Nicolás Miremont –
The overall improvement of Colombian football both at the club level and on the international stage has definitely turned the country into a regular contender. An impressive performance at the 2014 World Cup and the repeated victories of its clubs in the final instances of the most prestigious continental tournaments are a proof of it. Colombia is playing its best football and the world is aware of it.
Columbia’s transition from its status as an average football country to a talent producing one is the result of an exhaustive plan of enhancement. From youth coaching to economical management, the process of improving Colombian football, which started in the late seventies, is slowly starting to bear fruit.
América de Cali – The nightmare in 1995
History and politics, however, have not always been kind to Colombia. Back in 1995, América de Cali, one of the most successful clubs in Colombia, was included in the Clinton List, a measure taken by US President Bill Clinton as a response to the seemingly unstoppable progress of drug traffic and money laundering in the States.
All people and firms featured on the list were arrested or had their bank accounts cancelled and transactions frozen due to their supposed affiliation with the drug business. Understandably, this situation hit hard within the club’s organisation to the point where it became almost impossible for them to sign any kind of sponsorship deal given that no American enterprise was allowed to conduct business with those included on the black list.
Heavy debts and the fact that the club was not able to sign players meant that América was relegated after a terrible campaign in 2012. In 2013, however, América was finally taken off the Clinton List, and the club has been able to slowly climb back from imminent death. In fact, they gained promotion back to the Colombian top flight last weekend, after they beat Deportes Quindío.
América de Cali, one of the greatest in Colombia
Founded in 1918 as América Foot Ball Club, América de Cali has been a protagonist in Colombia ever since. From its beginnings, the Red Devils were very popular amongst the citizens of the majestic city of Cali. Honouring its roots, the team has always kept a close relationship with the people and the places where football has taken it. As a result, many amusing anecdotes enrich América’s history.
Its shirt, for instance, used to be very similar to Racing Club de Avellaneda’s shirt (Argentina). Years later, América de Cali switched to a furious red colour, which earned them a good relationship with Independiente de Avellaneda, Racing’s constant rivals.
The red devil in their crest has a particular story behind it, as well. Contrary to what many people believe at first glance, América’s symbol has nothing to do with a satanic cult. The club are said to have started using their distinctive figure after the Uruguayan national team captain, Luis Lenis, exclaimed, “Those morenitos (referring to their skin) from América play like red devils!”, in 1924.
The golden years of América de Cali
Regarded as one of the people’s teams, the lack of financial solvency during the El Dorado times kept them away from the big stages. El Dorado is regarded as a period in Colombian Football history when, due to Colombia’s booming economy, overwhelming sums of money were spent on Colombian football, and amazing players such as Alfredo Di Stéfano emerged (Di Stéfano played a couple of seasons for Millonarios in Bogotá).
América had to wait until 1979 before lifting their first piece of silverware, under the tactical management of Gabriel Ochoa Uribe. From then on, it was all glory and success for the Red Devils. According to their fans, América ranked very high on lists of the most important and powerful teams of the last century. And in Latin America many organisations, players and associations consider América to be one of the most important clubs of all time.
Between 1979 and 1991 particularly, the Red Devils won five consecutive domestic titles (1982-1986) and were runners-up for the Copa Libertadores three years in a row—a respected record in the world of Latin American football.
The Garabato cruse – A team destined to fail?
Back when football was not an industrialised sport in the new world, the transformation from an amateur club to a professional one was a topic of high controversy amongst those who had founded the institution.
“Garabato” was one of América’s founding members. Despite being a dentist and therefore having a close relationship with the world of science, he was still a very religious individual. He was also one of the players defending the then white and sky-blue shirt, back when it still represented an amateur club. There are different versions of the story, although they all end in the same way. After América officially became a professional club, Garabato decided to lay a curse on the institution. “You can do whatever you want with this club, but I swear on God’s name that América will never be champion!”
This attempted sorcery and the accompanying loathing he expressed towards the club appeared to deny América the championship for more than thirty years.
In 1979, both the institution and Garabato had a meeting at a special kind of Mass. There, the aforementioned stated in ink that the curse was finally over. Those few who thought the curse would end, had their expectations realized when América conquered their first local title that same year. It seemed time for the sceptical to join the optimistic.
The Garabato curse made a spectacular return, however—this time at an international level. América de Cali, as we have already mentioned, were 4 times runners-up to the Copa Libertadores. They lost the final three years in a row (85-86-87) and then again in 1996.
Despite having one of the Copa Libertadores’ all-time top scorers, Antony ‘El Pitufo’ De Ávila, (this amazing forward played the three consecutive finals, went abroad to Argentina, and then returned in 1996 for his fourth final) the club could not lift the cup on any of those opportunities.
After these events, the Garabato curse gained a whole new meaning, and was now regarded as an international curse. Some fans even re-named it the ‘El Pitufo’ curse. “América will never be champion” was a speculation that seemed to grow stronger and stronger with every passing final. América, often nicknamed “the giant loser”, has yet to succeed in the continental tournament. Only time will tell whether they will manage to break the curse or not.
The 1980s success under scrutiny
Although the 1980s were a very strange yet amazing decade in every possible aspect, the Colombian version of this period in history was marked by ambiguity. The rise of the drug cartels as organised entities, capable of displaying incredible amounts of money and personnel in order to achieve their goals, shocked the entire planet and, at the same time, they shaped one of the most successful periods in the history of Colombian football and sport in general.
The population were obviously terrified by this development although the impact it had on Colombian football was immense, to say the least. Similar to the El Dorado days, the 1980s decade became a major milestone in the long and rich history of football in the country.
After drug trafficking routes to the United States were established, the dollar began to slip from American coffers. Colossal amounts of money needed to be laundered and were thus introduced into the Colombian flow of cash. One of the strategies used by drug lords at that time was the incursion into football clubs management.
Gilberto Rodríguez Orejuela had established a solid trafficking route to the United States. After trying to buy the majority of Deportivo Cali, América’s wealthy and elitist neighbour, Orejuela became major shareholder of América. This move clearly provided him with a chance to gain contact with important Colombian businessmen and politicians who were willing to do anything in order to get money for their upcoming campaigns, and also provided a place where he could invest his money.
The following years went by as happily as a stroll in the park for the red Devils. Titles began to rain down from the sky starting with that historical 1979 local trophy. The heavy investment present within the club allowed América to finance its own El Dorado.
The hiring of Ochoa Uribe meant more than just a new manager, as América achieved five domestic titles in a row under his guidance. The period was later known as the el Pentacampeonato—the five championships. This decade also saw some of the most important Latin American footballers set tropical Colombia as their next destination, as they were seduced by the astonishing wages offered in the country. The historical Argentine goalkeeper Julio César Falcioni and Ricardo Gareca are just two examples.
In order to achieve political acceptance from the population, drug lords such as Orejuela or Pablo Escobar, invested in football and pledged that they expected nothing apart from economic gain and the fans’ happiness. Sadly, as many Colombian media resources had anticipated years before, the Colombian people fell for this ostentatious trick and let their clubs be influenced by the claws of the drug business.
Nevertheless, they are not to be blamed. The Latin American community is young compared to Europe, and this, sometimes, can lead us to make strange, selfish decisions in order to receive in return something as basic and insignificant as a football title. Well, this time it was thirteen titles though. Imagine this situation—forty years ago the laws of morality were not as established as they are today and football was one of the most important things in life.
The enhancement of football in Colombia was prompt and notorious, as this new era brought back its most revered glory days. After El Dorado, the league had been completely monopolised by Millonarios. This strongly affected the rest of the teams attendance wise. The renewed Colombian league witnessed crowded stadiums every fixture, weekend after weekend. Their squads were successful again, and this motivated the average fan to buy a ticket.
Moving away from football, the media covering the sport also experienced a complete overhaul as their editions started to be printed in fancy illustration paper after a vertiginous increase in sales, and most of the daily news shows were displaced by football chat shows and highlights. This certainly helped to cover up the war between Colombia’s cartels, a war in which even the President was involved.
This made the world question these suddenly successful clubs and their owners’ actions. The Cartel leaders apparently blew their cover after certain situations became unmanageable. This is very common in these sorts of crimes, for the amounts of money tend to become astronomical and when you run out of businesses to influence, it can be very difficult to hide your income.
Clubs with 150 registered players, Cartel messages on planes during matches, and episodes of violence and even assassination orders given by club owners became the norm in Colombia. This took football to a much more personal level for Orejuela, who started paying his players insane sums of money, cars and even pent-houses after good performances in key matches.
We ought to clarify that América de Cali was not the only club being run with “hot money”, as drug money was often called, at that time. Several important clubs, such as Atlético Nacional, are said to have been involved with drug lords. This has even lead to a discussion in Colombia and Latin America over whether Nacional, who won the 1989 Copa Libertadores, won it fairly against Olimpia. “Pablito [Escobar] bought it for you”, says a song composed by the Independiente Medellín fans.
The 1980s were an interesting part of Colombian history. Summarising the nature of the Latin American society to perfection, its people had to rely on criminals due to greed and the fact that their leaders abandoned them at the time. The war on drugs started as a way to stop the Cartels, whose influence were threatening to destroy the country.
This period did, however, brought moments of joy and prestige to Colombian football. Between 1979 and 1999, América won eight domestic titles, one international title, and played 4 Copa Libertadores finals. This allowed them to enter the hall of fame of world football as one of the most influential American teams of all time.
América de Cali – Back to the present
In 1994, Ernesto Pizano became the President of Colombia after having financed his campaign with money lent by the Cali Cartel. By that time, the operation launched by the US informally called ‘the War on Drugs’ had started to lay a serious amount of pressure on the new President.
The Specially Designated Narcotics Traffickers List (or the Clinton List) was implemented after Orejuela and his brother were captured in 1995. The Cali Cartel had laid low all those years, surviving Escobar and his Medellín Cartel bombings. The only thing they could not escape from was the United States’ reluctance to allow any more money to exit their country as payment for illegal substances.
The following years were tough for the club, although they managed to hold on for a bit more than a decade, even winning some titles such as the 2002 and 2008 local titles. In 2012, though, América were relegated and a new era began.
Before the Cali Cartel, the Sangiovanni family had owned the club for years. After Orejuela’s son decided to leave the club alone (by orders of his imprisoned father), one of the Sangiovanni heirs took over at the club as manager and turned it into a new anonymous society.
This change came as a breath of fresh air to the institution, which was formally declared clean on April 3, 2013. From then on, the journey to Primera, the top division in Colombian football, was set off alongside new sponsors and a crowd of fans who had remained faithful over those difficult twenty years.
América de Cali – Goodbye, second division
After four long years and a second place finish in 2012, which was difficult to digest, América de Cali finally got themselves into the finals of the second division quadrangular. The last match against Quindío took part at the Stadium Pascual Guerrero, which was packed to the rafters. The game itself felt a bit clumsy, although América knew how to deal with a very defensive Quindío, who were aware of the Red Devils’ desperation. A goal and a penalty were enough to settle the contest as they beat their rivals 2-1 and gained the awaited promotion back to where they have always belonged.
I am guessing that América de Cali’s first objective will be to enter into the rhythm and demands of top flight football. Then, one day, they might even win a trophy again. If that happens (which I am certain it will), the Copa Libertadores will be their next objective.
A club like América de Cali deserve such recognition. That would end the arguments over their greatness. This club was never great because of its titles, it is great because of its people. These unconditional fans were punished by the course of history. This is why I think promotion was the best reward for a club that has redeemed itself from mistakes made in the past. Welcome back, Red Devils!
*I would like to mention elenganche.es, an amazing website which provided me with an incredible amount of information and history on Colombian football. This allowed me to elaborate the humble reflections I have written here.
Nicolás Miremont is a born and raised Boca Juniors fan, but his heart has a special place for Manchester United, Zenit Saint Petersburg and Dynamo Kiev. Miremont loves to support the underdogs. Miremont enjoys watching smaller competitions especially those from Eastern Europe, but also his native Argentina. Follow him on Twitter @Miremont_Nico