CALI IS OFTEN BILLED AS THE SALSA CITY OF THE WORLD and portrayed as a city beating to the rhythm of the dance clubs and music bars of La Sexta. Perhaps, though, it will soon feature as the next pit stop on the football pilgrim’s map. Cali is home to Colombia’s domestic football reigning champions Deportivo Cali and former-greats América de Cali. But it is also home to the often overlooked football school Carlos Sarmiento Lora, which in its 32-year history has produced some of the finest payers ever to grace South American pitches, including Faustino Asprilla, Mario Yepes and Faryd Mondragón to name a few.

The school is considered the most successful of its kind in Colombia. It has produced an impressive number of players in the latest generation of Colombian footballers that represent their city with as much passion and success as any of the salsa hits that have earnt Cali its famous moniker. Having been told about the institution during the Copa América, I went along to find out about the school and the people behind some of Colombia´s greatest players.

As indistinct and subtle on the outside as it is fascinating on the inside, the headquarters of the Carlos Sarmiento Lora sits on a street fairly close to Cali’s city centre. In the shadow of the formidable Intercontinental hotel. Its typical steel framed gates and white exterior blend into a city where office spaces and homes sit comfortably next to each other, as though one and the same.

Like any other street in this city, people walk by in their bright yellow Colombia football shirts on a daily basis, focused on their journey without realising the significance of the building they pass so casually. Inside the building, which is marked only by its name and badge posted on one of its outside walls, is a treasure trove of archives and information about the superstars of Colombia’s footballing past, and of its next generation. We are welcomed inside by former teacher, trainer, physio, coach and director Alberto José Granados Lores, who tells us about the history of the school.

Founded in 1984 as a tribute to Valle del Cauca’s industrial leader Carlos Sarmiento who, along with his wife, set up a social foundation, the couple’s niece set up the school in their honour. The school was initially linked to Deportivo Cali, at a time when the club was in the shadow of city rivals América who were enjoying the finest period in their history.

From being exclusively linked to Deportivo Cali throughout the 1980s, the school broke away and became an independent football school. Out on their own, it has been able to expand its teams and students and even introduce the country’s first formalized female coaching department.

Most interesting and admirable is the school’s emphasis on the players’ education both on and off the pitch. With 90% of the school’s students coming from the poorest economic stratas of Colombia’s social system, the club’s motto of “building the person then building the player” is both socially conscious and necessary; particularly considering that of the 1,200 players that are currently playing at the school only four or five will fulfill their dreams of becoming a professional. Lorre himself acknowedges this: “The vast majority of those that come to us won´t become professionals so we encourage the skills for that majority to do something else, sometimes staying in football with coaching, becoming a physio or in outside industries.”

Oscar Estupiñan, a former trainee with the school and now a professional player for Liga Águila side Once Caldas, described how this idea helped to shape him. Estupiñan told These Football Times: “The school helped me so much on the human side as well as the sport side. For that reason I learned to see challenges in a different way, also helping me to overcome my own limitations and to overcome external criticism, which can cause a player to give up on their dreams. As for sports, I always strive to be a player of high performance.”

The reputation of the school attracts players from outside of the Valle del Cauca – with five players currently training with the school that are from Quindioos and Tumaco. This is testament to the famous catalogue of graduates the school has produced. You cannot talk about Carlos Sarmiento Lora without mentioning its prestigious alumni.

The school’s, and one of Colombia’s, most famous players, Faustino Asprilla, started out as a trainee with the school, as did 2014 World Cup captain Mario Yepes and record-breaking goalkeeper Faryd Mondragón. Other domestic and international success stories include Óscar Córdoba, Miguel Calero and Héctor Hurtado. For Estupinan, a Cali native, the options were simple: “At 14-years-old I decided to go to Sarmiento Lora looking for ways to focus more on my goal, I spent many years at school, but it was this stage that has been the most important in my process as a player.” Four years later Estupinan’s dream came true as he signed a professional contract with Once Caldas, a remarkable feat and one that serves as an example of the school’s success and prestigious reputation.

“We believe we are the best [in Colombia], but we want to be the best internationally,” says Lore, whose ambitions for the school are justifiably ambitious. With 14 players currently playing in Liga Águila, including two that were part of Deportivo Cali’s championship-winning side last June and players that feature regularly in the Colombian national youth team, the reputation of the school is set to grow at the same speed as the training facilities on the two new sites they have purchased.

For now, though, as people continue to walk by the offices without taking much of a notice of what’s behind the tall grey gates, there is little sign of the tourist curiosity that peers curiously at Barcelona’s famous La Masia academy or Sporting Lisbon’s prestigious Academia Sporting. As we leave, the school that produced some of Colombian football´s biggest names and sporting heroes stands peaceful once more, overshadowed by the Intercontinental Hotel and blending back into its surroundings – the secrets of its past and the tools to produce the next Colombian superstar footballer go on undisturbed.

By Stephen Tew. Follow @Stephen_G_Tew