Is Mexican football's top flight ready for Club Tijuana to live up to the town's bawdy reputation?
When people in San Diego talk about heading south of the border, there are a few common reactions. Some will express horror of the lawless land down there where the drug gangs are running wild. Others will turn misty-eyed and tell you about the bawdy fun to be had in TJ. Others still will tell you it is not so bad and they don't know what all the fuss is about, pointing out the great food and vibrant artistic scene. Many opinions, many fears, many rumours. One thing is for sure though, and I'm never one to miss an opportunity to quote Ian Rush, it's like being in a different country.
Heading down to Tijuana from San Diego, most of the traffic at the border is heading north. There is almost always a queue to get back to el norte, going south though there often isn't even a guard on duty, you walk through the gate and you're in Mexico.
Soon though there will be another reason, aside from the lyrics of the Manu Chao song, for the traffic heading south to increase. In a little over two weeks Club Tijuana, or Club Tijuana Xoloitzcuintles de Caliente to give them their full name, will play their first game in the Mexican Primera División. On the 24th July the Xolos, to give them their short name, will host Monarcas Morelia as they make their debut in the Clausura of the Mexican league's top tier competition. Tijuana's latest team were only founded in 2007 and rose rapidly through the divisions, gaining promotion to the Primera División with a 2-1 win over Irapuato in May 2011.
The Xolos (named for a type of hairless dog common to the area) are packed with talent and the management are showing no signs of being overawed by the step up to the next level. Shortly after claiming promotion Club Tijuana began to plan for the coming season, signing Colombian Dayro Moreno from Once Caldas from under the noses of Portuguese giants Sporting Lisbon, Leandro Augusto from Pumas and Fernando Arce from Santos Laguna, Argentinian striker José Sand who spent the last 6 months on loan at Deportivo La Coruña in Spain, Egidío Arévalo Rios from Peñarol in Uruguay and goalkeeper Cirilio Saucedo from Tigres amongst others. They have been one of the busiest Mexican sides in the transfer market so far and the message is the team from Tijuana are in the Primera División to stay, and compete.
On the pitch everything is going well, yet trouble is never far away from Tijuana. The controversy is primarily linked to the ownership of the team. Officially the club is run by 24 year-old president Jorge Alberto Hank, the son of Jorge Hank Rhon, himself the son of Carlos Hank Gonzalez. Grupo Hank is one of the most powerful, most wealthy and most dubious families in Mexico, and have been called a 'threat to the US'. The grandfather Carlos Hank died in 2001 but during his lifetime he went from being a candy-selling primary school teacher to become one of the wealthiest men in Mexico, creating a billion dollar business empire encompassing banking and transportation companies, and an airline. He is even rumoured to have hand-picked former President of Mexico Carlos Salinas de Gortari.
His son Jorge Hank is the source of even more controversy. He is the former mayor of Tijuana and owner of Grupo Caliente, whose interests include Mexico's largest gambling company. He is reportedly under constant surveillance when he or his private jets enter the US. One of the cables released by Wikileaks, written by the former US Consul General in Tijuana, included the line that Jorge Hank's Agua Caliente racetrack was 'a haven for organised crime on the border'. Recently two guns found in a raid on his house were determined to have been used in armed assaults in Baja California. He was arrested during the raid but was quickly freed, and has yet to face any further action. He has also been linked to the assassination of a journalist for the crusading Mexican newspaper Zeta in 1988. Two security guards who worked for Jorge Hank were found guilty and given 25 years in prison. They had no connection with the victim, but their employer had been criticised in a series of articles by the journalist prior to his death.
Jorge Hank also has other vices, particularly animals. He is a collector (some say trafficker) of rare and endangered species. He has been stopped at Mexico City's airport with a dozen cases filled with ivory tusks and ocelot skins. His car was searched at the Tijuana border crossing on the way back from San Diego and was found to contain a four-week old white tiger cub with the approximate value of $45,000. He also set up the Reino Aventura wildlife park that acquired an illegally captured orca whale named Keiko. The whale went on to become the star of the Free Willy movies before it was returned to the wild in the waters off Iceland, where he was first captured. Hank though says his favourite animal is women (seriously), indeed his wikipedia page states he has fathered 19 different children with several women.
There also questions about potential conflicts of interest given that Grupo Caliente is involved in organised gambling, and has close ties to Club Tijuana, and whether this should exclude them from involvement in the football club. Club Tijuana have sought to distance themselves from the activities of Jorge Hank and his Grupo Caliente, recently re-affirming that the team's president is his son Jorge Alberto, and he has full control over the team and its affairs. The questions remain though. Given that Tijuana play home games at the Caliente stadium, part of the Agua Caliente racetrack complex, owned by Grupo Caliente, the distinction between Club Tijuana and the affairs of Jorge Hank Rhon will be difficult to maintain.
The grand ambitions of Club Tijuana include expanding into Southern California, to take advantage of the large Latino population and the gap in the soccer market in the San Diego area. The nearest Major League Soccer teams are in Los Angeles, yet San Diego continues to attract foreign sides for friendly games, for example Real Madrid will play one of their three games on their US tour at Qualcomm Stadium (the others are in LA and Philadelphia). The soccer market in San Diego is there but it is unlikely that the city will gain an MLS franchise any time soon. If people want to see top class soccer the best option for some time to come will be to make the short journey across the border to Tijuana.
People will travel to watch a game for the novelty, but they will continue to come if the team plays well. It is clear that the investment in the playing staff and the stadium is being made, and looks set to continue, regardless of where the funds are coming from. The coach, former Mexico international Joaquin del Olmo, has a big job to bring some order to this team and get them ready to compete in the tough Primera División. With the financial backing from the management, plus strong local support in Tijuana, combined with the potential of mobilising a large fanbase in Southern California, the prospects look good though.
If the short history of the Xolos is anything to go by it will be an interesting ride. Mexican soccer was already packed with incident and action, and it is about to get a whole lot more eventful. Welcome to Tijuana.
To read more from Alistair you can search his back catalogue on IBWM or visit his excellent blog here