Sports

The Blue Curse

Cruz Azul, the unluckiest team in Mexican soccer, has a chance at redemption.

Pablo Barrera of Cruz Azul reacts after missing a penalty kick against Jaguares during their Mexican Apertura 2013 tournament football match in Mexico City, on July 30, 2013.
Pablo Barrera of Cruz Azul reacts after missing a penalty kick against Jaguares during their Mexican Apertura 2013 tournament football match in Mexico City, on July 30, 2013.
Ronaldo Schemidt/AFP/Getty Images

Cruzazulear.

Even if you speak fluent Spanish, it’s rather unlikely you’ll understand the word. Don’t bother looking it up in any dictionary–it’s not there, either. But any Mexican soccer fan will gladly tell you what it means: to lose, at the last possible moment and in the most spectacular way imaginable, just when glory seems to be within one’s grasp. The verb’s etymology refers to Cruz Azul, a historic team in the Mexican league so supremely adept at self-sabotage that it seems to carry the burden of a curse virtually unmatched, in its cruelty, in the world of soccer.

Once glorious and dominant, Cruz Azul hasn’t been able to win a championship in over 20 years. What is has managed to do, though, is come agonizingly close to the trophy only to let go in consistently dramatic fashion again and again. Since 1997, when it last won the Mexican league title in an exciting finish, Cruz Azul has lost five finals. Before that, it had lost four more.

Every time, it has fallen with masochistic flair. In the 2013 finals, for example, Cruz Azul led America, its bitter cross-town rival, by two goals with just five minutes to go on the clock. It still lost, with a header from the opposing goalie, deflected into the back of the net, against all imaginable odds, by a Cruz Azul defender. In that and almost every other final it has played in over this couple of decades, the team has managed to squander every opportunity to exorcize its demons. It has lost both at home and away; in regular time, extra-time and penalty kicks; through farcical mistakes, maddening tactical blunders or preposterous bad luck. A genuine catalog of frustration for its devoted fans.

Cruz Azul wasn’t always like this. I would know.

In the late ’70s, when I became a fan, the team was known for the exact opposite of cruzazulear: It won five titles over 10 years. Known as “the blue machine,” the Mexico City–based team indeed proved to be a well-oiled soccer engine, dismantling opponents with a virtuous combination of defensive prowess and extraordinary attacking speed. Led by the fabulous goalkeeper Miguel Marín (a legend despite being known for one of the most ludicrous own-goals on record), Cruz Azul ruled the decade and earned legions of devoted fans. I became one in 1978, when my father took me to a Cruz Azul league match. We sat somewhere along the upper deck of the massive Azteca Stadium and watched the boys in blue demolish their hapless opposition. One, two, three, and then four goals fell, to the crowd’s evident delight. I was hypnotized. The team would go on to win that year’s league title and the next one as well. After that, well, let’s just say cruzazulear became a thing.

Over the years, Cruz Azul fans have had to endure an avalanche of jokes and memes, resigning ourselves to the heartbreaking proximity of excellence and, then, the predictable collapse. The string of losses has seemed to scar the team, with inexplicable defeats taking place in league games as well. In a 2016 game, Cruz Azul faced America, the opponent that had beaten it in that tragic final match three years earlier. The team played with astonishing hunger, determined to leave the past behind. After the first half, it led 3 to nil. A refreshing rout seemed to be in store. But then old ghosts crept back, and America scored four goals in rapid succession. “You could see they were mentally broken even when they were ahead by three goals!” an America player told me, in a private conversation out of respect for his Cruz Azul colleagues, after the game. “It’s hard to understand.”

Still, no sporting curse lasts forever. For every heartbreak at Fenway Park, there’s a 2004 Red Sox. For Cruz Azul, that team might just be the one that is back in the finals of the Mexican league, a two-match series to be played in Mexico City on Thursday and Sunday. The team, coached by Portuguese disciplinarian Pedro Caixinha, finished at the top of the table, won the Apertura 2018 Copa MX championship, and then handily made its way through the league quarterfinals and semifinals. A resilient and courageous mix of Mexican talent and a handful of virtuosos from abroad (like Argentinian magical midfielder Iván Marcone), Cruz Azul boasts the best defense in the league. On Thursday, it will play the first leg of the final in the same Azteca stadium where I fell in love with it four decades ago and where, in 2013, it last played for the title. On the other side of the field, Cruz Azul will once again find America, its legendary antagonist, the team with the best attacking record of the tournament. On the sidelines, America will once again feature coach Miguel Herrera, whose insane celebrations stung so deeply five years ago. Revenge is in the air!

The stage is set for an exorcism. Cruzazulear, a cacophonous word to begin with, could finally be crumpled up and thrown out the window, the ugly neologism that it is.