Cachirules: The scandal, the curse and the story of why Mexico were banned for two years

Mexico Cachirules

The Cachirules Scandal was an event which occurred at the end of the 1980s and had huge ramifications for Mexican football. So much so, they were banned for two years and missed out on Italia ’90. Some have argued the national team has never fully recovered. Some believe the team is cursed.

The scandal was discovered when they tried to use over-age players in the 1988 CONCACAF U20 Tournament. This was a qualifying tournament for the World Youth Championship a year later. Their plan was rumbled and FIFA not only banned them from that tournament but from all international tournaments for two years from 25 April 1988 to 1 July 1990 – hence their absence from Italia ’90.

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It should be said they’ve qualified for every World Cup since then, and they will be at the 2026 edition on account of being co-hosts with Canada and the USA.

On each occasion, they’ve gone out at the round of 16, except Qatar last November when they went out in dramatic circumstances in the group stage.

Hence the belief there is a curse.

Back to the late 80s and Mexico was desperate to reach the World Youth Championship. Hosting the World Cup in 1986 had further ramped up the excitement around the sport in the country. Added to that, performances at youth tournaments would obviously go some way to boosting the status of the country within the worldwide game.

The age restriction was 20 at the time, but countries were routinely fielding over-age players to boost results. In 1988 FIFA issued a statement to all national associations they would no longer stand for this.

But Mexico chose to ignore them, believing they could still get away with it. They fielded four players who were clearly over 20, Gerardo Jiménez, José de la Fuente, José Luis Mata and Aurelio Rivera.

There are various origins to the word ‘Cachirules’ but the most popular one seems to be it was given to this because a Mexican tv actor known as ‘Cachirulo’ played a character much younger than his actual age.

The CONCACAF U20 was held in Guatemala in April 1988. Mexico won all four of their First Round group matches, hitting seven against Netherlands Antilles and four against Bermuda. They also beat Canada and Cuba to go into the final group stage, alongside the USA, Costa Rica and Cuba.

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They started with another win over Cuba before going down 0-3 to Costa Rica. Their final match saw them defeat the USA 2-1 to finish second behind Costa Rica and secure qualification to the World Youth Championship.

But all was not well. Mexican journalist, Antonio Moreno, noticed a discrepancy with the ages given to CONCACAF for the tournament and the ones in a yearbook published by the Mexican Football Federation (FEMEXFUT).

Once the tournament ended he published an article exposing his findings and accusing the FEMEXFUT of cheating. His accusations were refuted by FEMEXFUT president, Rafael del Castillo, who verbally attacked Moreno.

But then Moreno was backed up by another journalist, José Ramón Fernández, who went on television to reveal the rule-breaking. Once again FEMMEXFUT denied the allegations and generally ignored any suggestion they knew of anything untoward.

Unfortunately for them, the public were less convinced and gradually the story gained some traction. More journalists got interested and started to interview the players. Eventually, birth certificates were found and the real ages discovered.

Jiménez and de la Fuente were found to the 22, Mata 23 and Rivera, the captain, was four years over the age limit.

The Mexican media just wouldn’t let it go and gradually news filtered through to places such as America. The USA had finished third in the group and, feeling their team should take Mexico’s place in the Championship, they submitted an official complaint to CONCACAF.

19 June 1988 CONCACAF ruled the ages of the four players were indeed falsely declared. Years later Rivera tried to claim most of the squad were over-age but that was never proved.

Mexico was disqualified from participating in the World Championship. USA qualifying in their place.

The ramifications for FEMEXFUT were only just getting started. Several officials were banned for life, although team coach, Francisco Avilán escaped any sanction.

Some of the officials travelled to FIFA headquarters in a bid to get the ban overturned. FIFA ruled on the matter but it wasn’t the result the Mexican executives had hoped for. It appeared del Castillo had a far greater opinion of his reputation and standing within the governing body than he really had.

30 June 1988 FIFA announced they not only upheld CONCACAF’s decision to kick them out of the World Youth Championship but that ALL Mexican national teams would be banned for all international competition for two years, retrospective to 25 April – just after the end of the CONCACAF Championship.

The senior team was now affected by this, along with the other age-restricted teams. The Mexicans appealed that many other nations had done what they did and not received anything like the punishment they had. They’d only received bans for the respective age-restricted competitions.

FIFA maintained the reason for the ban on all teams was that previous punishments clearly had not been effective enough and so Mexico was being made an example of.

“The committee resorted to this harsh punishment to serve as a strong warning for others contemplating cheating on age limits”, FIFA spokesman Guido Tognoni said.

In addition to the U20 side missing the World Youth Championship, the U16 side would not appear at the U16 World Championship and there would be no team at the 1988 Seoul Olympics. Mexico had originally qualified through the CONCACAF pre-Olympic tournament, held in December 1987. They’d beaten Guyana, 9-0 and Guatemala, 2-1 and 3-0. They’d been awarded the second game against Guyana after 15 members of the Guyanese squad defected and asked for political asylum while at a training camp in California.

Mexico’s subsequent disqualification allowed Guatemala to progress for only the third time in their history. It should be said that Guatemala had been a supporter of Mexico’s sanctions after the CONCACAF tournament in their country. Once it became clear they would benefit from this, it was pretty easy to see why.

All that would probably have been ok for FEMEXFUT to stomach but the biggest loss was the senior team was banned from Italia ’90. They also had to sit out the CONCACAF Championship, or Gold Cup as it is now known.

But the World Cup was the toughest pill to swallow. Having missed just two of the previous 10 editions they were buoyed by a Quarter-Finals appearance in both 1970 and 1986 (ironically both as host nation). As I said earlier the game at home was boosted by the success of the tournament in ’86.

Now they would have to sit out as the circus reached Italian towns.

For a football-mad country, the Mexican public saw this as a humiliation. There are those who believe the national team has never got over it.

Quinto Partido

There is a belief in something known as “the curse of the fifth game”, or “Quinto Partido”. Ever since the ban Mexico had gone out in every World Cup at the round of 16 stage, hence missing out on a fifth match at each tournament.

To add to the curse when they went out at the group stage in Qatar they had achieved four points. The same number as the number of players who’d been found guilty in the Cachirules scandal.

Having said that, there is hope within the country that maybe they’ve kicked the curse for the final time. As they’ve reached the Quarter-Finals stage in the other World Cups they’ve hosted a similar achievement in 2026 wouldn’t necessarily confirm the curse, if it does indeed exist, has been broken. We may have to wait till 2030 to find that out.

Football age cheats

Mexican officials could well have felt victimised for their crimes just a few months after FIFA handed down their sentence. At the Seoul Olympics Nigeria was found to have fielded over-age players. The birth dates of three players were different to those given for them in previous tournaments. FIFA’s punishment was to only ban Nigeria’s youth teams for two years.

Perhaps the most widespread abuse of the rule came in 2009. MRI scans had been introduced by FIFA at the U17 World Cup in Nigeria. Interestingly enough, the host nation had been one of those to resist the move. When it was discovered 15 players in the hosts’ squad had to be dropped as they were discovered as over-age, it became clear why.

Then in January this year Cameroon was found to have 21 of their 30-strong squad fail age tests as their U17 side were preparing to play Central African qualifying games in the Nations Cup. They hastily called up replacements only to discover 11 of those were also over-age!

This wasn’t the first time Cameroon had been banged to rights in the age department. Back in 2017, they had to stop 14 players from going to the U17 AFCON tournament in Gabon.

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Cameroon were involved in one of the funniest examples of this. Tobie Mimboe became known as ‘Peter Pan’ as he became younger and younger with every passing tournament.

It is expected more and more teams will get caught out by this as the MRI testing is considered to be very accurate. Up to 99% accurate until the age of 17 when it becomes harder to calculate a person’s age. Needless to say, FIFA says it’s ‘pure coincidence’ they changed their age-restricted tournament from U16 to U17.

MRI testing was brought in for the 2009 tournament, yet teams are still getting caught out. Whether this will really be enough to stop them trying, though, remains to be seen.

On reflection, Mexico could have good reason to feel hard done by regarding their punishment. It was only discovered they had four over-age players, and although that was strictly against FIFA rules and went against the edict they’d laid down, banning the senior team along with all over-age groups does seem an overreaction. There have been other countries found guilty of the same offence since, yet only the respective youth teams have been disciplined. No other senior team has also been caught up by the same sanctions.