MONTERREY, Mexico -- Which are the world's great footballing cities? Buenos Aires, Manchester, Liverpool, Madrid, Barcelona, Milan, Istanbul, Rio de Janeiro ... Monterrey. Sound awkward? It shouldn't, according to Tigres striker Andre-Pierre Gignac.
The 33-year-old is adamant that the city from which one of local rivals Monterrey or Tigres will be crowned CONCACAF Champions League winner on Wednesday -- Monterrey take a 1-0 lead into the second leg -- hosts one of the very best football derbies.
"During the week, everyone in the city will have a Tigres or Rayados shirt on their backs," he said in a recent interview with L'Equipe. "It boils, like South America. It's more than a clasico. It's a superclasico, it's a Boca versus River, a Besiktas against Galatasary."
"You have to live it to understand it," Gignac said later in the interview.
Gignac, who is back from injury and set to start for Tigres, speaks honestly: He certainly doesn't need to say or do anything to curry favor with fans of the university team. He's already a club legend many times over.
The Frenchman admitted in that rare interview that he rejected potential transfers to Boca Juniors and Flamengo to stay on, further deepening his link with the fan base. Even a phone call from former Marseille teammate Romain Alessandrini wasn't enough to turn Gignac's head toward the LA Galaxy, even though playing with Zlatan Ibrahimovic was appealing.
"It would've been a beautiful partnership!" Gignac said.
Gignac has gained his Mexican citizenship, has two Monterrey-born children, has a taco stand named after him, has inspired many tattoos and has been known to socialize with members of the club's "Libres y Lokos" barra. His father even has a Tigres tattoo with the number 10 on his back. All of that has been fueled by his netting more than 100 goals since he joined in June 2015 in a shocking move, with the former Marseille player rejecting offers from Germany, England, Italy, Turkey, Qatar, Dubai and China to transfer to Mexico.
A comparison with Gignac's impact at Tigres would be what French forward Eric Cantona did to propel Manchester United from challengers to regular title winners. Both were born in the surroundings of Marseille, have a swagger, a mystique, an intelligence about them, and both fell in love with their respective clubs and cities.
Before Gignac joined Tigres, the club had won only three Liga MX titles. The count now stands at six. But despite the period of unprecedented success for Tigres and Gignac, there's one thing noticeably missing: a continental title.
Gignac has finished runner-up in the Copa Libertadores in 2015 and on the losing side in both the 2016 and 2017 CONCACAF Champions League finals. For a team built to make an impact beyond Mexico, Wednesday's final is another chance to fill the hole in the trophy cabinet.
It'd be a remarkable feat for Tigres to turn around the first-leg deficit, though not having the away goal rule in place helps.
On the other hand, Monterrey, with its spending on international quality players, promotion of youth and modern stadium, is arguably the most complete club in Mexican football. But that means little without trophies to show for it, and Rayados have been noticeably short on that front of late, with just one Copa MX since it won the 2013 CCL.
The memory of the 2017 Liga MX Apertura final is also very much alive around the city. The first leg in Estadio Universitario finished 1-1, but Tigres famously managed to defeat Monterrey 2-1 in Estadio BBVA Bancomer to lift the trophy on their rivals' soil. From a Rayados standpoint, a repeat is unthinkable. It won the CCL in 2011, 2012 and 2013, and fans brag around town about Monterrey's international achievements compared to Tigres'.
That final might also feed into the strategic planning of the game from Diego Alonso's point of view and certainly into the psyche of the match. Holding leads hasn't been Monterrey's strength this season, as was highlighted the last time these two played on March 9, when Rayados sat back while holding onto a one-goal advantage and allowed Tigres to tie 1-1.
As a spectacle, this second leg promises to be up there with the best CCL finals of all time and arguably the most quality-filled in the trophy's history. Interest north of the border, in Central America and the Caribbean, might not be piqued by yet another all-Mexico final, but the game and atmosphere will provide a reminder of how high the bar has been set for the clubs hoping to win it.
For Gignac, a victory for Tigres would be the final coronation and more validation that the giant roll of the dice he took in coming to Mexico from France was very much worth it.