Luis Bueno
Friday May 8th, 2009

After years of on- and off-the-field challenges from South American clubs, Mexico encountered its biggest and, ultimately, insurmountable obstacle from down south.

Citing public health concerns, Brazil's São Paulo and Uruguay's Nacional refused to travel to Mexico for Copa Libertadores matches, joining Colombia and Chile in rejecting Mexican clubs. Consequently, Chivas de Guadalajara and San Luis pulled out of the Libertadores, essentially telling South America to take its tournament and stick it.

The Mexican federation (FMF) and its clubs were put in an undesirable situation after the H1N1 flu outbreak tore through Mexico. South American nations wanted nothing to do with Mexico, its teams, its players and even its officials. And now, the teams have taken the previously unthinkable option of pulling out of the Libertadores on the eve of the Round of 16.

For Mexican clubs, it's just one more example of an ever-growing sentiment of bias against them. Since they've been allowed entry into South America's most prestigious club tournament in 1998, the teams have cried foul more often than not over dodgy officiating and questionable scheduling. The reaction to the swine-flu outbreak seemingly adds to those claims.

"The way they treat Mexicans -- beyond this flu treatment -- is always to gain an advantage," Pumas forward (and MLS veteran) Francisco Palencia told Mexican daily La Jornada.

A Mexican team has never won a Libertadores title, but Palencia said that's not a coincidence. "I believe they respect our football," he said. "We always get through to the next round, and Mexico is on of the top three nations in the Americas. I believe it's a show of either respect or of fear so that they don't see one of our teams raise the cup in Libertadores."

San Luis president Eduardo del Villar took it a step further on Friday, telling Fox Sports, "This isn't a question of being against Chivas or against San Luis, it's a question of being against Mexican football. This shows racism."

The H1N1 flu has forced the South American confederation (CONMEBOL) to scramble. With the FMF shutting down stadiums across the league last weekend, the federation's precautionary moves were designed to stop the spread of both the disease and the fear that gripped the nation. But those were games between Mexican teams, and all sides were aware that the precautions were for public health concerns.

When Chivas and San Luis looked for places to play their home legs in the round of 16, they had doors slammed in their faces. First, Colombia said no. Then Chile denied the clubs access to their country for Libertadores matches. Chileans already had shown their displeasure towards Chivas as Mexican players claimed they were harassed and essentially ostracized by the public in outings the day before their final group-stage match last month at Everton of Viña del Mar.

Gerardo Pelusso, manager of Uruguay's Nacional, went so far as to say the easiest way to deal with the situation was to send the Mexican teams packing and disqualify them from the tournament altogether. CONMEBOL likely didn't reassure its member nations when it declined to use Mexican referees in the knockout rounds of the tournament.

Instead, Mexican officials tried to reassure South American clubs that their nation is a safe place to visit. São Paulo and Nacional, however, disagreed, and refused to travel to Guadalajara and San Luis Potosí, respectively, for the first legs of their series. That left Chivas and San Luis little recourse, and the FMF announced on Friday that it was pulling its clubs from this year's Libertadores.

Back in Mexico, domestic soccer is starting to return to normalcy. Stadiums once again will be open to fans during the final weekend's slate of games, although preventative measures will be in place. Capacity will be capped at 50 percent -- Pumas, though, will lower that figure to 35 percent on their own. Unless they're related, fans won't be allowed to sit next to each other as there must be a seat separating supporters. Domestically, the focus is back on the fight for the Mexican Liguilla playoffs and struggle against relegation, away from the flu's possible public health effects.

Internationally, it's another story. Even before Friday's shocking decision by the FMF, Chivas' Héctor Reynoso was bounced from the Libertadores for the supposedly vile act of coughing. During the game against Everton in Chile, Reynoso came face-to-face with Sebastián Penco and feigned coughing at him. He later apologized for his actions, but CONMEBOL kicked him out of the tournament anyway.

"CONMEBOL exaggerated a great deal," Palencia said. "When Bofo was spat on at Boca's stadium, they didn't take those measures."

Indeed, Adolfo "Bofo" Bautista was victim of a similar bodily-fluid attack four years ago, and no action was taken. Boca Juniors coach Jorge Benítez spat on the then-Chivas player during a quarterfinal match in Buenos Aires. With Chivas leading by an aggregate 4-0, the match was abandoned shortly afterward.

"I believe [Chivas] also responded to some situations to which they were disrespected," Palencia said. "No player can be infected. From there, the ignorance begins because even if there are coughs, you can't be infected."

With Chivas and San Luis gone from the Libertadores, Mexico won't be a threat to win South America's biggest club trophy for the first time. But much like years past, when obstacles were stacked against them, this time the challenges that faced the Mexican teams came from all angles -- foreign governments included. Thus, the disease claimed another pair of victims.

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