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Arrival of USMNT’s Cade Cowell prompts more questions about Chivas long-standing policy

In November of 2012, Club Deportivo de Guadalajara’s late president Jorge Vergara mandated that the Liga MX team put out a press release with a very specific message. It had been 106 years since the club’s founding and Vergara sought to maintain Chivas’ century-old tradition of only fielding Mexican players. 

“Guadalajara has had, currently has and will continue to exclusively field Mexican players in its ranks,” the press release said. “Chivas does not have plans to change what has been one of the most important and influential traditions in Mexican football, to only field with Mexican players.” 

What followed was a list of parameters, guided by the Mexican government’s constitution, that spelled out which individuals would be considered Mexican citizens, and thus, eligible to wear the then 11-time first division champions’ famed red and white striped kit. 

Any player who was born in Mexico can play for Chivas. That’s easy enough to understand. Additionally, a foreign-born player whose mother or father are Mexican-born also qualifies, according to the 2012 press release, as do foreign-born players whose parents are naturalized Mexican citizens. But if a player wasn’t born in Mexico and suits up for Chivas, fans and members of the Mexican press take umbrage and point out the inconsistencies in the club’s philosophy. 

Vergara made a point to end the aforementioned press release with a definitive clause that, for him, was non-negotiable.

“Mexican players who are eligible to play for another national team via birthplace, will not have a place at (Chivas) organization,” the press release read. “At Guadalajara, only Mexican players that choose to play for the Mexican national team will be admitted.” 

Before USMNT winger Cade Cowell, who was signed by Chivas this month from the San Jose Earthquakes for a $4 million fee, U.S. international Alejandro Zendejas caused a stir when he entered a 2016 Liga MX match for Chivas as a second-half substitute. Zendejas was born in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, but his birthplace was listed as El Paso, Texas when he was part of the FC Dallas academy prior to joining Chivas. 

Zendejas had also previously represented the U.S. as a youth international. In order to play for Chivas, he had to renounce all allegiances to the U.S. men’s national team, which he did, reportedly. After departing Chivas, Zendejas, eventually chose to play for the U.S. over Mexico in the spring of 2023, despite having already made two appearances with El Tri. Vergara’s strict national team policy has since been scrapped. 

In 2022, Mexican-born striker Santiago Ormeño represented the Peruvian national team as an active Chivas player. It was then that the current leadership at Chivas decided to ease that one particular restriction from the Vergara era. Signing Ormeño signaled a culture change at Chivas, a somewhat progressive decision for the club that did little more than extend the vagueness of their player profile guidelines.

Chivas have a unique history, but like so many clubs in Latin America, Chivas was founded by a foreign owner, Belgian immigrant Edgar Everaert, who named the team Unión Football Club in 1906. The squad featured players from France, Belgium and Mexico. It wasn’t until the mid-1920s that Chivas established their policy to only field Mexican players. 

Former club president Ignacio López, who ran the club from 1944-1948, once famously said, “This club will succeed or perish, until the end, upon the foundation of the talent and sacrifice of 11 Mexican players.” It was a rallying cry that would sum up the club’s ethos for decades to come. However, the Chivas sporting department has featured several foreigners over the years, namely the late Johan Cruyff, who briefly served as an advisor to the club in 2012. The current sporting director at Chivas is former Spanish national team and Real Madrid legend Fernando Hierro. 

In December of 2023, the club fired Serbian head coach Veljko Paunovic after two seasons. Ex-Argentina national team and Real Madrid midfielder Fernando Gago was hired as his successor. Chivas last experienced success under Argentine manager Matías Almeyda, who led the club to a Liga MX title and a CONCACAF Champions League trophy in 2017 and 2018, respectively. So, Chivas players have to be Mexican citizens, but the club’s coaches and executives do not. 

In world football today, there are only a handful of clubs other than Chivas that don’t sign foreign players, or that maintain strict recruiting guidelines, although it’s a dying practice. The most recognizable club to do so is of course La Liga’s Athletic Bilbao. For over 125 years, Athletic Bilbao has only signed players who were born or raised in the Basque Country of Spain. 

Cowell’s arrival to Mexico has reignited a debate about the Chivas philosophy. Recruiting Mexican-American dual nationals is nothing new, but it’s certainly a monumental shift for the club to have signed an active U.S. international who speaks very little Spanish, and who in 2023 said that he did not “have much of a connection” to the country. 

Cowell made his Liga MX debut on Sunday, entering in the 62nd minute in Chivas’ 1-0 loss to title contenders Tigres. Cowell was active throughout the second half, coming close to an equalizer and demonstrating his pace on the left flank. Gago was pleased with Cowell’s performance, telling reporters after the loss that Cowell has adjusted well since arriving in Guadalajara.

But before Cowell stepped foot on a Liga MX pitch, pundits in Mexico referred to the signing as simply another example of how outdated Chivas’ nationalistic stance truly is in today’s football — a sport that has become increasingly internationalized at the league and national team levels. Liga MX in particular has been flooded with foreign players, many of whom are signed by Mexico’s biggest clubs. 

MedioTiempo’s Miguel Angel Arizpe wrote that Cowell’s arrival should be considered a watershed moment for the club. It’s an opportunity, Arizpe opined, to end “an ancient, mediocre, loser, and non-productive rule.” In other words, Chivas could’ve said outright ‘We’ve signed a foreign player,’ but they didn’t. 

Arizpe didn’t hold back regarding Cowell’s legal status as a Mexican citizen, either.

“Let’s not fool ourselves,” Arizpe said. “Cowell received dual citizenship because his mother’s cousin’s uncle’s great-grandmother’s granddaughter ate at Taco Bell. That doesn’t make him a player that characterizes the Chivas spirit.” 

When Chivas revealed Cowell on social media with a post saying “there are Mexicans who speak English,” TUDN’s Mexico national team reporter Gibran Araige retorted on X with “It’s time you sign foreign players and stop with this! (Chivas) would be more competitive…(Chivas) no longer knows how to justify their “tradition.” Araige later said, albeit sarcastically, that he never imagined the day when Chivas fans would root for the U.S. 

All of this shows that Cowell’s signing moved the needle in Mexico, but it wasn’t because of his talent. The 20-year-old is a player who is still developing as a professional and he hasn’t played a significant role for his national team, either. And yet, Cowell will be judged and assessed more harshly in Mexico than a seasoned professional. But that comes with the territory when you’re a Mexican-American dual national playing for Chivas.

(Photo: Alfredo Lopez/Jam Media/Getty Images)

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