South American Way: Colo Colo, Chile’s real thing

colo 1 (400x309)Chile won the hearts of many football fans with their attacking style in the 2014 World Cup, and they were unlucky to come up against a pre-implosion Brazil side in the round of 16. They were one of the dark horses in the competition but didn’t quite have enough in their tank. But at least two of their players, Alexis Sanchez and Arturo Vidal caught the eye in the shop window. Sanchez has joined Arsenal already and Vidal will surely be on someone’s list soon.

Chilean clubs are often overlooked when people talk about South American football. Colo Colo, Chile’s most successful club of all time, have an interesting history, not least because of its association with the dictator, General Augusto Pinochet.

Colo Colo, in 1973 became the first Chilean club to reach the Libertadores Cup final and they remain the only side to have won the competition from their home country, which they did in 1991. They have won 30 league titles and they are the best supported club in Chile. No wonder they are nicknamed, “El Eterno Campeon”, the eternal champions!

Colo Colo, due to their impressive finish to the 2013-14 season, will appear in the Libertadores in 2014-15. The club’s 1991 Libertadores Cup win is still treated like some form of supernatural event in Santiago, despite being more than 20 years ago. They beat Nacional of Uruguay and Boca Juniors on the way to the final with Paraguay’s Olimpia, so they had to overcome some serious hurdles. In the semi-final with Boca, an incident took place that people still talk about in the bars of Macul. A police dog bit Boca’s Colombian goalkeeper, Carlos Montoya, on the right leg. Colo Colo fans maintain a facebook page dedicated to the dog.

Colo Colo beat Boca 3-1 in the semi-final second leg in Santiago, thus overcoming a single goal deficit from the first leg. The final itself was won against the odds. After drawing the first meeting 0-0 at home, Colo Colo won 3-0 in Ascuncion. Fireworks in Santiago!

colo 2 (400x266)Pinochet liked Colo Colo, so much the club made the General honorary president. Notwithstanding they may not have had a choice, there could be no denying Pinochet’s love of the sport. Colo Colo were not the only club to benefit from his patronage – he also saved two of Colo Colo’s rivals, Everton of Vina del Mar and Rangers of Talen, from going under. Pinochet was not the only politican to embrace Colo Colo or see the currency of football. Current President of Chile, Sebastian Pinera, once held a 13% stake in the club, an investment he described as “an affair of the heart”.

The club has had its fair share of heartache, however. In 2002, Colo Colo were declared bankrupt after they failed to pay part of a USD 400,000 debt. They were in deep trouble at the time, with players and employees owed money and emotions running high, so much so that groundstaff revolted and took over the Monumental Stadium to demand payment of wages. The club had run-up debts approaching USD 30 million.

Ahead of Colo Colo being auctioned, former player Ivan Zamorano, who finished his career with the club, tried to buy them. But a joint stock company, Blanco Y Negro, took the club over in 2005. In June of that year, Colo Colo became the first South American football club to launch an Initial Public Offering (flotation), raising some USD 31 million and wiping out its debts. 11,000 investors bought the shares, demonstrating the groundswell of support for the club.

Support is not something that troubles Colo Colo too much. In 2013-14, the second segment of the campaign, the Clausura, was won by Colo Colo and they drew an average gate of 31,183 – around three times the next contender’s attendances. In the first segment, the Apertura, they averaged 14,975. Typically, attendances in the Clausura are much healthier than the Apertura.

1991The Chilean season has just started and Colo Colo have four points from two games. Rivals Universidad Chile and Santiago occupy the top two places. Colo Colo picked up their first win last weekend when they beat Deportes Iquique 2-0 at the Estadio Monumental, with both goals coming from veteran striker Esaban Paredes, who was, incidentally, a member of the Chilean World Cup squad. Also in the Colo Colo line-up was Jean Beausejour, who played in England with Wigan Athletic and Birmingham City and joined the club in the close season.

There’s one story that deserves mention and says a lot about Colo Colo. They won many friends in Peru in 1987 through their generosity when Peruvian club Alianza Lima was wiped out in an air crash. Colo Colo loaned four players – Jose Letelier, Parko Quiroz, Francisco Huerta and Rene Pinto – to Alianza. Friendship between the two clubs has remained strong down the years – and rightly so.

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