When the first leg of the Liga MX final between Club America and Tigres kicks off on Dec. 22, it is likely that there will be just two Mexican players under the age of 25 involved from the start. And of those 22 starters, it is expected that only eight or nine in total will be Mexico-born.
The lack of Mexican players, and particularly youngsters, in such an important occasion for Mexican football is startling and has partly come about as a result of the 10/8 rule implemented ahead of the 2016 Apertura. The rule allows for 10 players developed outside of Mexico per gameday squad and demands that there be at least eight Mexican footballers too. In essence: eight Mexicans and 10 foreign-born players.
The rule was and still is highly controversial. Mexico legend and Atlas defender Rafa Marquez argued that the high number of foreign-born players would stem opportunities for young Mexican footballers in Liga MX.
"It will mean that there aren't talented players or groups [of youngsters] inside the same institutions and that those places will be taken by foreigners," said Marquez last summer. "They should think about things and take balanced decisions for the good of Mexican football."
Naturalized Mexican citizens were not happy that they would be considered as foreigners. And Mexican-American dual nationals struggled to come to terms with the fact that some of them would no longer be registered as domestic players.
The reason for introducing the 10/8 rule needs repeating. After Liga MX upped the foreign-born player limit to five footballers per team in 2003, it went a step further in 2014 and determined that naturalized Mexican citizens could play as domestic players upon gaining citizenship. The doors were open to squads being made up entirely of foreign-born players, particularly given that people from Latin America, Spain and Portugal can become Mexican citizens after two years living in the country. Previously, those players had to have played 10 consecutive seasons in Mexico and waited five years to be registered as Mexicans with the league.
The number of foreign-born footballers rose sharply as a result, partly because it was simply easier and cheaper to purchase already established players from good South American leagues than patiently wait to develop homegrown ones. The price of the Mexican footballer was also too high compared to going abroad for new signings. Additionally, it is worth noting that Liga MX's system of two championships per calendar year, each with its own playoff, is not ideal for long-term planning and development.
So Liga MX felt it had to act and draw a line under a situation that was spiraling out of control.
"We have an investment of around 900 million pesos ($44m USD) per season in youth systems and we are looking for the way to give future stars the opportunity," said Liga MX president Enrique Bonilla in an interview with ESPN back in July.
From a legal standpoint, the league seemed to get around the complicated nationality and citizenship issues by wording the rule so that the "eight" refers to players registered by the Mexican federation before age 18. It is essentially a homegrown rule, because FIFA's laws on the transfer of minors basically exclude foreigners from registering with a different country's federation, although there was a clause allowing Mexican-Americans to register by their 19th birthday.
"It's not that they may be Mexican, Mexican-American, European or African," explained Bonilla in the same interview. "[They wouldn't count as a domestic players] because [their] first registration in Mexican football was before 18 years."
Now with one full regular season to assess, the conclusions are not difficult to make: the 10/8 rule is generally good for the quality of Liga MX, but detrimental to the national team's hopes of long-term success.
In the last round of matches in the Apertura regular season, 101 of the 198 starters were Mexican. That rough 50/50 split has largely held over the 17 weeks of games. The Mexican half is boosted by Chivas fielding zero foreigners as a club policy and Guadalajara rival Atlas also sticking to a Mexican base this season. However, in the last games of the Clausura regular season -- the final season before the rule came into place -- there were 122 Mexican starters.
When you focus in on certain positions, the problem becomes more acute for Mexican youngsters. The lack of Mexican goalscorers is worrying. Pachuca winger Hirving Lozano was the only Mexican player to score over five goals (seven) this Apertura. Eight Argentine footballers accomplished that feat, as did three Colombian and three Uruguayan players.
Some top clubs like Monterrey, Club Tijuana and America are regularly fielding teams with nine or more foreign-born starters, as they are fully entitled to do, while in the Clasico Regiomontano between Tigres and Monterrey -- arguably Mexico's best game in terms of the raw quality on display -- there were five Mexican starters this Apertura.
It's easy to argue that Mexicans are missing out, but then how could you not appreciate the exploits of incoming foreigners Edson Puch, Manuel Iturra, Raul Ruidiaz, Marcelo Barovero, Jonathan Rodriguez and Guido Rodriguez this past season? They certainly boost the profile and quality of Liga MX.
Whether you are for or against the 10/8 rule largely seems to depend on which side of the fence you sit. Liga MX recently announced that it wanted to "internationalize" and the implementation of the 10/8 rule is part of that effort. The league -- and its high wages -- has become a place of opportunity for Latin American players and a genuine alternative to Europe. It's no wonder, therefore, that the league confirmed in early December that it would not reconsider the 10/8 rule and will judge its worth after it has been in effect for two years.
Mexico coach Juan Carlos Osorio has stated that the rule is detrimental to Mexican football. His job and that of future El Tri managers is going to be tougher as the number of young Mexicans getting opportunities in the first division remains much lower than in other countries.
But pandering to the national team's wishes doesn't seem to be the point of the exercise. It increasingly appears that Liga MX and the Mexican federation have divergent visions when it comes to the future of the Mexican game. Nowhere is that more clear than with the 10/8 rule.