker-players.
Álvarez eventually relented while insisting that the players exercise control of the team’s structure. He acted as club chairman and the Cementeros joined Mexico’s Second Division in 1961. As described in Part 1 of this series, Cruz Azul quickly rose to prominence after earning promotion to First Division in 1964.
Company ‘royalty’ back in charge?
Skipping ahead two decades to 1986, Guillermo Álvarez Cuevas – son of the beloved former company executive – was named general manager of the soccer team. Two years later, he was appointed chairman of the Cooperative but remained in charge of the soccer team.
Try as he might, “Billy” could not guide the Cementeros back to the top though his willingness to invest ample sums on players, particularly foreigners of some renown, stoked fan loyalty. But it did not pay off. “La Máquina” … never a bride, always a bridesmaid.
A lone title in 1997 was the exception, sandwiched between two runners-up trophies (in 1995 and in 1999), but Álvarez just flashed more cash with critics pointing out that much-ballyhooed acquisitions were failing to live up to their billing. One December 2018 report indicated Cruz Azul had spent 350 million dollars in the preceding 21 years with no trophies to show for it.
Still, the spending helped “Los Celestes” reach three finals in four seasons in 2008-2009 (losing all three, of course) as well as another final – the Clausura 2013 – that saw “La Máquina” squander a late lead to 10-man América in a monumental collapse.
That gut-punch was tough to swallow, but concerns of a different sort had begun to emerge.
Dissension roils upper echelons of Cruz Azul
Away from the playing fields, the Cooperativa La Cruz Azul was rarely in the headlines even as the organization and its 760 associates – including top executive Billy Álvarez and his brother Alfredo, director of Strategic Planning – managed a construction empire that raked in about 30 billion pesos annually.
The two brothers had a tremendous row in 2009 which soon produced whispers of siphoned money and secret bank accounts. Charges alleging criminal mismanagement of co-op funds by Billy were dismissed in 2014 though details of the investigation were not made public.
The discord simmered before bursting into the open in 2018 when a hurriedly organized co-op assembly elected two rivals of the Álvarez brothers to Board of Directors posts. The assembly was ruled illegitimate and the vote annulled not long after, but the political power play in the construction company impacted the management of the soccer team, especially as the rivals accused Billy and his cohorts of corruption.
The Álvarez brothers dismissed the allegations and accused the two men – José Antonio Marín Gutiérrez and Víctor Manuel Velázquez – of trying to get their hands in the company till. The sordid affair forced Billy and Alfredo to close ranks as they fought to regain control of the co-op.
In August 2019, dissidents in the co-op occupied the corporate headquarters of Cemento Cruz Azul, now complaining that Billy had illegally extended his term as company general manager in addition to reiterating the accusations of corruption.
While all this was going on in the executive suites, the Cementeros were lurching from bad to worse. Cruz Azul missed the playoffs in seven of nine seasons from 2013 through 2018.
In Part III of Deconstructing Cruz Azul, we’ll see how the Cementeros rose above the mayhem in corporate HQ while the Álvarez brothers saw their prospects devolve into chaos.