Bogotá: Millonarios row and the way to Santa Fe

COLOMBIA and its capital city, Bogotá, often get a bad press. The past created a reputation that has been hard to shake-off, notably the country’s link with drugs, corruption and violence. Football did not escape from this stain on Colombia’s history and the game’s association with the drug cartels, including the infamous Pablo Escobar, meant that clubs were often used as an avenue of money laundering. While much of this has now evaporated, Colombia has struggled to win credibility from the global football community.

Bogotá, with a population of around seven million, is a sprawling global city. It is also a city where 40% of the people live in poverty, a figure that has fluctuated but rose during the pandemic. In recent times, the power in Colombian football has not been in the capital but in Medellín. The last time a team from Bogotá won the Finalización was in 2017, when Millonarios beat their local rivals, Santa Fe, 3-2 on aggregate in the play-off. Millonarios did win the Copa Colombia in 2022 and they have had a reasonable time in Categoria Primera A this year. The most well known club in Bogotá are the only representatives from the city in the semi-final stage of the Apertura.

The Medellín and Cali clubs became dominant in Colombia in the 1980s and 1990s which became something of a golden age for the country’s football. The success of Atlético Nacional and América de Cali was believed to be attributable to their connection with drug barons, but Bogotá was often ignored as it was the city where law enforcement was headquartered, along with lawyers who were keen to crack down on the narcotics industry. That said, Millonarios had supposed links with Gonzalo Rodriguez Gacha, known as “the Mexican”. Writer Fernando Araújo Vélez, claimed: “The cartels of Gonzalo Rodríguez Gacha, Pablo Escobar and Miguel Rodríguez Orejuela were, in reality, represented by the kits of Millonarios, Nacional and América.”

Football clubs were used by the drug cartels to launder their cash – it was quite easy to make US$ 50,000 of “dirty” money into US$ 250,000 of laundered money.  Furthermore, player transfers and cash-only ticket sales on matchdays enabled clubs to “bake-in” piles of illegal money and inflate their attendances to cover the cash. Pablo Escobar has long since gone, killed in a shoot-out with Police in 1993 and the era of “Narco-fútbol” has also passed. The audacity of drug smugglers was encapsulated by the way they impregnated items like football shirts with liquid cocaine to deceive the authorities.

Violence reared its head once more in Colombian football at a game between two Medellín sides, Atlético Nacional and Independiente which saw two people killed and 14 injured. It was Medellín where Andres Escobar was killed in 1994 after he returned home after scoring an own goal against USA in the World Cup. Since those days, Medellín has been regarded as one of the most dangerous football cities in the world. There have been calls for a revision to the government’s 10-year plan for Colombian football, a project aimed at eradicating violence inside and outside of stadiums.

Unfortunately, we also remember Bogotá for the infamous Bobby Moore bracelet incident in 1970 and the attempt by a Colombian professional league to entice British and European players to clubs like Millonarios and Santa Fe in the early 1950s. Moore appeared to be victim of an elaborate scam and was innocent of any attempt to steal the item of jewellery, while some 20 years earlier, England international centre half Neil Franklin was tempted to Colombia but returned home after just a few months disappointed that reality was not aligned to promises made and with his career tarnished. Alfredo di Stefano, who would late join Real Madrid, had far more success in the Colombian Professional League in what was known as the El Dorado era.

Millonarios and Santa Fe both play at the Estadio El Campín, a 36,000-capacity arena that also hosts – much to the disgust of the football fans – rock concerts and other events. Colombia is a big exporter of football talent and ranks among the top six countries with around 450 footballers playing abroad (source: CIES Football Observatory). The leading destinations are Peru, USA, Mexico and Argentina, with the top European nations Portugal, Spain and Italy. The Colombian squad for the Copa América comprised 28 players, 24 of whom played abroad. There were only a handful of Colombians in the Premier League in 2022-23, including Luis Diaz (Liverpool), Yerry Mina (Everton), Luis Sinisterra (Leeds) and Davinson Sanchez (Tottenham).  On the other hand, very few expatriates find their way to Colombia. For example, the top six clubs in the country have squads that are 92% Colombian, with just a few imports from Spain, USA and South America.

There are other clubs in Bogotá, such as La Equidad, who were founded in 1982 and have the rather peculiar nickname of “Aseguradores”, the insurers. Their only honour has been the Copa Colombia, which they won in 2008. They play at the Estadio Metropolitano de Techo, along with two other main clubs, Tigres and Bogotá FC. La Equidad are in the top flight, but Tigres and Bogotá, both of whom are relatively young, are in Categoria Primera B. Neither fared very well in the first stage of the 2023 season.

Colombia could be considered an underachieving country on the football field. They didn’t qualify for the 2022 World Cup and their only Copa América success was in 2001 when they hosted a tournament that Argentina withdrew from and Brazil, fearing the safety of their players, sent a weakened squad. Colombia beat Mexico in the final in Bogotá and on the way to the final, disposed of Peru, Honduras, Chile, Ecuador and Venezuela. Poverty is high, but Colombians are passionate about their football. Over the years, they have produced some excellent players: James Rodríguez, Carlos Valderrama, Rademal Falcao, Faustino Asprilla and René Higuita to name but a few. Can they return to the world stage once more? Much depends on economics and opportunity as much as desire, but with 52 million people, surely there has to be hope?

Brazil set to dominate Copa again

THE DRAW for the group stage of the Copa Libertadores was made recently and of the 32 remaining teams, 12 are from Argentina and Brazil. In all probability, the winners of the 2023 competition will come from these dozen clubs, but it is hard to see a potential winner from outside an even smaller group of clubs that includes Brazil’s Palmeiras, Flamengo and Corinthians and Argentina’s River Plate and Boca Juniors.

The holders, Flamengo, with their band of 30-somethings, are well placed to retain their crown, and they have a reasonably comfortable group to begin their defence of the trophy. Before they embark on their group games, they have to face their old rivals Fluminense in a two-legged finale to the Campeonato Carioca, the state championship. They have added some new faces to their squad, including Gerson from Olympique Marseille (€ 15 million) and Ayrton Lucas (€ 7 million) from Spartak Moscow. These players are both 26 years old, but they still have David Luiz (36), Filipe Luís (38) and Arturo Vidal (€ 36) in their ranks. 

Flamengo’s biggest hurdle in their group will be Argentina’s Racing, who finished runners-up in their domestic league in 2022. They also face Ecudadorian champions Aucas, a club that used to belong to Royal Dutch Shell, and Chile’s Ñublense, who are known as the “clockwork sausage”.  Flamengo’s record in recent times is impressive, two wins and a runners-up spot in the past four years. They also won the Copa do Brasil in 2022, beating Corinthians. It will be a major shock if they fail to get through.

The most formidable challenge for Flamengo may come from Palmeiras as the competition progresses. Palmeiras have won the Copa Libertadores twice in the past three years and were Brazilian champions in 2022. They were surprisingly beaten in the semi-finals of the Libertadores last season by Athletico Paranaense, depriving the competition of a repeat of the 2021 final.

The rivalry between Flamengo and Palmeiras has created a new dynamic in Brazilian football and some are comparing it to La Liga’s clasico, Real Madrid versus Barcelona. But Brazil has a long way to go to create the sort of profile the Spanish derby enjoys, although they have ambitions that include greater levels of overseas investment. Palmeiras also have a reasonable group, including Ecuador’s Barcelona, Bolivar of Bolivia and Paraguayan club Cerro Porteño.

Flamengo’s traditional Rio de Janeiro rivals, Fluminense, have a tougher section to try and get out of, including 2018 winners, River Plate, The Strongest of Bolivia and Peru’s Sporting Cristal.  River are managed by former Uruguayan striker Enzo Francescoli and coached by Martin Demichelis. The club received a 25% sell-on fee on the sale of Enzo Fernandez from Benfica to Chelsea, so they may be flush with cash at present. They are currently top of the Argentine Primera Divisíon, two points ahead of San Lorenzo. 

Fluminense recently signed Marcelo, the veteran former Real Madrid defender, but the man grabbing the headlines at present is the club’s 35 year-old Argentinian striker Germán Cano, who netted 44 goals in 2022, winning the Bola de Prata, and has already scored 14 in 11 appearances this year.

River’s Buenos Aires enemies, Boca, who were champions in Argentina in 2022, should have a smooth passage through their group, although they have had a rocky start to the 2023 season. They are up against Chilean side Colo-Colo, Venezuela’s Monagas and Deportivo Pereira of Colombia. Boca are currently without a coach after sacking Hugo Ibarra, but the club have their eyes on Gerardo “Tata” Martino or Néstor Pékerman and are keen to install a new man before their Libertadores campaign gets underway.

Corinthians are much fancied by a lot of experts after their 2022 campaign that saw them reach the final of the Copa do Brasil, the quarter finals of the Libertadores and finish fourth in the league. In 2023, they were beaten in the quarter finals of the Campeonato Paulista on penalties by Série B side Itauno, which angered their fans. Football director Roberto de Andrade has since stepped down after fans protested against him and invaded the club’s training centre. It wasn’t the first time the  fans have expressed their dissatisfaction in this way. Corinthians face Independiente del Valle of Ecuador, Argentinos Juniors and Uruguay’s Liverpool in the group phase. They should have enough to get past this trio.

Internacional, the so-called “Clube do Povo”, club of the people, should also be too strong for Nacional of Uruguay, Venezualan side Metropolitano and Colombia’s Independiente Medellin, while both Atlético Mineiro and Athletico Paranaense could emerge from a group that also includes Libertad and Allianza Lima, champions of Paraguay and Peru respectively. The other group, arguably the most open, comprises Paraguay’s Olimpia, Atletico Nacional of Colombia, Melgar from Peru and Patronato of Argentina.

With Argentina winning the World Cup, the spotlight shone on South America once more, but football in the region’s countries has become something of a stepping stone for the most talented players. Of the 104 players representing the four CONMEBOL members in Qatar, only 11 played in their domestic football leagues, while 72 were employed in Europe and 14 played elsewhere in Latin America. Another seven were with US clubs.

The Copa Libertadores deserves greater exposure worldwide, especially the latter stages. There has certainly been more awareness in the past few years, but given its status (the second most important club competition in the world), there is still plenty of upside to be gained. Perhaps FIFA’s idea of a Club World Cup will increase the visibility of South America’s top teams.