When French striker Andre-Pierre Gignac signed for Mexican side Tigres in 2015, the move stunned football fans across Europe.
With 59 goals in 154 appearances for Marseille, it was strange why an in-form international was picking a largely unknown team over lucrative offers to stay in Europe.
But Liga MX fans will tell you that Gignac chose to join one of the most exciting leagues in the world. The league ranks among the world’s top five in fan attendance, and far outstrips the likes of the Premier League in terms of viewership in the United States.
The action on the pitch proves why Liga MX has such a loyal following. Last year’s Apertura final, for example, saw four red cards and a 119th-minute equalizer!
The average passing completion in Mexico is the same as that in the Premier League and Bundesliga, and the Mexican league outranks both its English and German counterparts in several attacking metrics.
Liga MX boasts one key quality that many of Europe’s top leagues do not: parity. 14 different teams have won the league in the last 20 years, a far cry from the dominance of a few teams in the Premier League, where only five teams have won the title since its inception in 1992.
Despite moving to a league of supposedly lower quality, Gignac was selected for France’s Euro 2016 squad. He’s become a cult hero in Mexico, where a passionate fan base is thrilled that a top-level player chose their league.
The Frenchman is far from the only personality that makes the league so exciting, with plenty of colourful characters in the dugouts as well.
Gignac’s manager, Ricardo Ferretti, shot to fame after an explosive press conference tirade last season, and Club Tijuana manager Miguel Herrera is another larger-than-life figure that adds to the league’s appeal.
It is ten years to the day since David Beckham stunned the football world by announcing he would be joining LA Galaxy at the end of that ongoing season.
Beckham’s Real Madrid career appeared to be over after Fabio Capello left the England star out in the cold but the midfielder, after confirming he was going to move to the MLS, won back his place and finished the campaign with a La Liga winners’ medal in his pocket.
His decision to leave the Santiago Bernabeu, at the time, made sense. But, given his finale in the Spanish capital, a move to the United States seemed very premature for a 31-year-old, who also had a host of other options across Europe.
Before Beckham’s move – and indeed, even after it – a move to America was usually made by players later on in their careers, looking for one last payday or a way to ease themselves into retirement.
But Beckham was different. Not only did he choose the Galaxy over some top clubs in Europe, he also knew he was taking on a huge challenge – growing the popularity of football in the country. While the former Manchester United star acknowledged that he alone could not raise the profile of football over basketball, baseball, and American football, he proclaimed, “I wouldn’t be going there if I didn’t think I could make a difference.”
On that front, Beckham certainly succeeded. While the growing MLS still lags behind other sports in terms of popularity, Beckham’s arrival instantly raised the profile of the league, and his presence in America has had a lasting impact. He was and still is a global celebrity, and that meant that wherever he played, fans would come to watch, a marked difference from the attendance struggles the MLS faced before his arrival.
Beckham also made the MLS a more appealing prospect for fellow European players. Who knows if stars like Thierry Henry, Frank Lampard, Andrea Pirlo or David Villa would have moved there if Beckham had not blazed the trail for them?
The England cult hero was a success on the pitch, as well. Beckham reinvented himself from winger to deep-lying playmaker during his time in Los Angeles, which explains the modest goals return; he scored only 18 times in 102 MLS appearances. But what he lacked in goals he more than made up for with his playmaking ability, tallying 40 MLS assists during his time with the Galaxy.
More importantly, Beckham helped the Galaxy win two MLS Cup titles, drawing them level with DC United for the most in MLS history. The Galaxy now hold that record on their own after a win in 2014, with many players on that team having benefited from playing alongside Beckham earlier in their career.
Of course, just as it was throughout his career, Beckham was never far from controversy. Many criticised him for seemingly taking to the celebrity aspect of life in LA more than he took to the football, although Beckham always maintained that football was his primary focus.
His first few seasons in the MLS were tarnished by injury, which also led to frustration among Galaxy fans. But perhaps the biggest cause for anger was his decision to go on multiple loan moves back to Europe. When he went to AC Milan in 2009, he didn’t return for the start of the MLS season, choosing to stay with Milan in order to prolong his career with England.
Other players, including Henry and Beckham’s own teammate, Robbie Keane, returned to the Premier League for loan spells, but they always returned for the start of MLS season. It didn’t help that the very next year, Beckham suffered an injury soon after returning from a second stint with Milan. His loan spells even drew criticism from teammate and American soccer legend Landon Donovan, although Donovan later apologised for his remarks.
Ultimately, however, success trumps everything, and Beckham left on a high with the MLS Cup triumph in his final season, in 2012. He left to a thunderous ovation in the final when he was substituted late in the game. By then, he had earned the goodwill of the fans, and done everything else he’d set out to do in America.
Skill, personality and desire are three important characteristics managers look for in up-and-coming talent.
And while we are well-informed about the game’s most notable young stars to have made it to the top, like Eden Hazard and Neymar, there are plenty of future household names waiting for their chance to shine.
This video from Football Daily’s YouTube channel selects some fine young players and wonderkids – and who knows, maybe your club will enter the race to sign them up in the near future.
From Toulouse stopper Alban Lafont and RB Leipzig’s midfielder Naby Keita, to Burkina Faso’s Bertrand Traore – these are the names to watch out for..
Which player do you think will go furthest in the game?