Featuring an unlikely rise to prominence, the story of Club Deportivo Cruz Azul is one that would make Hollywood’s film executives sit up and take notice.
Los Cementeros have their roots in a modest workers’ cooperative that is now one of Latin America’s largest cement companies. Charting a similar course to the firm it still represents and building from a solid base, the football club grew from a tiny provincial outfit to become a giant on the national scene, a trophy-laden transformation that would undoubtedly look good on the silver screen.
Since turning professional and breaking into the Mexican top flight in the early 1960s, Cruz Azul have made a compelling contribution to the country’s footballing annals, enjoying a glorious run of success in the 1970s and suffering a succession of near misses in recent times. Coached by Enrique Meza, the class of 2010 currently leads the Mexican First Division standings and look well capable of bringing home the title for the first time in 13 years.
Birth of an institution
Founded in 1927, Club Deportivo Cruz Azul was just one of several sports teams set up for the workers of the Compania Cementos Cruz Azul, based in the city of Jasso, in the state of Hidalgo. An amateur outfit for the first 30 years of its existence, Cruz Azul played their matches against the reserve teams of the first division clubs.
Then, in 1960, and under the guidance of the company’s general manager Guillermo Alvarez, who would later become the club’s president, the team turned professional, taking their place in the Mexican second division.
Success soon came their way. Four years later Hungarian coach Jorge Marik led them into the top flight after a fierce promotion battle with Poza Rica. To begin with, their impressive rise from humble beginnings brought them the admiration of the nation’s big clubs, although that feeling would quickly change as the plucky new boys began to challenge for honours. In 1968/69 the miracle became a reality as Raul Cardenas steered Los Cementeros to a stunning maiden league title.
The making of a legend
That championship success was merely the start. Between 1970 and 1980 Cruz Azul were masters of all they surveyed, winning six more titles. Their enduring success was founded on a solid backbone formed by home-grown central-defensive duo Javier Guzman and Ignacio Flores, Argentinian goalkeeper Miguel Marin - one of the finest imports the Mexican game has ever seen - midfielder Alberto Quintano and striker Eladio Vera.
Such was their appetite for trophies that the team became known as La Maquina Celeste (The Blue Machine), their domination extending to the CONCACAF Zone with successive Champions Cup wins in 1969, 1970 and 1971. In doing so, they captured the hearts of the country’s football fans and soon began to rival America and Guadalajara in nationwide popularity.
Much of the credit for that should go to the decision made by club president Guillermo Alvarez to relocate Cruz Azul to the majestic Estadio Azteca in 1971, a move that made the former cooperative team a truly national concern.
After the highs of the 70s, the decade that followed brought nothing but disappointment. Three times Los Cementeros reached the league play-off final and three times they came away empty-handed, near-misses made all the harder to take by the identity of their victorious rivals: Pumas in 1981, Guadalajara in 1987 and America in 1989.
With the talismanic Alvarez having long since passed away, the glory days seemed to have gone forever, a feeling confirmed by another final defeat in 1995, this time at the hands of Necaxa.
Redemption was close at hand, however. After moving across the capital to the smaller but more homely Estadio Azul, Cruz Azul returned to the pinnacle once more. Inspired by the goals of the peerless Carlos Hermosillo, a team featuring exciting young prospects Oscar Perez and Francisco Palencia overcame Leon in an epic final to win the 1997 Invierno title, the eighth league crown in their history and their last to date.
The highlight of the years that followed was a history-making run in the 2001 Copa Libertadores, in which they became the first Mexican side to reach the final of the famous competition.
Led by Perez, Palencia and the all-action Paraguayan striker Saturnino Cardozo, a side packed with home-grown talent disposed of Argentinian big guns River Plate and Rosario Central before facing Carlos Bianchi’s mighty Boca Juniors in the two-legged decider. However, after levelling the tie with a hugely impressive 1-0 win at the Bombonera, Cruz Azul’s dreams were shattered when they lost 3-1 in the penalty-decider.
The club’s fortunes have hardly improved since then. Acquiring an unwanted reputation as nearly men, Los Cementeros have contested five finals in the league and the CONCACAF Champions League in the last three years and lost the lot, much to the anguish of their loyal fans.
Yet if their start to the new season is anything to go by, Meza’s men could be about to end 13 years of hurt. With front two Javier Orozco and Emmanuel Villa bang in form, and Argentinian midfielder Cristian Gimenez and the Mexico international Gerardo Torrado also distinguishing themselves, Cruz Azul lead the overall league standings and have just beaten America for the first time in 16 attempts in the Clásico Joven. Having ended one hoodoo, could La Maquina Celeste be about to break another?
The Estadio Azul is the oldest stadium still in use in Mexico and one of its finest venues. Situated in the district of Colonia Nochebuena, in the centre of the Mexican capital, it rises high above the buildings surrounding it, which include the equally famous Plaza de Toros Mexico. Opened in 1947, the Estadio Azul has a capacity of 35,161.