The Payback: How Diego Reyes Left Mexico for Europe, and Returned to Win it All

Photography: Jared Martinez / Videographer: Tom Bender / Words: Cosmo Teare / Special thanks to StayPro Group

When Diego Reyes made the move from Club América to FC Porto in 2013 he became the latest in a line of Mexican stars to swap North America for Europe, hoping to follow in the footsteps of Hugo Sanchez, Javier ‘Chicharito’ Hernández, and Rafael Marquez.

His name first found its way onto the lips of excited Mexican football journalists and club scouts alike as a key member of the national team that won the London 2012 Olympic gold medal. You might not remember that of course. British minds became fixed on athletics once it became clear that a Team GB side that included a mix of Craig Dawson, Ryan Giggs and Marvin Sordell wasn’t exactly set for greatness. But, the gold medal was a huge deal across Mexico and Latin America.

For Brazil, in particular, anticipation going into the tournament was immense. The country had never won an Olympic gold in football, and the script seemed already pre-written for a then 20-year-old Neymar to lead his national team to glory. Except, Reyes, and his Mexico side had other ideas. A defence marshalled by him and former Fulham full back Carlos Salcido produced one of the great shocks in Olympic history when they shut out a star-studded Brazil side to win gold at Wembley.

Aged just 19 at the time, Reyes was the youngest player in that Mexico squad, yet he played with a maturity far beyond his years. The stage seemed set for him to go on and conquer Europe. Many in the Mexican press dubbed him the heir to the legendary Barcelona and Mexico international, Rafael Marquez. But as with all best-laid plans, sometimes the rise to the top isn’t always straight-forward. Injuries didn’t help, and the defender found himself in and out of the Porto team. Then came a series of loans to La Liga sides Real Sociedad and Espanyol. At Espanyol in particular, Reyes excelled, earning a spot in the 2017 La Liga team of the year alongside Sergio Ramos. That earned him a move to Fenerbache, where he played half a season before receiving a call to return to the Liga MX.

This wasn’t a call from just any old club though, it came from an ambitious Tigres side looking to cement themselves as a giant of Mexican football.“I’ve changed a lot from the guy that went to Porto in 2013 to the Diego that came back to Mexico in 2019.” Reyes tells us, his flitting between the first and third person betraying not so much arrogance but a mature detachment from the kid that first arrived in Europe all those years ago.

“Europe made me grow and mature in a lot of aspects, personal and professional wise, and now I feel way more complete. I’m so thankful for all those experiences I gained from living there these past years.”

As he turns his Jordan x Dior sneaker over in his hand, a trainer he tells us he’s coveted for months, Reyes reflects on his time growing up in Mexico City, and how growing up there he didn’t have much time to focus on anything outside of football. “Coming back to Mexico has meant a lot, personally and professionally. Being able to be close to your family and your culture is something you miss a lot after 6 years in Europe. Today I can enjoy things I wasn’t able to do at that time, so I’m really happy to be back.

When we ask what’s changed most for him between leaving Mexico and returning in 2019 he laughs and suggests that would probably be his car collection. While he’s able to boast a blood red Porsche 911 and G-Wagon now, it’s a long way from the car he used to borrow from his mum everyday to when driving to training. “An old Nissan X-trail, that was my first car that my mum lent me, I think it was like 2007ish which was old even then, but I had a real love for it!” So apart from the opportunity to move closer to his family, what else brought Diego to Liga MX? After all, he was playing in Europe with his prime years still well ahead of him. To answer that, a bit of context is needed.

Los Tigres are to some extent, Mexico’s great pretenders. Traditionally they lay outside of the established Equipos Grandes – the so called grand clubs of Mexico which consist of Reyes’ former club America, Chivas, Pumas, Cruz Azul and Toluca. But all that changed around the midpoint of the last decade, when the huge multinational company that owns Tigres, Cemex, set out on a mission to create Mexico’s first true footballing behemoth.

The first and most significant part of the jigsaw came when Tigres signed a world-class European forward in the form of French striker, André Pierre Gignac. Fresh off a 2014-15 season in which he finished golden boot winner in Ligue 1, outscoring Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Edinson Cavani, the Frenchman had offers from elite clubs in the Premier League and Serie A and was looking set to lead the line for the French national team at Euro 2016. To the shock of pretty much everyone, however, Gignac, at the peak of his powers, chose to move to Tigres, a club no one in Europe had ever heard of. It was a sure-sign the Mexican club planned to do very big things indeed.

To say that Gignac was a success at Tigres is an understatement. The Frenchman went on to become a god in his adopted hometown of Nuevo Leon much in the same way that Maradona did in Naples. After scoring his 105th goal and breaking the club’s scoring record, Tigres announced they would build a statue to honour the Frenchman. In a ceremony to mark the occasion, he was serenaded on the Estadio Universitado pitch by a 105 man Mariachi band before proceeding to bang in a hat trick past opponents Necaxa. Look it up on YouTube, it’s brilliant.

In the years since Gignac joined Los Felinos the club has won four league titles, three Campeon de Campeones crowns, the Campeones Cup and until last year, reached three CONCACAF Champions League finals where they were narrowly defeated each time.

According to Cesar Hernandez, Mexican football expert and co-host of The Mexican Soccer Show podcast, the Gignac effect meant when Tigres came knocking for Latin American stars plying their trade in Europe, the club and by extension the Liga MX was no longer seen as a place for players to go and wind down their career. 

“Tigres being the powerhouse that they are recently, not just on the field but financially meant they could bring in the likes of Guido Pizarro, an Argentinian international playing for Sevilla. They could say to Reyes ‘come and bey a key figure for us’ and be an attractive option compared to teams in Europe”

In short, signing for Tigres meant signing for a nascent club in a nascent league, and Diego Reyes wanted in. Reyes is bullish when he talks of the quality of Mexican football now, saying: “Sportingly speaking, we are not far off teams in Europe. Except for teams like Barcelona and Real Madrid, if you put Tigres in La Liga I don’t think it would go bad, Tigres is a team with talented players, with experience in Europe and World Cups.” It helps that in December 2020 Tigres finally broke their CONCACAF Champions League hoodoo when they won the trophy after reaching their fourth final in five years, which saw them qualify for the FIFA Club World Cup. The relief throughout the team was palpable, prompting the talismanic Gignac to tell the media “Finally. We finally won that fucking cup.”

For Reyes, the achievement was particularly special. Although he had been a part of the Porto side that won the 2017-18 league title, and a league title with Club América as a twenty-year-old, this was the first time he’d won an honour as an experienced player within the dressing room.

“With no doubt, winning the CONCACAF with Tigres was a really important achievement as that ́s the first time the team wins this title and it made it even more special to me as it was the reason we could make it to the Club World Cup.”

Qualifying for the tournament gave Tigres the opportunity to test themselves against European opposition. Reyes knew that as long as Los Felinos won their games, there would be a chance to play against a dominant Bayern Munich, and that if they won that, Tigres would go down as one of the all time great Mexican sides. A chance for Diego and the boys to become immortales.

Perhaps given his own experiences in Europe, there was an added motivation for Reyes going into the tournament. Los Felinos made history when they became the first CONCACAF side to reach the final in December 2020, but ultimately Bayern proved too tough a test.  Tigres went down to a 1-0 final defeat to Hansi Flick’s side as Bayern became just the second team after Guardiola’s Barcelona to win a sextuple. It was no disgrace, and Tigres returned to Mexico with heads held high. For Diego Reyes, the onus is on himself and Los Felinos to dust themselves off and go again. When we ask how he’s bounced back from past disappointment, he tells us that for him, mental toughness has always been an unavoidable facet of the game.

“It is true the personality of a football player may change inside or outside the game, but I think football gives you so many experiences that build your head and make you a stronger person even out of it.”

It’s clear that through these collected experiences Diego is so much more than just the player that fans see every week on the pitch. Relaxed, confident, and witty, Reyes is just as comfortable discussing everything from minimalism to his encyclopedic knowledge of the sneaker market as he is telling us about his experiences on the pitch.

After all, when we jokingly ask what would be the first thing he would save from his house, he cheekily grins and reveals it would be his brand new pair of Nike Dunks.

Having narrowly missed out on making history with Tigres in becoming the first CONCACAF side to win the Club World Cup, we ask what he’s using as motivation to bounce back.

“You’ll always be able to get motivation and a boost in your life, to go again and set new goals. In my case I get my motivation from my family, they are the best motivation, my nieces, the fact that they will be able to look up and remember their Uncle as a champion, that’s my motivation to never rest on our current achievements.”

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