Midfielder Renato Ibarra (right), then with club America, has a unique way of defending UANL Tigres midfielder Javier Aquino (left)) in the first half of a Leagues Cup match at BBVA Stadium Aug. 20, 2019. (Thomas B. Shea-USA TODAY Sports)

By Owen Diana

FrontRowSoccer.com Contributor

Since March 2018, the momentum surrounding a potential merger between Liga MX and Major Soccer League has grown apace.

The fomentation of a strategic partnership between the two most powerful soccer leagues in North America has seen Mexico’s top division take drastic steps towards an eventual fusion, most notably with the elimination of promotion and relegation for the next six years in April.

Mexican teams also have shunned the Copa Libertadores in favor of more games against MLS foes via the Campeones Cup and Leagues Cup. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, a Mexican 11 was set to participate in the MLS all-star game for the first time.

The 2026 World Cup provides the perfect opportunity to announce the creation of a super league, but there are still a myriad of structural and social issues that Liga MX must resolve first. What are these problems, and what are the chances that Mexican soccer’s decision-makers can fix them in time for 2026?

Fan violence

With an absence of supporters in the stands, the worrying trend of violence in and around Mexican stadiums has disappeared from view. Before the pandemic, however, the prospect of deaths at a Liga MX match was becoming a very real possibility.

A burgeoning barra brava culture, which attempted to replicate the passionate atmospheres seen throughout South America, has not been tamped down with sufficient force. Four instances of skirmishes outside Liga MX grounds in the first half of the Apertura 2018 culminated with a Tigres fan in critical condition after being stabbed and beaten by followers of fierce city rivals Monterrey. After that incident, Liga MX president Enrique Bonilla absolved the league of any responsibility.

Given that the fracas before the Clásico Regio occurred more than two miles away from Tigres’ Estadio Universitario, Bonilla’s declaration was reasonable. Nevertheless, Liga MX also has been unable to control tempers inside its grounds. A local derby between San Luis and Querétaro in October 2019 ended prematurely after brutal exchanges between rival ultras forced hundreds of fans onto the field for protection.

In contrast, MLS has cultivated a family-friendly matchday experience. Soccer-specific stadiums have helped foster a peaceful coexistence between supporters groups and the general population, while the relative lack of interest in the sport compared with the deeply held sentiments in Mexico is also a factor. Although that enthusiasm must remain intact, Liga MX should be able to eliminate the radical element with greater oversight and tighter policing.

Late payments

In August 2018, Mexican coach Guillermo Vázquez gave an interview on the popular soccer talk show Fútbol Picante. Just hours after resigning from Veracruz over three months of unpaid salaries owed to him and his staff, Vázquez spoke at length about the shady financial dealings of Tiburones Rojos owner Fidel Kuri.

According to the former Pumas manager, the genesis of his departure was the controversial practice of double contracts, which have been commonplace in Mexican soccer for decades. It has allowed players, coaches and owners to hide earnings from federal tax authorities. Steps have since been taken to eradicate the custom, but double contracts alone do not explain the worrying regularity with which clubs fail to pay their staff on time.

Though Liga MX is fervently followed in a nation of 126 million people, there is a dearth of potential buyers for the country’s clubs. This phenomenon explains the existence of multi-ownership, which has drawn the ire of FIFA in recent months.

Soccer’s international governing body has asked Mexican Football Federation president Yon de Luisa to do away with the system, but that may prove easier said than done. There are three cases of multi-ownership in the first division, with those arrangements accounting for a third of all top flight teams. Liga MX directors must strike a careful balance between complying with FIFA’s demands and ensuring that the Veracruz experience does not repeat itself.

Stance on social issues

On July 3, Ecuadorian winger Renato Ibarra was officially presented with new club Atlas. The lithe attacker established himself as one of Liga MX’s best players during his time at Mexico City giants América, but his signing for Los Zorros drew headlines for a different reason. Just a few months earlier, Ibarra spent a week in jail after a brutal attack on his pregnant girlfriend, Lucely Chalá, and her sister, Karen.

Although the forward escaped further penal punishment after charges of attempted feminicide, attempted abortion and aggravated family violence were dropped, it was expected that Mexican soccer authorities would take additional disciplinary measures. Ibarra, however, has gotten off with what amounts to a slap on the wrist.

América separated the South American from their squad but did not rescind his contract, as they did with a group of youth team members after a video was released of them making fun of the feminist protests in Mexico at the end of December. Ibarra probably will never don the famed Azulcrema shirt again, but that does not excuse the fact that the money América could recoup from an eventual permanent transfer is more important to them than taking a strong stance against gender violence.

Las Águilas deserves a fair share of scrutiny, but Liga MX failed to take action as well. They released a statement condemning “all types of violence on and off the field” shortly after Ibarra was arrested, but did not even suspend the player.

The leniency shown towards Ibarra stands in stark contrast to how MLS handled the Jesse González situation. In June, the ex-FC Dallas goalkeeper was suspended indefinitely after accusations of domestic violence were leveled against him. After an investigation by the league, the 25-year old’s contract was terminated in early August.

Incidents like Ibarra’s and González’s can result in huge public relations black eyes, as was seen a few years ago in the NFL with Ray Rice. MLS would be reticent to formalize a fusion if they felt that their new partner could damage their carefully crafted image.

Liga MX must adjust its moral compass.