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Showing his stripes

Chivas de Guadalajara owner Vergara, respected by some and criticized by others, has pumped life back into the storied Mexican soccer club.

July 28, 2007|Jaime Cardenas | Times Staff Writer

Chivas de Guadalajara owner Jorge Vergara is seen by many Mexican soccer fans as a visionary or a maniacal tyrant who more resembles a "Citizen Kane" figure than George Steinbrenner.

The Mexican businessman spends money likeSteinbrenner, buys toys like Kane, but also has an artistic and entrepreneurial side that is simply Vergara.

A native of Guadalajara, Vergara bought Chivas in 2002 for a reported $100 million because he had heard that a group of "Americanistas," fans of Club America, the team's biggest rival, was thinking of making an offer to buy the club.

Chivas was founded in 1906 and is one of the oldest, most storied and beloved soccer teams in Mexico, and he didn't want some outsiders to come in. Think Boston Red Sox fans trying to buy the New York Yankees.

"I couldn't let that happen," Vergara said in a phone interview this week.

He didn't waste time turning around a Chivas franchise that had made only three appearances in the Primera Division league finals in the 25 seasons prior to his arrival. Under Vergara's ownership, Chivas has reached the finals twice, winning it once -- the Apertura 2006 title, which was the club's first title since 1997 and 11th overall, tops among Mexican teams.

Vergara is often criticized for paying too much for his team and not always allowing players to transfer to Europe. But everything he has done, Vergara said, he has done with the team's fans in mind

"To them, Chivas is the most important thing that exists. And, for me, the most important thing is to do everything possible to keep them happy," he said.

And he can do that, given he has pockets as deep as the Grand Canyon.

Chivas is most loved for its tradition of playing only Mexican-born players, and Vergara is not afraid to go after the country's top players. He made unsuccessful runs this transfer season at Atlas' left winger Andres Guardado and Barcelona's teenage star striker Giovanni Dos Santos.

His nonstop chase for top talent triggers comparisons to Yankees owner Steinbrenner, but Vergara said that's an insult. "I don't compare myself with anybody," he said. "I am who I am."

Vergara started his business empire by peddling pork meat in the early 1980s and selling condominiums but has risen to become one of the richest and most influential men in Mexico.

He also did some work with Herbalife, the dietary supplement company. Vergara then set up his own company, Omnilife, after Herbalife said no to his suggestion to offer dietary supplements in liquid form instead of tablets in 1991.

Omnilife is now one of the top 200 companies in Mexico, and its worldwide annual sales reach nearly $1 billion.

He owns three jets, one a Boeing 757 equipped with a bedroom and living room that's custom-made to carry 37 passengers.

His movie company, Anhelo Producciones, financed the Oscar-nominated film "Y Mama Tambien" in 2001 and is readying to finance "Mexico 68," a movie about the massacre of a student protest in the country's capital 10 days before the start of the 1968 Olympics.

But Vergara is best known for being the owner of Chivas Guadalajara, although he also owns Deportivo Saprissa of Costa Rica and Chivas USA of Major League Soccer, and recently tried to buy a team in Spain.

These days he's often mentioned in a list of international soccer owners that includes Chelsea's Roman Abramovich, AC Milan's Silvio Berlusconi and Manchester United's Malcom Glazer, among others, as those who are not afraid to spend money to win titles.

"He's a great businessman with a very global vision, he's a great visionary," said Decio de Maria, general secretary of the Mexican football federation.

"He's someone that likes to conquer and doesn't settle with just staying inside of Mexico and wants to expand."

But conquering, expanding and simply acquiring things is not something that Vergara is interested in. Having fun and winning titles are.

"I do what I love to do," he said. "And I'm successful because what I love to do, I do it well."

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jaime.cardenas@latimes.com

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