Mexican referee association shows the power a players union could have

There's so much at stake this weekend in Liga MX. The final two playoff places will be decided, with the defending finalists both in danger of missing the Liguilla. A team that has been in the league for more than a decade will be sent down. And somehow, some way, we're once again talking about the referees.

The Court of Arbitration for Sport announced Tuesday that it had found the original sanctions for Club America center back Pablo Aguilar and Toluca midfielder Enrique Triverio to be adequate, effectively striking down the yearlong ban later given to both players. Now, Triverio is eligible for the Liguilla and Aguilar would be too if America can make it into the semifinals without him.

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The bans had extended after the referees forced the league's hand by going on strike, causing the postponement of Round 10 matches. The officials said they were striking for respect, which they complained was in short supply long before aggression from Aguilar and Triverio pushed them over the edge.

And the refs do have a case. They get less respect on the field and protection off it from directors than many officials in other leagues around the world. That shouldn't be ignored, and it is a problem. It's especially concerning that referees don't feel they have any recourse for expressing frustrations aside from the drastic measures they took earlier this tournament. Hector Gonzalez Inarritu, former sporting director for national teams, is now the president of the referees' commission, but has failed to win over those he's in charge of overseeing because of what they see as a lack of advocacy.

"I think that if Hector did an analysis, he would see that it's not working and he's not doing things within the referee group, so it would be appropriate if he made the decision to leave or the (federation) brings in a person who can support the needs that the referees have," referee Roberto Garcia Orozco told MedioTiempo after a meeting with the federation Tuesday.

But even as disagreement with the federation continues, the amount of power the officials were able to wield with their association is remarkable, not only because of the small size of the group but also the fact that the referees, while critical to a game, are hardly the gas for the economic engine that drives Liga MX.

That has even some who might typically be referees' advocates believing the group has too much control.

"Here the broad conclusion is that both parts wrongly went ahead, the federation in its different areas, giving into the pressure from the referees and the referees themselves for intending to influence other areas that aren't the sporting areas, the job they have," Edgardo Codesal, a former referee who was in charge of the league's referee training program, told Marca after Tuesday's announcement.

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But if the referees were able to stop the league for a weekend and win broad public support, imagine what the players could do if they were to form a union. Veteran leaders like Rafa Marquez have spoken about the idea, with Mexican soccer's power brokers unsurprisingly pushing back against the idea.

And why wouldn't they? There always is struggle between ownership and labor, and in a business that can be as unscrupulous as football there are plenty of reforms the players could push for — among them getting rid of or altering the draft system and doing away with the gentlemen's agreement. Those two mechanisms make it nearly impossible for Mexican players to push for moves between clubs or turn them down if they'd rather not move their families across the country.

The MLS Players Union believes making salaries public serves as a vital piece of information for players and their agents. A move that radical, now commonplace in the United States, feels decades off in Liga MX.

There has been movement toward some sort of league-sanctioned body of players, which would be progress. Liga MX president Enrique Bonilla said in January the league was open to discussions. But there was movement toward the same thing in 2014 during the Alan Pulido case, another matter that eventually was resolved before the CAS, with little to show today for those efforts. Would a team like Chiapas — whose struggles to pay its players was the animus behind the latest push for a group — getting relegated also tamper down that progress? It's possible.

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Veteran leaders like Marquez, though, can take inspiration from the same referees players are accused of regularly accosting. Making working conditions better for everyone on the field would improve not only the morale of players and referees but also the overall product of the league, which right now can too easily get bogged down by petty skirmishes or silly decisions.

Until then, expect the tension between all parties to continue, whether it's between the players and the referees or the federation and — well — everyone.

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