What makes a club an equipo grande ("big team") in Mexican soccer?
Often a talking point for fans and media, the discussion is one that highlights a team's popularity, overall respect, and most importantly, their continued success in Liga MX. Traditionally through these parameters, four teams have been widely-recognized as giants in Mexican fútbol: Club America (13 titles), Chivas (12 titles), Cruz Azul (nine titles) and Pumas (seven titles).
Tigres, representing the new modern face of high-spending clubs in Mexico alongside rivals Monterrey, have regularly been on the fringes of these big team conversations. In spite of Tigres' growing list of championships -- now eight in total and six in the last 12 years -- detractors have usually pointed out that their fanbase isn't as large or that they haven't had the same trophy haul as some within the traditional sides.
One aspect of being an elite side is the inevitability of things working out in its favor, no matter what has been put in front of it. Tigres had staggered into the playoffs with their third manager in charge since February, inconsistent results through the club's aging stars, and as an underwhelming No. 7 seed. They slipped slipped past Toluca 5-4 in the quarterfinals on aggregate and then narrowly surpassed their crosstown Rayados rivals in the semifinals.
Tigres eventually put things together when needed as they entered the final clash against favored Chivas, which is what happened in Sunday's decider. After a scoreless draw in Thursday's first leg at Estadio Universitario, Tigres found themselves in an early hole at Estadio Akron. Already down 2-0 by the 20th minute, all signs pointed to Chivas claiming the title and thus equaling bitter rivals America on the all-time titles list.
With that two-goal lead, Chivas sat back and absorbed pressure while media across the country prepped their "joint-record 13th title" headlines that would soon be deleted by the second half.
Substitutions from manager Robert Dante Siboldi, who has only been in charge since April, called Chivas' defensive bluff. Little by little, Los Felinos clawed their way back with increasing attacking pressure. A penalty decision after a Chivas handball brought Tigres a step closer with a goal from 37-year-old striker Andre-Pierre Gignac in the 65th minute. Later in the 71st minute, Tigres' Sebastian Cordova then pushed it to 2-2 with a powerful header at close range.
At the end of regulation, there was no doubt that Tigres would secure the silverware. Chivas, exasperated with the defensive efforts set by manager Veljko Paunovic, barely held on as the visitors began to pummel them with chances in the final third. Tigres midfielder and captain Guido Pizarro, seen as a part of the old guard at age 33, then launched in a 110th minute header that was deflected into the net during the second half of extratime.
With no real response from Chivas, Tigres clinched the title and thus solidifying themselves as the closest as one can get to a modern Mexican soccer dynasty.
Luck and fortune had no role in this either, Tigres were simply better.
"Very proud of this team, of this family," said Pizarro, selected as the man of the match, as he began to cry. "The tears are because of all of the effort. For our family and for our fans, this [title] is for them."
Trophy in hand after the away leg in Guadalajara, Tigres flew back to Monterrey where they and 12,000 supporters partied at the Estadio Universitario with a live band until the early hours of Monday morning.
At one point during the celebration, 37-year-old goalkeeper Nahuel Guzman, an ostentatious member of the team that isn't afraid to stir up the pot, took the microphone.
"Around here they say that they [have to] change the design of the trophy because we know it very well," Guzman boasted.
In the conversation regarding big clubs, Tigres are still one behind Cruz Azul's nine-championship collection and are several steps behind Chivas' 12 and Club America's record of 13.
But there's no organization in Liga MX that has made more progress than Tigres in recent years. On the global stage, Monterrey may boast more recent success (five Concacaf Champions League titles since 2011), but Tigres have actually reached the final of a Club World Cup (losing the 2021 edition to Bayern Munich).
Which is all why Tigres and their squad can now justifiably say they're among the elite within the country. While its due to the massive financing backing of multinational construction conglomerate Cemex, there's something to be said about the club that can get the job done during a season that looked more like rebuild than a title push.
Back in February and after just five games in charge, manager Diego Cocca and Tigres parted ways due to the Argentine taking a role with Mexico's men's national team. By April, former player Marco Antonio "Chima" Ruiz was then dropped as the replacement coach after a dismal nine-game run that finished with four consecutive Liga MX losses. Siboldi, brought in last month as the third manager of the year and the fourth since November, made slight improvements but still ran into issues with one win in Tigres' last three games of the regular season.
With aging stars, erratic performances and rapid managerial changes, Tigres shouldn't have gone this far in the playoffs. They shouldn't have been able to shake off the rust at the last moment when they still need to find new names that can lead them. They shouldn't have been able to play as well as they did under a coach like Siboldi who has only been around for a few weeks.
But that's what big teams, like Tigres, do.