Unpaid wages, furious fans and 41 winless games: How Veracruz became the worst club in men's pro soccer

VERACRUZ, Mexico -- In a sense, it was the perfect backdrop for Veracruz' final home game of 2019 in Liga MX. A "norte" -- a peculiar local term for a storm coming down off the Gulf of Mexico -- helped wrap up a year in which Los Tiburones Rojos has played 17 Liga MX matches in Estadio Luis "Pirata" Fuente, scored 11 goals and conceded 32 times, picking up a total of six points.

Rain swept almost vertically across the run-down stadium on that Friday, Nov. 8, soaking spectators before kickoff against Mexico City giant Club America. It was an abysmal evening for soccer, but perhaps an appropriate one to draw a line under 2019 for a side that has endured one of the most disastrous years in the history of any club in Mexican football.

Veracruz is in the midst of a financial and sporting crisis that has seen players go without payment for many months and the team embark on a 41-game winless streak in the league from Sept. 1, 2018, until Oct. 29, 2019. It all culminated with Liga MX announcing that the Mexican Football Federation (FMF) will begin an investigation into the running of the club, with reports Veracruz could be disaffiliated from the league. The club did not respond back to ESPN for comment.

"Today we have to win, today we have to win," came the chant from the steep north stand, where Veracruz's loyal hardcore fans are gathered, as the teams took to the field.

America ended up thrashing Veracruz 5-0. It was always going to be a tall ask for the hosts against Mexico's most successful club, one of the favorites for the 2019 Apertura title and boasting international-calibre players like Giovani dos Santos, Nicolas Castillo, Guillermo Ochoa and Guido Rodriguez.

Among those singing and urging Veracruz on was 19-year-old Carlos. The shy teen held up a homemade banner with names and photos on it of his friends and fellow members of the barra brava that had passed away. "Your eternal crew," it read.

Veracruz native Carlos has been part of the barra for eight years. His father educated him in all things Tiburones Rojos through Carlos' grandfather, who was present when the team won its only two league titles in 1946 and 1950. Many in the state of Veracruz argue that it was in the nearby town of Orizaba that football was first played in Mexico, although Real del Monte, in the state of Hidalgo, makes the same claim.

For all of the club's problems, the coastal city of just under one million inhabitants has history and feels like a soccer town. In front of the stadium, Veracruz fans took photos with the club's shark mascot as an America fan shouts, "Get one before your team disappears!" A Veracruz fan on his way into the stadium dropped his season ticket, looked up and smirked: "I might need that for next year."

The jokes are harmless enough, but for Carlos "El Comandante" Hernandez, the club's uncertain future isn't so funny. "Veracruz fans don't deserve what is happening now," Hernandez told ESPN in a local coffee shop. "It's crossed the line, we're getting thrashed, players are fighting for money."

The 43-year-old stationary business owner bears a remarkable resemblance to former Venezuela president Hugo Chavez. Buying in on the joke after a meme of him in the stands watching Veracruz went viral, Hernandez wears military fatigues and a dark purple beret with the club's logo on it, standing in the same position behind the goal every single home game. In the process, "El Comandante" has become something of a local celebrity, even launching a Facebook page to give his opinions on the club. Hernandez has traveled to Puebla, Toluca and Mexico City this year regardless of how bad the team has been.

"We travel for the love of the colors, the love of the crest," Hernandez said. "We don't travel to support the ownership, we don't travel to support for the players, because the players come and go, but the crest and the colors remain. The players don't feel the colors like a person or fan here in Veracruz."

Hernandez says he'll meet with friends and discuss soccer, players that originate from Veracruz and other sports if the Tiburones Rojos disappear, but not attending games at "Pirata" every two weeks will leave a significant hole.

The city and culture has left a strong impression on Veracruz player Colin Kazim-Richards. Despite his love for Mexico, the journeyman striker will be glad to put this season behind him. The 33-year-old London-born former Turkey international has seen a lot in a career that has taken him from Bury, England, to Brazil, with stops in Turkey -- with both Fenerbahce and Galatasaray -- Greece, Scotland, France and now Mexico. His wife and children have picked up four languages along the way. But what he's seen this year at Veracruz has been eye-opening and shocking.

Earlier this season, Kazim-Richards saw a young Veracruz player vomit water during training. When he asked what was wrong, the youngster admitted he hadn't eaten in three days, according to what Kazim-Richards told Brazilian outlet Globoesporte.

The experienced striker took him to eat after the session, even though he himself hasn't been paid since March. That wasn't the only young player Kazim-Richards, who scored the famous goal in Veracruz's 1-0 victory over Puebla on Oct. 29 to end the dubious winless streak, has helped and he's not the only senior player to lend a hand.

"I'm not going lie, I helped some of the kids," Kazim-Richards told reporters last week in Veracruz, stressing that other players have also lent a hand. "I think the right thing for me to do was to help some of the young players, as someone with experience. I have three kids. If my kids were in that situation, I'd want someone to help them. ... It's important for people to know sometimes the situation that the young boys were in."

Kazim-Richards describes what he has witnessed at Veracruz as being "like a novela," but far from being scared away, he's hoping to stay in Mexico when his contract runs out in a couple of weeks at the end of the Liga MX 2019 Apertura.

"I don't want everybody to take a soundbite," he stressed. "Mexico is a very good league, with some very big players and very big teams."

The problem is that Veracruz's plight has become one of the main storylines of the Liga MX season, attracting international headlines given their historically poor form. The club's negative headlines have been difficult to ignore, and that's set to continue, especially with the prospect of the team being removed from the league.

Former PSV Eindhoven defender and World Cup veteran Carlos Salcido spoke out at a press conference last month, with the rest of the men's first-team squad standing behind him. The 39-year-old explained that lack of wage payments have meant some players have had to leave their houses due to not being able to pay the rent and that there isn't adequate nutrition or hydration during training for the various of the club's teams.

The complaints don't stop there. One player from the Veracruz women's side told Campeonas MX that the team had to change in the restrooms at the training facility, that the players had to bring their own water to training and that on one occasion the team traveled over 20 hours by bus to get to a game.

The men's team threatened to boycott the Oct. 18 game against Tigres over the dire financial situation but instead botched a protest that brought further ridicule on social media. Veracruz players apparently thought a standstill to raise attention of the club's plight at the beginning of the game was to last for three minutes, whereas Tigres understood the duration would be one minute. Tigres went up 2-0 in the confusion and were sarcastically applauded off the field at the end of the game.

At the front and center of the Veracruz crisis is owner Fidel Kuri, who appears unconcerned by the unhappiness around the club. The 57-year-old had no security detail as he enters the stadium before the game against Club America, making his way slowly to his suite after a lengthy scrum with reporters in the parking lot ahead of the game against America. Fans take selfies with him. An elderly lady crosses him just before he slips inside.

Former congressman Kuri moved the Reboceros de la Piedad franchise to Veracruz when the team won promotion in 2013, in a kind of musical chairs shifting of clubs that summer, which isn't uncommon in Mexico. It brought Liga MX play back to Veracruz for the first time since 2008.

Since then there have been 14 coaches; Kuri has been sanctioned five times by league authorities, including after almost coming to blows with the technical director of the Mexican federation's refereeing commission, Edgardo Codesal, in 2016. There have been scandals about the use of double contracts and even reports of sexual abuse in the Veracruz youth system. Last May, Veracruz paid around $6 million USD to be able to stay in the league.

A total of 59 complaints have been made from Veracruz players to the Liga MX's resolutions commission regarding nonpayment of wages. An emergency fund is being used to pay the players' part of their debt, but the investigation into the club is the central theme looking to the long-term, with reports circulating that Liga MX owners have already agreed to disaffiliate the club.

But kicking Veracruz out of the league structure would be complicated, with questions galore regarding next year's calendar, TV rights, the players, relegation table (in which Liga MX giant and cash cow Chivas would be bottom) and the club's handful of external sponsors. That and the reality that Kuri isn't likely to go out quietly.

"I'm going to put out a comic strip: The story of the federation," threatened Kuri. "Have a look at the case of [Veracruz player] Abraham Gonzalez. He had double contracts with Lobos BUAP and Pumas, but they don't see things equally, it's enough to satanize Fidel Kuri for everything. Veracruz is not getting disaffiliated. I'm going to pay, and they should clean up their mess."

While Kuri insults those in charge of soccer in Mexico, the fate of Veracruz hangs in the balance. For a league seeking to modernize and that has put in place checks for ownership groups, stipulated minimum requirements for promoted clubs and tried to improve a product that is the most watched soccer league in North America, Veracruz represents a severe public relations headache for Liga MX. But lost among the fallout are the likes of Hernandez, who care little about the politics of it all and just want a dignified local first division team to support every weekend.