GUADALAJARA — Chivas of Guadalajara, Mexico's most popular and successful soccer team, fired its head coach for the second time in less than three weeks Thursday, throwing the franchise back into disarray four days before its most important game of the season.
Former Chivas star Omar Arellano, who has been under intense pressure to win since taking over the struggling team March 30, was told he would be fired as coach less than 24 hours after a listless Chivas played Lanus of Chile to a disappointing scoreless tie Tuesday night in a Copa Libertadores match.
He was replaced by former Mexico national team assistant coach Francisco "Paco" Ramirez, who made headlines in the United States two months ago when he slapped defender Frankie Hejduk after the Americans' 2-0 win over Mexico in a World Cup qualifier.
"We're enormously happy to have this opportunity to work for such an important club, with its great history and its great relationship with its fans," said Ramirez, who has never managed a soccer team in Mexico's first division. "It's a precious challenge. I believe in the capacity of Club Chivas."
Ramirez's debut as coach will be Sunday in a sold-out Jalisco Stadium against arch-rival America of Mexico City in a game so big, it's known in Mexico simply as "The Classic." And it's a game with huge postseason implications because the teams are separated by only two points with four matches left in the battle for their group's final automatic invitation to the Clasura's eight-team playoff tournament, the Liguilla.
When Chivas missed the postseason in Mexico's fall tournament, the Apertura, it was the first time it had failed to advance since fall 2005.
"We have to win the Classic. That's the responsibility of the team," said Jorge Vergara, Chivas' flamboyant owner, who has changed coaches nine times since taking over the franchise in 2002, winning just one title. "There's no excuse if we don't beat America.
"We couldn't be afraid to make the tough decision. The team needs a change."
Although some players were said to be privately upset with Arellano's quick departure, midfielder Jesus Padilla was hopeful the change would light a fire under the team.
"I was surprised. But soccer is like that," he said. "Our job is to play on the field, so we've got to do our best on the field. The players could be motivated. When there's a new coach, you start from zero. And whoever does the best is going to play.
"They're all professional and they know that coaches come and they go."
Arellano, a former Chivas assistant coach, guided the team to one win in three tries since taking over for Efrain Flores, who himself lasted only 18 months in the post. Arellano is reportedly seeking a position with the national team under new Coach Javier Aguirre, who Arellano worked under with Atletico de Madrid.
Mexico's vacant assistant's job is one previously held by Ramirez, who was fired when the entire coaching staff was let go two weeks ago.