A storied relationship
The rise of Beenhakker’s America to the top, in sporting terms, was relatively smooth, but the context of it was quite a lot more turbulent. The arrival of such an eminent footballing figure into a landscape that hadn’t up to that point really achieved top recognition was undoubtedly going to rock the waters. Very early into Beenhakker’s reign, the Mexican press was pushing him to get a view on the nation’s football. “If people who have been living here for 25 years can’t analyse México’s football, how could I do it after two weeks?“, he answered.
The next controversy was to arrive from a familiar foe. After François Omam Biyik signed in early August, Mexican legend Hugo Sánchez commented to the press that there were “too many foreigners in Mexican football“. “We have to imitate the clubs where the best football in the world is played, which is in Italy and Spain. Take a look and see how many foreigners play there, and why. I’m surprised that we are allowed to have so many foreigners in México“. The timing wasn’t a coincidence; just two years before they had clashed at Real Madrid.
Sánchez, who had been a key member of the Quinta del Buitre side of the 80s, was recovering from a knee injury late during the 1990/91 season. He was back training by December 1991, but Beenhakker was still doubtful about him, which Sánchez considered a betrayal. He declined to travel to Turin for an away UEFA Cup fixture after he was told he’d be a substitute, which strained his relationship with the coach. His refusal to assist former teammate (and Real Madrid legend) Juanito’s funeral after he died in a car accident put him on thin ice with the club, the squad and the fans as well.
Things worsened when on April 17th, 1992, when after learning that he wouldn’t be part of the team for a league match vs. Espanyol the following day, Sánchez left the dressing room fuming and went straight to the press. “I’m not on the team sheet“, he said. “Perhaps you should ask the coach why that’s the case“. It was his final comment, though, which burned any remaining bridges: “I’ve proven I can help this offensive. I’m getting fed up. I was surprised and irritated that I’m not on the team. I don’t like it when things aren’t done seriously. I don’t like it, but Beenhakker is the one who calls the shots and it seems he likes to fool around. He didn’t give me any explanation, and that’s wrong too“. Beenhakker didn’t back down from the fight. “A manager can’t count on a player that isn’t willing to sit on the bench“, he pointed out, “It’s his attitude that isn’t serious“. “It’s hard for great players to start from the bench, but better players than him have done so“.
For Real Madrid, it was all too much. Club vice-president Lorenzo Sanz took the final decision on which was to be the Mexican’s punishment. A fine of a million Spanish Pesetas (around six thousand Euros) and a 70 days suspension. It may seem too little for a top player, but it was the end of Hugo Sánchez’s time at the club; his contract expired the day the suspension ended, and there was no intention of offering an extension. Sánchez declared that most of his teammates showed him their support, though none criticised the decision publicly.
New battlegrounds for old adversaries
After a couple of short stints at América themselves (which ended with controversy as well) and Rayo Vallecano, Sánchez landed on Mexican side Atlante for the 1994/95 season. The two teams were due to meet on Matchday 7, on the 16th of October, 1994; with such headstrong and notorious figures, it was inevitable conflict would flare once again.
Five months prior, Sánchez had been invited whilst still playing for Rayo Vallecano to an interview on the Spanish TV show “Cerca de Ti“. There, he held the Dutchman responsible for his exit from Real Madrid. “My clash with Beenhakker is the cause [of it]. It was a matter of dignity“, he Mexican said. “I told [Real Madrid president] Ramón Mendoza ‘It’s him or me’. Then he explained that he couldn’t fire [Beehakker] because he had just signed a four year deal for a lot of money. I was recovering from an injury and my contract ended that year, so they decided to let me go“. When questioned on the matter, he stuck to that line of reasoning.
Beenhakker wasn’t happy. “I know Hugo very well“, he said when asked about the matter before the match. “He’s a very smart man, in and out of the pitch, so when there’s a problem he’s always been capable of turning his words around so in the end he’s never on the wrong and someone else is“. “What he said has nothing to do with the truth, so I’m quite relaxed. He’s never to blame, so I don’t care; if he’s living a happy life doing that, I couldn’t care less“.
The match would prove unsatisfactory for both men. América managed a 2-2 draw after going two goals down. Sánchez played brilliantly but was substituted shortly after the hour mark. He went to a talk show after the match, where he complained about the manager Argentine Ricardo La Volpe, subbing him off, and then went on talking about Beenhakker. For the Dutch manager, it was all over. “For me, it’s old news“, he said, “I don’t want to talk about it any further“.
Sánchez would take a similar approach later in the season. When interviewed about his upcoming book later that October, he said he wouldn’t focus long on their fight. “I’ll mention Beenhakker, but I won’t give the matter a lot of pages“, he said. “It’s a closed case, I won’t give him any more publicity“. Sánchez did get the final laugh, as Atlante beat América 4-1 at the Estadio Azteca, with the former Real Madrid player scoring two.
Making few friends in high places
It wasn’t, however, Beenhakker’s sole controversy during his stay in México. Just three months into his tenure he found himself in trouble as he commented the board had permitted him to play five foreign players; this was a delicate issue in México. Since the early 1990s, the Mexican Federation (Federación Mexicana de Fútbol or FMF) had been fighting (and otherwise largely ignoring) a presidential decree from 1945 that mandated the selection of no less than 7 Mexican born players in any professional match.
Beenhakker was baffled by the bickering, claiming that one should simply be able to take a look at the rule book to settle these issues. Problem was there wasn’t one such rulebook. The 1994/95 season had started without one, as the FMF was awaiting the result of a reclamation they had sent to the Mexican Supreme Court of Justice. There they claimed the decree violated the equality and freedom of work of foreign footballers. The issue would only be resolved in 2005 when a new law allowed autonomy to every sporting federation self-regulation.
The Dutchman’s next controversy would come in late October 1994. México was due to play in the 1995 King Fahd Cup in early January. The squad announced by Mexican National Team coach Miguel Mejía Barón included six América players, including key men like Zague, Adrián Chávez, Joaquín del Olmo and Cuauhtémoc Blanco. With the competition at that point still a friendly tournament not sanctioned by FIFA, it clashed with the Mexican League’s calendar. Beenhakker raised the issue when asked about it at a press conference. “I don’t oppose my players going to play with their National Teams, but the fans deserve respect”, he said. “It’s in [everybody’s] best interests that they play for their National Team, but things must be planned better“. “Is there nobody who’s smart and flexible enough at the FMF?“, he asked. It started a fire.
The Mexican press wasn’t impressed. “The Dutchman, who earns 800 thousand dollars per season, plus a house, a car and other bonuses which make him the best paid coach in our football, hasn’t understood yet that he shouldn’t create controversies and satirize the institution of the FMF“, pointed out an editorial piece on newspaper “El Siglo de Torreón“. “He might be right, or not, with some of his opinions, but there certainly exist the appropriate channels to show his views, because it will always be a good thing if someone contributes positive ideas to improve our national football“.
The following days Beenhakker backed down on his comments (“I didn’t say that there wasn’t any intelligence, but asked for more intelligence“), but to no avail. He was summoned to appear in front of the FMF’s Disciplinary Committee. After an hour-long meeting, Beenhakker was let go without punishment, with his point that the comments were made without malice but to help Mexican football holding up in light of his track record. Barely a week later, another controversy would flare-up.
At the time the Mexican league was played in a strange format. The 19 teams played each other twice in a regular two legs, 38 matches format, but they were qualified in four groups, three with 5 teams and one with the remaining four sides. The best two of each 5-teams group and the winner of the last group went straight into a playoff, called the “Liguilla”. The 3rd-best sides and the 2nd best in the four-teams group went into a separate playoff to decide the 8th spot on the main draw. “It shouldn’t be possible that a team that finishes 9th or 8th in the league table has a shot at becoming champions“, fired Beenhakker. “I think the league is long enough so the ideal thing would be that the team that finishes first after all those matches becomes champion“.
This time, the FMF didn’t come charging. It was clear, however, that Beenhakker’s comments didn’t earn him any friends. When it was decided that Matchday 21 would be moved to help those sides affected by their player’s international commitments, the América board complained that Matchday 20 should be moved as well. It was to no avail; the match América was supposed to play vs. Club León went ahead, with as many as eight of their first-team regulars (the six Mexicans, plus Omam-Biyik and Bwalya) missing.
The day the king lost his crown
Still, the love affair carried on. Beenhakker enjoyed his time in Mexico and made it clear when he talked. “[In Mexico] most players play with the handbrake on. They have a lot of talent and I think that not even they themselves realise it. That’s what we try to work on in América. I want to find that potential and put it to use“, he commented on an interview at the time. “That’s not a problem of the Mexican footballer; this country, footballistically speaking, lacks confidence and personality. Newspapers are always pessimistic and show no faith. They’re always talking about how things can go wrong“. “Mexico’s hurdle to be amongst the best in the world is not the players. They have all the talent in the world and are on par with anyone. They just lack belief“.
On January 1995, with América flying high and the Mexican press questioning Beenhakker on whether the team was at the same level that big European sides of the time (“we’re not, but getting there” was his answer), the club decided to extend his contract, agreeing to keep the Dutchman for that optional second year, and signing for another option to retain him at the helm past the 1995/96 season. It would come apart staggeringly fast.
On April 6th, 1995, it was announced out of nowhere that Beenhakker had been fired. Initially, the press pushed the idea of tensions within the América training camp and lack of faith over the run of five consecutive draws, but something seemed off. Images of a confused and exhausted Beenhakker at the Mexico City airport appeared. “I have very little to say. What can I say?”, he murmured in response to the journalist’s insistence. “You have to understand I leave very disappointed with what they’ve done. I’m still quite shocked. Nobody’s given me an explanation yet, so it’s like a joke in bad taste“.
It was quite a surprise for the players as well. “I don’t know what happened“, said first-choice goalkeeper Adrian Chávez over a telephone interview. “It took me by surprise because our relationship with [Beenhakker] was excellent. We were laughing and joking in the dressing room just a few days ago. I’m hurt that the board made this decision cause things were going great. I still can’t believe it“.
The board was keeping their cards close to their chest. No official explanation was provided, and the bulletin that announced the Dutchman’s dismissal was so hastily prepared that they had misspelt his surname in it. Beenhakker was fired just 5 matches before the end of the league season, with the team already qualified for the “Liguilla”, having earned 45 points from 33 matches, with the best attack in the league (78 goals scored) and the 5th best defence.
With players claiming no blame in the sacking (captain Adrián Chávez even getting his teammates together to ask the board for the Dutchman’s return), Beehhakker claiming no explanation was given and the board refusing to comment… What happened? The Dutch manager had hinted at president Díaz Barroso trying to influence his starting 11 (and his refusal to budge) as a possible problem. He’d elaborate some 15 years later.
In that very interview at Cuauhtémoc Blanco’s TV show, Beenhakker went into more detail. “That president sent me home, but Joaquín is the one to blame“, he joked. “[He] had an economic disagreement [with the club] and the president told me not to play him. I said, “No, the kid’s gonna play”. He insisted, then I insisted. Joaquín played on Sunday and at 7 AM that Monday I had Mr Rubulotta telling me to pack my bags cause it was over“.
The aftermath of Beenhakker’ sacking brought the club into huge turmoil. On the economic front, the club refused to acknowledge the confirmation of his second year of contract. Beenhakker took the case to court, getting the support of FIFA. The case was settled privately in November 1995.
On the footballing side, it wasn’t much better. Croatian Mirko Jozic was the man selected by the América board to replace the Dutchman, coming from Chilean side Colo-Colo. Rumours that it wasn’t him that put the team together but the board surfaced immediately as Joaquín del Olmo was put on the bench in favour of Jean-Claude Pagal, whose spell with the club had been disappointing to say the least.
América only managed four draws and a win in the five remaining league matches they played under Jozic, meaning they dropped from the top spot in the table and lost the chance to be the number one seed for the “Liguilla”. América would end up getting eliminated in the semifinals, losing 3-2 on aggregate to Cruz Azul, and showing none of the flair that had previously distinguished them.
The fans weren’t happy. Numerous banners appeared, clamouring for Beenhakkers return. “I want to give thanks to the Mexican fans for their support throughout my stay at América“, said the Dutchman. “Their support cheers me up“. The club vice-president, Francisco Hernández fired back. “If there have been so many positive comments about Beenhakker, it’s because we’ve hidden the bad things“, he said in an interview. “[He] dismantled the squad’s bench. His dismissal seems unjustified, but he’s simply a guy who you can’t talk to. His suggestions weren’t prudent or smart, they were simply born out of arrogance, and this guy is arrogant in the whole definition of the word“. With a title lost that seemed all but won less than a month before, those accusations ring hollow.
After a short stint in Turkey, Beenhakker returned to México, this time to manage América’s biggest rivals, Chivas de Guadalajara, and then again with América in 2003. Both spells proved far less successful than his original Mexican adventure. He won another Eredivisie title with Feyenoord in 1998/99 before resuming his adventures, taking Caribbean nation Trinidad and Tobago to their first-ever World Cup in 2006, but retired in 2009 after failing to do it with Poland.
Beenhakker undoubtedly looked to fill that call for the adventure that drew him since his days as a boy at the Rotterdam docks, but he always seems to look back at his time in México as one of his most happy days. “When people ask, I always say that from a professional point of view, Real Madrid is the best thing that happened to me“, he pointed out in that interview for The Blizzard, “but from the point of view of lifestyle, contact with the people and the country itself, Mexico was paradise“.