When the Apertura 2019 season comes to an end, it will have been 22 years since Cruz Azul’s last league title. After leading a revival at rivals América, Ricardo Peláez is the man in charge of ending the Cementeros’ ignominious streak.
A decade after Cruz Azul’s last championship (1980), Ignacio Prieto took over as coach. The Cementeros were a mess and had switched coaches five times in the previous two years, including hiring Manuel Lapuente and Mario Velarde twice each.
In Prieto’s second season on the Cruz Azul bench, the Cementeros reached the semifinals where they lost to eventual champion León. When Prieto decided to return to his native Chile, Nelson Acosta was brought in to start the 1992-93 season. He would last only 17 games, going 6-5-6.
Management next opted for a former Cementeros player – Enrique “Ojitos” Meza – who had been an assistant in the early 1980s, then forced to serve as an emergency interim coach for six months in 1983 after head man Miguel Marín was suspended for attacking a ref.
Meza took over from Acosta in December 1992 and he scrambled to fill out his staff, turning to a recently retired player, Luis Fernando Tena. With Tena on the bench beside him, “Ojitos” led Cruz Azul on an 11-5-5 run down the stretch to claim the No. 6 seed on the back of a potent offense. Defense let the Cementeros down in the playoffs, however, and Cruz Azul was pounded 6-4 by No. 3 América in the quarterfinals.
Meza assembled another solid team in 1993-94 and the efficient Cementeros posted a league-best +29 goal differential while earning the No. 2 seed behind an attack led by the league’s top scorer, Carlos Hermosillo (27 goals). All the club’s achievements were spoiled, though, when Cruz Azul was upset by No. 8 América in the quarterfinals. Losing to the Aguilas in the playoffs yet again was simply unacceptable and Meza’s days appeared to be numbered.
Cementeros coaching carousel circles back to Tena
Tena took over for Meza after Cruz Azul’s bumbling start to the 1994-1995 season. “El Flaco” opened up the offense and fireworks followed. The Cementeros scored 91 goals in 38 games, going 20-8-8 to earn a third-place finish.
Cruz Azul avoided another first-round upset when defender Guadalupe Castañeda scored a goal in extra time to send the Cementeros past the underdog Pumas. “The Blue Machine” then earned sweet revenge against the No. 2 seeded Aguilas, defeating América 3-2 on aggregate to reach the franchise’s first Final in six years. Necaxa spoiled the party, however, outclassing the Cementeros 3-1.
Tena appeared to be making a name for himself when he led Cruz Azul to the top seed during the 1995-96 season, but he was sent packing on April 21, 1996, only hours after the Cementeros lost to No. 11 seed América in the quarterfinals. It was the third time in four years the Aguilas had crushed the Cementeros’ dreams of ending their title drought which was then at 16 years.
That summer, the Liga MX switched to split seasons and Cruz Azul missed the playoffs in each of the first two short seasons (Invierno 1996 and Verano 1997), the first under Víctor Manuel Vucetich and the second under interim coach Jesús del Muro.
Management decided to give Tena another chance after he had spent the past year coaching the lowly Tecos. “El Flaco” led a solid, but unspectacular Cruz Azul team into the Invierno 1997 playoffs as the No. 2 seed, spearheaded by top goal-scorer Hermosillo (14 goals in 17 games). This time around, the Cementeros would avoid América and after routing Atlas (5-1, 3 goals scored by Hermosillo) and holding off Atlante (2-1), they came up against No. 1 seed León.
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The two-game Final series against the Esmeraldas was a bruising affair with Cruz Azul winning the first leg 1-0 at home. Two León players were ejected during the match, and the second red card produced a penalty that Benjamín “El Maestro” Galindo converted. The bad blood would boil over into the second match, another black-and-blue affair.
After a scoreless first half at the Camp Nou in León, Missael Espinoza volleyed home a cross from Hernán Medford, blasting home from close range past goalie Oscar “Conejo” Pérez. The minute-53 goal evened the aggregate score in a game punctuated with hard tackles and a few loose elbows. Ten minutes into overtime, León goalie Angel Comizzo lost his mind and viciously mugged Hermosillo, delivering a boot to the face. Ref Arturo Brizio pointed to the spot, but somehow forgave Comizzo the red card he deserved. A few minutes later – his face stitched up – Hermosillo slotted home the penalty kick to end the game.
The Cruz Azul drought was over. Seventeen years of failure and frustration had ended. Who knew that the agonizing wait between 1980 and 1997 was just a warm-up to an even longer dry spell. A whole generation of Cruz Azul fans has grown to maturity without knowing what it is like to watch their team hoist the league championship trophy.
In Part III, the Cementeros make history abroad but can’t figure out how to win in the Liga MX playoffs.
You can read Part I – Cementeros under Construction: A solid foundation – by clicking here.