It’s been nearly three decades since Querétaro experienced a memorable moment in soccer. The colonial city in central Mexico hosted the famous 1986 match in which Spain’s Emilio Butragueño made four goals to obliterate Denmark 5-0 in the second round of the World Cup.
Not much has happened since then in Querétaro’s Corregidora Stadium, a small replica of the Estadio Azteca. That is, until the arrival of Ronaldinho in September of 2014.
The Brazilian superstar, whose full name is Ronaldo de Assis Moreira, signed with the low-profile Querétaro Gallos for a $2 million two-year contract. He is only the second FIFA Ballon d’Or winner to land on a Mexican team (the last was Portugal’s Eusebio, the FIFA Ballon d’Or 1965 who played in Monterrey in 1975).
While Mexico has attracted some well-known international players, like Germany’s Bernard Schuster, Argentinian Claudio “Piojo” López, Chilean Iván Zamorano, and Brazilians Djlaminha and Bebeto, none of them come close to Ronaldinho’s magic. With his unforgettable smile – the result of some designer dentistry – Ronaldinho brought fresh charisma to city not known for its top-flight soccer.
But Ronaldinho’s performance was uneven. Just last week, he was substituted off just before halftime in the 1st leg game of the Liguilla MX semifinal between Querétaro and Pachuca. Nevertheless, his smile brought new hope to a team with a shady past.
Much like Ronaldinho’s performance this season, Los Gallos have spent most of their recent history zig-zagging back and forth between the first and second divisions, and in many ways embodying how team owners in Mexico make a mockery of the Liga Ascenso. The loyalty of Querétaro’s fans – and their connection to the home field – has been tested.
Los Gallos formed as a second division team in 1950, and only ascended to the country’s top circuit in 1990. But they didn’t make it there by winning any tournaments. Instead, the team’s owner at the time bought Tampico Madero’s first division spot on the 20-squad roster. Querétaro was in the top circuit and Tampico Madero disappeared.
Unfortunatley, Los Gallos didn’t have the skills to keep up, and they sank back to the second division in 1994, where they languished until 2002, when Querétaro’s owners once again paid their way into the first division – this time buying up the spot of Michoacán’s La Piedad.
In 2004, a real scandal erupted. Mexico’s National Soccer Federation reduced the circuit from 20 teams to just 18, amid suspicions that Querétaro and Irapuato had nefarious links to drug traffickers. The Federation forced Querétaro’s Gallos to dissolve and for two years, the fourth-largest stadium in Mexico had no soccer team.
A new group of owners came on the scene in 2006, buying up a second division team from Zacatepec, changing their name to Los Gallos and transplanting them to Querétaro. Over the next seven years, Los Gallos rose to the first division twice on merit alone. Queretaro made it to the Liga MX semifinals in 2011 for the only time in team history. By 2013, though, they were back in the second division once again.
In May of 2013, a new team owner – Mexican businessman Amado Yáñez – used an old trick to return them to the top circuit. Yáñez bought Chiapas’ Jaguares for $11 million and gave their first division spot to Querétaro.
But Yáñez had his own problems. A once successful oil contractor, he hit hard times when his company Oceanografia was accused of defrauding Mexico’s state oil firm and Citibank earlier in 2014. Once the fraud was discovered, the government seized all of Yáñez’s assets, including Los Gallos, leaving the players and club employees with months of unpaid salaries.
A division of Mexico’s finance ministry, usually tasked with auctioning off assets seized from narcos, sold Los Gallos to media conglomerate Grupo Imagen Multimedia. The ticket price for Los Gallos was not made public. Olegario Vázquez Raña, a well-connected media mogul who sits on the executive board of the International Olympic Committee, owns Grupo Imagen.
So Ronaldinho was the flagship of Vázquez Raña’s bid to revive the team. He is the highest-profile player ever to arrive in Querétaro. Vázquez Raña’s powerful backing and star player are meant to be a new chapter for the troubled team.
This week when they play the final against Santos, with a little luck, Querétaro’s Corregidora Stadium may once again experience a moment of soccer glory – even if fleeting.