On Sunday, the stage was set for Atlas' miracle. With the second leg of the 2021 Liga MX Apertura final falling on the religious holiday of the Día de la Virgen de Guadalupe, tens of thousands of local Atlas believers likely said tens of thousands of prayers as they took their seats in the Estadio Jalisco. Guadalajara's historic sporting cathedral was raucous with supporters who believed that this could perhaps be a significant moment in Atlas' history, despite the fact that for an incredibly long time, such prayers had gone unanswered.
It had been 70 years since Atlas' last Liga MX title. Since 1951, Atlas had yet to lift a trophy as part of Mexico's top flight, and they've broadly struggled to keep pace with traditional giants like Club America and crosstown rivals, Chivas. The soccer gods, who've often looked more kindly towards these bigger clubs, rarely blessed Atlas with similar luck, though their place in the Liga MX final seemed like a marvel of its own. Earlier this month, when Los Rojinegros booked their place in the final for the first time in the 21st century, Atlas fans took to the streets to celebrate as if they'd just won a championship.
In a year that saw the previously "cursed" Cruz Azul win a Liga MX title, the usual order of Mexico's soccer world seemed to have been turned on its head. If Cruz Azul could do it, why couldn't Atlas?
So it was there in Atlas' cathedral, complete with fully-dressed newlyweds in the stands, that Atlas mounted their remarkable comeback.
Down 3-2 on aggregate from their first meeting with Leon last week, Atlas struck first on Sunday with a goal from captain Aldo Rocha in the 55th minute. Level at 3-3 on aggregate at full-time, and after Leon had gone down to 10-men following a second yellow for Emanuel Gigliotti in the 94th minute, the match was sent to extra time. From there, the championship was then pushed to a penalty shootout in order to crown the 2021 Apertura winner.
With a chance to permanently establish themselves as legends for Atlas, goalkeeper Camilo Vargas and striker Julio Furch became the heroes of the evening in the shootout. Thanks to his two saves from Leon's five attempts, Vargas perfectly set up Furch to take the decisive penalty. Unfazed by the intensity of the moment, Furch casually slotted the ball beyond Rodolfo Cota, winning the shootout 4-3 and securing a Liga MX title for Atlas.
The Estadio Jalisco erupted.
Y fue aquí, con su Fiel, cuando lo imposible es posible, cuando se alcanzó una línea en el horizonte disfrazada de utopía tras navegar siete décadas de tragedias rojinegras. Hoy, el #ATLAS es, por segunda ocasión en su centenario andar, el CAMPEÓN del futbol mexicano 🏆— Arturo Santillanes (@artusantillanes) December 13, 2021
"I was calm," said Furch to TUDN after the match about the penalty that won the Apertura title. "I knew it was going to go in."
Edmundo Iñiguez is 91 years old and told his family he was not going to die until Atlas FC won the Mexican league again.— ESPN FC (@ESPNFC) December 13, 2021
This was his reaction when they won. He's been waiting 70 years 🥺❤️
(via @chuysanchez_) pic.twitter.com/RnHASzzAXF
Outside of the venue, fans flooded the streets of Guadalajara to revel in their first championship in 25,802 days. For all but a few lifelong supporters who'd been born before 1951, seeing Atlas win a Liga MX trophy was an entirely unfamiliar experience.
Was it divine intervention on this holiest of days that helped Atlas? Were the soccer gods finally answering their faithful followers? One could be forgiven for believing so after seeing defender Anderson Santamaria carrying a statue of the Virgin Mary on Sunday night, but in the end, the true spiritual influence seems to have come from manager Diego Cocca and club owners Grupo Orlegi.
Through an approach that prioritizes defensive structure in a 5-3-2 formation, Cocca has created a squad that constantly halts opponents from building dangerous attacks. In their dynamic system, which relies on wing-backs doing an immense amount of work, Atlas are also able to apply pressure going forward when needed. It's a fine balance, but Cocca and his players have been able to fine-tune their tactics this season.
"The truth is that the mentality that we have built with these guys, with this institution, is very strong," said Cocca in the post-game press conference with the Apertura trophy alongside him. "And today, this proves it."
As for the ownership that took charge in 2019, it's clear that Grupo Orlegi are intent on building an exciting, winning era at the club that's struggled for glory for so long. Along with money being spent on a revamped academy and training facility that's set to open next year, along with Atlas' run to the semifinals of the Liga MX Femenil playoffs, there are undeniable signs of progress for the organization.
Defender Luis Reyes was optimistic about the changing identity. "This is the new Atlas," said Reyes to Liga MX's social media account after the match. "Here you can see the true transformation that Grupo Orlegi came to form."
But what about Leon? On any other given day, it could have been the 2020 Apertura champions who won the penalty shootout and claimed their second Liga MX title from the last three seasons. This will be a bitter pill to swallow, but the silver-lining is that a strong foundational base remains for the 2022 Clausura, which begins in the new year. They were finalists in the 2019 Clausura, champions in the 2020 Apertura, champions in the 2021 Leagues Cup tournament, and now finalists once again.
If they had defeated Atlas in the penalty shootout, the big talking point in Mexican soccer media this week would likely be discussing Leon as the strongest Liga MX club of the past few years --- perhaps even a rambunctious Futbol Picante debate about them becoming a part of the "big four" in Mexican soccer that would then be the "big five."
With manager Ariel Holan just finishing his first season with the team, the ambitions would and should be high for Leon as they head into 2022. Nonetheless, it'll be Atlas and their fans who will be out celebrating over the next few days.
The title is a well-deserved one for Cocca and his players, and at time of writing in the early hours of Monday morning, it looks as if their supporters won't be going to sleep at any point soon. Let's pray that they all have today off from work.