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Chivas owner Jorge Vergara rides wave of popularity, criticism to success

The iconoclastic, motorcycle-riding 54-year-old turned around Mexico's most popular sports franchise, Chivas de Guadalajara, which had been on the brink of financial ruin.

August 07, 2009|Kevin Baxter

GUADALAJARA — The first thing you notice about Jorge Vergara are his socks. He's not wearing any.

"One day when I was 11 or 12, I thought, 'Why do you wear socks?,' " he says. He couldn't come up with a suitable answer, so he hasn't worn them since.

That kind of logic hasn't always played well in the button-down Mexican business world. But it's not the only sector of Mexican society the iconoclastic Vergara is shaking up. In the seven years since he bought the financially troubled Chivas de Guadalajara soccer team, Vergara has been hailed and hated, loved and loathed -- often at the same time by the same people.

To understand why any of this matters outside Chivas' home state of Jalisco, though, you have to know a little bit about Chivas, which is less a soccer team than it is a 103-year-old national institution.

The most popular sports franchise in Mexico, Chivas is the only soccer team in the elite first division that has never used a non-Mexican player. And its huge fan base extends north of the border, one reason why Chivas is playing a friendly on Saturday against FC Barcelona in San Francisco.

The face of the Chivas franchise is Vergara, a graying, bilingual, motorcycle-riding 54-year-old who made his millions peddling nutritional supplements and whose passion, critics say, clouds his judgment. But critics can't question the team's success under Vergara, including winning a record 11th national championship, becoming profitable again, and in December his team will move into a modern 45,500-seat artificial-turf stadium shaped like a volcano with a cloud on top. Last week Chivas opened play in the second of the Mexican first division's two annual seasons, heavily favored to win another title.

If all that makes Vergara sound a little like the Dallas Cowboys' Jerry Jones or the New York Yankees' George Steinbrenner, you're not the first to reach that conclusion.

Still, like Jones and Steinbrenner, Vergara is as controversial as his team has been successful. Consider:

* After Chivas opened the current season with a pair of losses, Vergara turned to his Twitter account to rip the team.

"I'm frustrated and we can't keep on going like this," he wrote. "I can't say what we're going to do, but we need to find a solution immediately."

* Chivas has had nine coaches in seven years under Vergara, including three in a 17-day stretch this spring.

* During negotiations for a new broadcast deal a few years back, Vergara kept his team off TV for two weeks until Mexican TV giant Televisa paid an unprecedented $200 million for Mexican soccer rights, but not before alienating some fans.

* He frequently meddles in coaching decisions, including demoting popular striker Carlos Ochoa to Chivas' top developmental team last spring, when the team missed the playoffs. (Ochoa has since joined another club.)

Despite it all, Chivas' popularity is at an all-time high. Vergara likes to recount a story from a few seasons back when a fan waited until after his marriage to tell his newlywed wife that he'd canceled their honeymoon and instead booked a trip to Guadalajara for a Chivas game. "It's the team that everyone is watching," says Ochoa.

Juan Serrates, a Jalisco native and longtime Chivas fan now living in Hawthorne, added: "You love [Vergara] sometimes, other times you're looking at him and you're thinking, 'What are you doing?' But there's something to his madness."

Even critics agree that Vergara saved the money-losing franchise, buying Chivas when fans feared it was about to be sold to backers of the team's hated rival, Club America of Mexico City.

"It was being destroyed," Vergara recalled. "They were buying and selling players [with] the archrival, which I haven't done and which I will never do. The tradition was going away."

The tradition Chivas fans care most about has kept the team from using non-Mexican players -- although the definition of who is and isn't Mexican has blurred in recent years.

For example, when forward Jesus Padilla made his Chivas debut three years ago the team's website said he was born in Jalisco. It still does, even though Padilla, 22, and the team now concede he was born and raised in San Jose, Calif., and didn't move to Mexico until he was in high school.

"We go by the definition in the Constitution," Vergara says. "Mexican law says that you are a Mexican if you are born outside Mexico and both parents are Mexican."

Protecting its reputation as a Mexican-only team is vital for Chivas, because many fans identify with its Mexicanisimo more than anything else. Vergara even had the team's bylaws amended to assure Chivas never plays a non-Mexican.

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