The Story of the Leones Negros

Mariachi wasn't the only sound rolling through Jalisco in the 1970's. Welcome to IBWM, Mike Rodriguez.

Originally, they weren’t even known as the Leones Negros (Black Lions). Debuting in the third division of Mexico’s footballing abyss in 1970, the University of Guadalajara’s football club originally led a mundane existence as the Venados (Deers). Rambling through isolated locales unable to house teams in the higher levels of Mexican football, the Venados won some, lost some, and presumably, drew some. But really, could anyone but the most self- damaging be bothered to check third-division results?

Of course, when access to football is limited, people naturally grow unstable and grope for any rendition of football which crosses their path. However, in the case of the Venados, local access to football was plentiful, if not excessive.

Founded by Spanish forces in 1532 as a settlement designed to defend against hostile natives, the city of Guadalajara grew to become Mexico’s second largest city during the 20th century, a city with a fascination with the most plebeian of pursuits, football. With notable teams such as Deportivo Oro, Nacional Guadalajra, Club Atlas, Estudiantes, and the most popular club team in Mexico, Chivas, the Venados were an insignificant club in a city where football was happening. Real football.

Things began to change for the Venados at the conclusion of the 1972 campaign in the most important of areas: club nickname. Invited to take part in Mexico’s second division for the 1973 season, management at the University of Guadalajara grew concerned that Venados was a bit soft for the new division and the lucrative markets it opened. Adopting the name Leones, the University of Guadalajara had for all purposes, a perfect season. Top of the table, most goals scored, least goals allowed. The Leones were simply dominant. Of course, as fans of U de G were fated to eventually discover, the Leones had a habit of breaking down during critical moments. They lost 3-2 on aggregate during the Championship play-off against the Tigres of Nuevo Leon, forcing the University to purchase a first-division franchise to continue their stumble through Mexican football.

Capitalizing on a vast reserve made possible by student tuition, the Leones ensured that their first year in the top-flight would be a memorable one. Rather than reinforcing the squad with local bargains, the Leones looked towards the abiding marrow of the footballing world, Brazil. The arrival of Brazilians such as Amaral, Jair de Jesus Pereira, and Carlos de Jesús Eusebio, alongside Brazilian coach José Gomes Nogueira, saw a local squad suddenly become cosmopolitan. Long obsessed with more fashionable squads such as Atlas and Chivas, Guadalajara quickly developed a new favorite who promised skill and beauty in a typically stoic and turgid league.

The Brazilian imports were more than a marketing gimmick, and had resumes to legitimize their signings. Pereira was a player regularly called to play an auxiliary position in a Brazil squad that included Brazilian legends Rivelino and Jairzinho. Carlos de Jesús Eusebio himself had only a year previously led Santos to a state championship alongside attacking partner Pele. Supplemented with local talent, the Leones had become a national force, practically overnight.

The new-found interest in the Leones was quickly rewarded with a new nickname and a dominant season. In a league where foreign imports were rare, the Leones soon became known as the Leones Negros (Black Lions), due to the number of black players within the squad. Setting a national record with 42 points, the Leones offered a fashionable and overtly Brazilian style of play, where head coach Nogueira gave them free reign to express themselves. Opposition teams found their only option was to constantly go in hard on the Brazilians, in an attempt to interrupt their movement. The Brazilians responded by doing what Brazilians are prone to do: simply dribble around their would-be attackers.

The Brazilian penchant for the audacious endeared the Leones Negros to opposition fans across the nation. In a league historically dominated by clubs like Chivas, Toluca, America and Cruz Azul, U de G become the second team of fans who hoped for a diversion from the norm. Flags in the U de G colors of black, yellow and red became regular features amongst opposition crowds as demonstrations of support for an almost subversive club. Unfortunately, the dominant regular season did not result in a successful post-season, as the Leones Negros again lost in the Championship playoff.

Rather than dwell on an ultimately unsatisfying season, the Leones Negros augmented the squad with Mexican legends such as El Protillo Manuel Najera, and Nacho Calderon, a keeper whose three-million peso transfer broke league records. Chivas had put a price tag on Nacho only to entertain the keeper’s desire to test the transfer market; they had never expected a club to agree to the exorbitant sum.

With the best of domestic and Brazilian talents, the Leones Negros embarked on their gilded age, stunning opposition crowds with their displays of skill. The club quickly became one of the most popular attractions nationwide, yet would have to wait a few more years for their first official title.

The arrival of a new university President brought with it a new directive for player development: rather than base the club on transferred players, the club would now look towards its youth academy to provide the core of the squad. While the First Team continued their cavalier play, again losing in the 1977 Championship final, U de G’s academy developed and seemed destined for a bright future. Young players such as future U de G captain Jorge Davalos disrupted opposition tactics with their vigor and tenacity. Constantly pressing rival clubs into forced mistakes, the U de G youth squad won their Championship in 1978, giving the Leones Negros their first official football trophy.

The focus on youth paid dividends throughout the 1980s, as the Leones Negros set records for most points in a season, and reached two Championship finals. Yet, as often was the story with U de G, the Leones Negros were unable to convert regular season dominance into post-season success, losing the 1984 and 1989 finals in dramatic fashion, giving up late goals in both games. The 1989 loss especially painful as a 2-1 aggregate lead in the return leg turned into a 4- 3 loss by the 90th minute. The following season saw the Leones Negros win the domestic cup, but an air of resignation surrounded the squad, as it proved the last opportunity for success for the ageing squad who had displayed a constant professionalism, even in their academy years.

A number of mixed seasons brought about by dud transfers and changing University priorities culminated in the Leones Negros being sold to the Mexican Football Federation as a means to reduce the number of First Division squads in order to increase the revenue of other teams, ending a 20-year stay which had seen them grow from an irrelevant third division squad into one of the most entertaining first division sides in Mexican footballing history. A club which garnered plaudits from across the nation for a belief in a freely-attacking style was gone. A large part of Mexican football culture had dissipated due to corporate manoeuvring.

The story of the Leones Negros isn’t one which ends on a down note. Where corporate considerations had resulted in the team being disbanded, corporate considerations also brought about the reformation of the club. 15 years after their last game of professional football in the first division, the Leones Negros entered Mexico’s Second Division after an investment drive by the owner of former rival, Chivas. A mass of futures are available for the Leones Negros. Currently sitting in tenth position with only another month left in the season, U de G will have to look towards next season for a potential promotion push. Judging by the 40,000 fans who showed up for their first Second Division home game, the future looks positive.

To read more from Mike, visit the outstanding Futbol Intellect.