SOMBREROS, MASKS AND YELLOWHEADS: REMEMBERING TOROS NEZA

SOMBREROS, MASKS AND YELLOWHEADS: REMEMBERING TOROS NEZA
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Nezahualcóyotl was the monarch of Tetzcuco before the Spanish conquest in 1492. Poet, architect, warrior and philosopher, he is one of the most notable rulers of Mexican history. His face can even be found on 100 pesos bills, alongside one of his poems.

The municipality of Neza, or City of Neza, as its name states, was born in the 1960’s as part of the independence of some of the districts around the Lake of Texcoco. It took years of discussions and compromises, but as of 1963, the City of Nezahualcóyotl got its recognition and started to grow. Hospitals, parks, schools, and houses were built and the population increased. 

Being such a new and young municipality, a football team and stadium would probably lift their sense of identity. Furthermore, Coyotes de Neza were in need of a stadium. As a result, the Estadio Neza 86 was built with the name “Estadio José López Portillo”. It was one of the venues of the World Cup of 1986, in which Sir Alex Ferguson coached two of his three Scotland matches, and also where Michel Laudrup and Enzo Francesoli scored a goal each in Denmark’s 6-1 trashing of Uruguay. 

But it was the second city’s team that really left a mark in the 90’s in Mexican football. Not as a dominant force, not as the base for the national team, perhaps only in part for the generation of players and now managers that played in that famous team of 97, but mostly because they were unorthodox, non-traditional. They were rebels, they were charismatic, talented, somewhat overbold, mostly irreverent, and they had a big bull in the front of their shirt.

Toros Neza was founded in 1991 and started from the bottom in the Second (which is actually the third) Division. They got promoted in 1993, despite having to play the home leg of the final at Cruz Azul’s stadium, because somehow the Mexican FA questioned the Estadio Neza 86’s suitability... even though it had hosted a World Cup 7 years before. And so, as soon as 1994, Los Toros were already making their debut in the First Division.

And their very first game would be against America, Mexico’s wealthiest, most powerful and popular team, away at the Azteca. Within 15 minutes they were 1-0 down. José Luis Malibrán got the equalizer for Neza, but America took the lead again right before the break. Only five minutes into the second half, though, America got a penalty. Would 3-1 be game, set and match for America at the Azteca? Up Germán Martelotto, with the number 10 on his back, stepped, but the Swiss keeper Toros Neza had signed, Jörg Stiel, saved the kick and it was game on. Still, 2-1 down and with less than 20 minutes left, not many thought Toros could get a point back, and nobody would actually blame them. But in the 75th minute, Manuel Negrete (mostly remembered for his bicycle-kick goal in the World Cup of 1986) got another equalizer for Neza. Could they pull it off? They could probably sit back and go back home with a point from the Azteca. No, it wouldn’t be enough. It wouldn’t be sassy. In the 89th minute, José Luis Malibrán scored the winner for the visitors. 2-3 Neza. Welcome to the league.

It was all uphill from there, and they made sure they were noticed.

Toros Neza were the new kids on the block. They had a project, they were recruiting talent and they got their very own Eric Cantona in the figure of the eccentric Antonio Mohamed. The Argentine made a name for himself from the very first moment he stepped on the pitch. He was as talented and creative with the ball as much as he was spontaneous outside the pitch.

He made his debut in Argentina with Huracán, and after a great couple of years he was part of Fiorentina’s triple signing of Batistuta, Diego Latorre and himself. He was, however, loaned back to Argentina with Boca Juniors, where after a disappointing year he was sent to Independiente and then snatched by Toros Neza. And boy did he make an impression!

“El Turco” Mohamed was a key part of the dressing room. He inspired confidence on the pitch and kept the spirits high off it. “Juan Antonio Hernández gave him a camera as a present... quite a mistake!” recalls Chávez Carretero, Enrique Meza’s assistant at the time, about Mohamed. “Everything was a joke to him. Don Juan gave him some centenarios (commemorative coins) one time, so he could give them away to the rest of the team, but he came into our office and offered us to keep them without telling the team... we refused, but the catch was that he was actually filming us with his camera! After the games, we used to watch his pranks”.

96 was a great year for Toros Neza. After 2 years of settling, they went all they way to the final of the League Cup, which they ultimately lost to Víctor Manuel Vucetich’s Cruz Azul. But that was just an omen. The following season they would kick it off, and with the new system of competition implemented (two short seasons in a footballing year) Toros Neza got themselves all the way into the semifinals of the tournament.

They had assembled a team around their white-shoed star Mohamed, managed by the now renowned figure of Enrique Meza. Pablo Larios, Rodrigo “Pony” Ruiz, Germán Arangio, Guillermo Vázquez, Javier Saavedra, Federico Lussenhoff and the current Mexican national team manager Miguel Herrera were all part of that team. They had to go through a play-off in order to get to the play-offs (don’t you just love Mexican system?) and successfully beat León 4-2 on aggregate. They would go on and face the leaders Atlante in the quarterfinals, and they would absolutely batter them, 9-2 on aggregate. However, they couldn’t hold off Santos and lost 5-2 in the semis.

And yet, Toros Neza got the attention of the country not only because they were good, but also because of their ingenious eccentricities. One day they all showed up to a game in dyed, yellow hair. Mohamed already used an uncommon look, with only the upper part of his head in yellow and the sides all black. He then decided that all of his teammates ought to dye their hair as well, so he drove a stylist to the ground and chose a color for most of them (he even unsuccessfully tried to persuade Enrique Meza into it). Almost every playing member of the team bar Miguel Herrera (who happens to be blonde) showed up with a yellow (or red, some black) head for the following game, and the pre-match photograph appeared in every newspaper, magazine and TV of the time.

But it didn’t stop there. Such had been the hype around the first picture (and watching them playing with their heads in yellow) that for another game they all showed up wearing sombreros. Mohamed had run into a sombreros seller, liked them and bought them all. He thought it would be funny to appear in the pre-match photograph with the whole team wearing sombreros. But could he step it up a notch? At another game the team showed up wearing masks. Some of them were of known political figures such as the former president Carlos Salinas de Gortari, another one was Bart Simpson, someone else wore Gene Simons’ Demon Kiss mask, and some of them were just average Halloween ones.

This team had put Ciudad Neza in the map. Their fans were passionate about the local club, which not many years before didn’t even exist. The identity of the relatively new municipality lied in every step this team took inside the pitch, in every picture circulating in the papers, talked about on TV, radio stations, on the streets.

Toros Neza were hitting it off on and off the pitch. They went all the way to the final of 1997, beating Pumas and Necaxa in the quarterfinals and semis respectively. They had the full support of the neutrals. There they were, a team that showed no fear, no respect for the big boys, who dared to visit legendary Mexican grounds and pass around the ball, give it to Mohamed who’d, even sometimes overweight, pull a magical, off-the-hat pass. Within 3 years of top-flight football they had a real chance of winning the league. Chivas, the other most popular team of the country, separated them from putting their hands on the trophy.

The first leg was played at the Neza 86, and the visitors would take the lead in the 26th minute until Carlos Briseño equalized from a Mohamed assist in the 79th minute. The final would be decided at the Estadio Jalisco.

After 45 hectic minutes of the second leg, Toros Neza crumbled. Chivas scored in the ‘50, ‘51 and ‘55 minutes, and then added another one in the 62nd and yet another in the 74th. By the time Arangio got one back, they were already 5-0 down, and Chivas even scored again to add to the final 7-2 aggregate score. They fell so hard it was almost foreshadowing of what would happen to the club a couple of years later. It was all downhill from there.

After 2 seasons in the middle of the table (barely reaching the play-offs’ play-off), they spent 5 seasons in the lower part of it. Mohamed left for America in 1998, and although in 1999 they signed Brazil international Bebeto, with the hype built around a World Cup winner coming to play to Mexico, he only managed 8 appearances and 2 goals before allegedly going back to Brazil because, as he would later reveal, the then president-owner of the team, Juan Antonio Hernández, “had been threatening” him (he was the only player being paid, and story goes his teammates asked him to interfere for them, which infuriated Hernández).

The players left. “Pony” Ruíz, Miguel Herrera, Mohamed, Lussenhoff, and manager Enrique Meza were all gone by 2000, when Toros Neza got relegated. They played a couple of seasons in the second division, even managing to get to a final (winning meant they had to play another final for the chance to get promoted), but they lost 5-3 on aggregate against La Piedad, who would ultimately play in the first division the following season.

In 2002 Juan Antonio Hernández sold the club (something amazingly common in Mexico, as teams change name, location, badge, and move all of their players along they can even avoid relegation by doing so) and Toros Neza became Gavilanes de Nuevo Laredo. Gavilanes played one season and got relegated, then played a second one in the second division and disappeared after, and with them, what used to be Toros Neza. The city of Neza had climbed high, but as if the fall hadn’t been hard enough when they got relegated, they watched their team sold and disappeared.

In 2010, with a couple of moves and changes of reserves teams (like in Spain, reserve teams can play in the second division), Neza FC appeared (they had to play as Neza UTN one season), reminiscent of Toros Neza, with the new badge in the form of a couple of horns making the “N”. But they weren’t really the old Toros Neza, not in essence, so people didn’t get as involved with them. Not that they had time, either. In 2013 they played the final to get promoted against La Piedad, but lost... and the following year Neza FC was bought and became Delfines of Ciudad del Carmen.

But in Mexican football you can never say a team has really passed away. Someone might buy a club and change its entire structure, location, name and it can become whatever you want it to be. Last month a group of entrepreneurs announced their plan to bring Toros Neza back. Allegedly, Juan Antonio Hernández would be, again, the president, and plans include remodeling for the Neza 86 Stadium.

 Everybody that lived and watched football in the 90‘s in Mexico remembers that Toros Neza team, they were the heart of the decade even though they didn’t have a trophy to show for it. In a time where Mexican football lacks spontaneity, impertinence, if only a glimpse of magic, the memory of that team looms almost as a shadow, looking at what it has become: monotonous.

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