This feature is part of A Tale of One City
Bogotá, landlocked high on an Andean savannah and bordered by mountains, isn’t an obvious footballing city.
Historically football in Colombia hails not from its capital city, but from the Caribbean coast. Residents of the port city of Barranquilla claim British sailors and railroad workers as the game’s forefathers, whereas inhabitants of rustic Santa Marta claim their fruit factory workers were playing football on the beach long before British influence.
As the often fragile and challenged seat of political power, Bogotá did at least have a defining role in the formation of professional football in Colombia, though following a coincidental early golden era, the spotlight was off again. During the wild and dangerously lavish years of Narco-fútbol, Bogotá and its clubs played second fiddle to Medellín and Cali – home cities of the drug cartels, and away from the prying eyes of Bogotá’s lawyers and law enforcement.
Colombia’s famous 5-0 victory against Argentina, and the ill-fated ‘94 World Cup campaign it secured, featured just one Bogotá-based squad player. Carlos Valderrama, Faustino Asprilla, René Higuita, Andrés Escobar, Leonel Álvarez, Freddy Rincón, and Adolfo Valencia – none hailed from the capital. Even today, international matches are played in coastal Barranquilla where support is deemed more passionate. One can also add James Rodríguez, Juan Cuadrado, Jackson Martínez, Radamel Falcao, Carlos Bacca, and Cristian Zapata to the list of notable players never to have turned out for a capital city club.
However, scratch the surface of this rough diamond of a city, and a feverous footballing following waits to be discovered. Complete with its own subtle yet murky history of assassination, bribery, match-fixing, interference from drug cartels and presidents, football in Bogotá has played host to all the expected carnival, hype and drama one could wish for, and has been graced by stars from Alfredo Di Stéfano to cult-hero Léider Preciado.
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At street level, raucous salsa forces its way out of a dusty and dated sound system. Courtesy of a winding extension cable – its source unknown – two large speakers have found a home nestled amongst rusting display racks of crisps, beer and lottery tickets. The shack is nothing more than a hole in the wall yet, thanks to two well-seasoned Cerveza Aguila umbrellas, has extended on to the sidewalk of Calle 140.
At this altitude, an intense afternoon sun flickers between the clouds yet fails to remove the air’s lingering and delicate mountain chill. If Medellín is the city of eternal spring, Bogotá is home to three seasons on any given afternoon.
Five storeys above the shack and its captivating soundtrack, there’s a football match in flow. Six floors of small, open air 3G football pitches represent a design fad in a city where space comes at a premium, and where younger generations are afforded the luxury of wanting to play football. Protected by mesh fences and nets, a flock of expensively clad young children excitedly chase a ball around.
Here in the wealthier northern districts of the city, life isn’t too complex. American-style shopping malls and European-style cafes grace wide and abundantly green avenues, and cycle lanes allow relatively simplistic transportation. Many English language schools educate children of wealthy locals and a growing number of expatriate families.
Further south, sandwiched between expansive National University grounds and El Chapinero, stands Bogotá’s football cathedral. The Estadio Nemesio Camacho El Campín is home to both Santa Fe and Millonarios, and is about as far south as some wealthy northern dwellers will go. El Chapinero, which has become something of a trendy district amongst young Colombian creatives, is authentic Bogotá: bursting with energy, yet breathing an almost nervous air of tension.
Slightly further south, and beyond the stadium, the narrow streets around historic La Candelaria are notorious, particularly after dark. While murder rates have steadily fallen, robbery at knifepoint is a frequent occurrence. These are Bogotá’s poorest neighbourhoods, home to many rural Colombians displaced during a long and bloody internal conflict. Crime is rife, life is hard, and football is an ill-afforded opulence.
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Read | A Tale of One City
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Back on Calle 140, some of the young players are adorning official replica kits: Real Madrid, Manchester City, Barcelona, Chelsea, Tottenham, Colombia, and even one Millonarios strip. European glory before hometown pride, naturally.
As the match finishes and the youngsters make way for the car-park where a hum of European and Japanese SUV’s whisk the family’s home. Home is mostly comfortable apartments behind high electronic gates, most with armed security guards on perimeter patrol. No matter how far north you go, or in which social circles you move, there’s always a reminder of conflict and friction in Bogotá.
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On 9 April 1948, Colombian presidential candidate, Jorge Eliécer Gaitán, was gunned down in Bogotá. The event sparked riots referred to as El Bogotazo, which destroyed large parts of downtown Bogotá and nationally led to a ten-year Civil War between liberals and conservatives. The Colombian government was desperate for a positive and unrelated source of unity for its discontented masses.
As La Violencia burst wildly into life, so did Colombia’s first professional football league.
From a small office not far from where Gaitán drew his last breath, June 1948 saw the formation of División Mayor del Fútbol Profesional Colombiano, or DIMAYOR to its family and friends. Its organisation was hurried, and existence didn’t quite suit everyone.
Despite Bogotá’s Independiente Santa Fe claiming the first championship, city rivals Millonarios were the initial favourites. Founded by well-connected and wealthy businessmen, Millonarios had money and power, and would go on to dominate early honours lists. Both teams impressed in the inaugural DIMAYOR championship as Bogotá became the focal point of an unlikely golden age of Colombian football.
Founded in 1941, and a seemingly insignificant five years senior to Millonarios, Santa Fe are the elder statesmen of Bogotáno football. While their founders matched the high society backgrounds of their Millonarios counterparts, they certainly couldn’t equal their influence and wealth. Compiled of graduates of the illustrious Gimnasio Moderno school, their background was steeped in a British-styled education rather than high power business or politics. Jack Greenwell, the English manager who would achieve remarkable success with Barcelona, RCD Español, Valencia and the Peruvian national team, was a notable early influence.
After escaping the Spanish Civil War with his wife, Greenwell eventually found a home in Bogotá. At Santa Fe he instilled much in the way of effective club structure, tactical organisation, and found success on the pitch in a number of amateur tournaments. Regrettably, Greenwell didn’t see the professionalisation of Colombian football or Santa Fe’s first championship in 1948. He died of a heart attack in November 1942.
Formation of the DIMAYOR wasn’t a smooth process. In wanting to professionalise Colombian football, and hand-picking ten teams for their adventure, the league’s founders had angered Colombia’s amateur football association, Adéfutbol. Their loss of clubs would mean heavy disruption and financial loss for their regional leagues. After much heated debate and public trading of insults, the dispute was settled with the helping hand of FIFA. With the sport’s governing body onside, Adefútbol swiftly and totally revoked DIMAYOR’s affiliation.
Humberto Fernandez, DIMAYOR’s first president, wasn’t deterred. Despite Colombia’s new FA and professional league not being recognised by FIFA, and the Colombian national team being sanctioned from only FIFA competitions, Fernandez doggedly decided the league should go ahead. Boldly brave or recklessly stubborn, it was a decision perfectly timed and assisted by another coincidental quirk of footballing history.
At the other end of the South American continent, many of the world’s best footballers of the time were based in Argentina. River Plate’s legendary La Máquina team had more than its fair share. Swept up in tides of political change, the late 1940s saw many an Argentine union rise to prominence, and football became a focal point. Demands such as freedom of contract, minimum wage, and recognition of the union had the Argentine FA and the Futbolistas Argentinas Agremiados at war. As negotiations fervently swung back and forth, November 1948 saw Argentine footballers officially on strike.
Unleashed from FIFA’s usual regulations and restrictions, the wealthier Colombian club presidents saw opportunity. Many talented Argentine footballers also recognised opportunity, and saw briefcases full of cash.
At Millonarios, president Alfonso Senior had already been instrumental in bringing Argentine Carlos Aldabe as player/manager. In the same year as his appointment, 1949, Aldabe pulled off a major coup. Adolfo Pedernera, widely regarded as the world’s best player at the time, and personal friend of Aldabe, switched from River Plate to Millonarios. Faced with the reality of a future without football in his homeland, Pedernera’s decision was relatively simple. That said, he was still joining a seven-year-old club in a two-year-old league. Naming his own terms and wages, and a rumoured US$5,000 for signing were all part of the deal. Pedernera’s club, CA Huracán, were not consulted and no fee was due. FIFA and the AFA remained powerless.
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Read | The kidnap of Alfredo Di Stéfano
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Following a ceremonious welcome at Bogotá’s Aeropuerto de Techo, Pedernera was officially unveiled at El Campín in front of over 15,000 fans. His debut produced a 6-0 victory and gate receipts swelled enough to cover his annual salary. Though the whole story was deemed scandalous in Argentina, Colombian football had its first superstar. El Dorado, DIMAYOR’s golden era, had begun.
More marquee signings followed. Pedernera personally advised the names he deemed necessary to bridge the obvious gulf in class between himself and his teammates, and the briefcases were dispatched. Midfielder Néstor Rossi and a 23-year-old Alfredo Di Stéfano both arrived partway into the second DIMAYOR championship.
Naturally, other Colombian clubs cast envious and fascinated glances towards Millonarios. Not to be outdone by the neighbours, 1949 also saw Santa Fe sign Argentine duo Héctor Rial and René Pontoni before casting their net a little wider. Neil Franklin and George Mountford arrived from Stoke City, and Charlie Mitten from Manchester United. Millonarios themselves added British talent to their squad; Billy Higgins signed from Everton and Bobby Flavell came from Hearts.
El Dorado saw plucky adventurers from all over Europe and South America were enticed to Colombia. Footballers from England, Lithuania, Hungary, Romania, Yugoslavia, Italy and Austria all became b-list superstars for the less wealthy clubs trying to match Millonarios.
In December 1949, Millonarios claimed their first league championship and earned the nickname of El Ballet Azul (The Blue Ballet). In Bogotá and beyond, crowds flocked to witness a standard of football never seen before.
March 1951 saw the first talks attempting to resolve simmering tensions and a rather unique set-up, but progress soon stalled and stunted. Countries like Argentina and Paraguay, those most affected by DIMAYOR’s lawless league, reverted to piling pressure on their governments instead. In turn, the governments leaned on Colombian president Laureano Gómez.
Agreement finally came in August. Following five long months of increasing pressure from FIFA, other South American associations, their own government, and scornful headlines from around the world, DIMAYOR reluctantly agreed to change. However, in mirroring the brazen, single-mindedness which led to El Dorado, agreement came with some clever clauses. Though the Lima Pact stated all foreign players would return to their original clubs, it was written this wouldn’t happen until October 1954. Furthermore, the Colombian clubs would be due a transfer fee in compensation.
Unsurprisingly, Millonarios claimed further league championships in 1951, ‘52, and ‘53. Yet the club and their ever-ambitious president, Senior, weren’t content with domestic dominance.
As the stand-off between DIMAYOR and FIFA vetoed Colombian clubs’ participation in international club tournaments, Senior cajoled other avenues. In 1952 Real Madrid and their president, Santiago Bernabéu, were organising a tournament to celebrate their 50th anniversary. Initially, Swedish champions IFK Norrköping and Argentina’s River Plate were to be the guest opponents.
The story goes, however, that after leaning heavily on contacts in the Spanish embassy, Senior staked the claim that South America’s best team currently hailed from Bogotá. Bernabéu was convinced to send scouts to watch Millonarios, and was impressed enough to invite the Blue Ballet instead.
In affirming the audacious belief that Bogotá was home to the world’s best football league – and the world’s best football team – Millonarios went to Spain and beat Real Madrid 4-2 in the Torneo Bodas de Oro final on 30 March 1952. Despite having only been a professional club for four years, Millonarios had just conquered Europe.
Having dazzled in the final, Di Stéfano completed an inextricably complex transfer to Real Madrid a little over a year later. Back on Colombian soil, DIMAYOR’s El Dorado was fizzling out. Faced with the impending return of their star players, Colombian presidents coaxed clubs all around the world into bidding wars. Rather than settling for the smaller compensation amounts due in a year’s time, clubs looked to offload their prized assets for as much cash as possible.
In the case of Di Stéfano, an often ugly four-club tussle eventually saw Barcelona and Real Madrid claim a deal. A gentleman’s agreement between Bernabéu and Senior, and the rumoured influence of General Franco, saw Di Stéfano make a Real Madrid debut in September 1953.
Post Lima Pact, and as the remaining foreign players in Colombia were departing, the 1954 championship evidenced the final nails in the coffin. Financial support from the government was siphoned and attendances mirrored the standards of football, and drastically declined. Eleven matches were cancelled as teams struggled for players in a league trimmed back down to just ten competing teams.
The Blue Ballet was no more. Following their 1953 championship, Millonarios regularly fielded a team of youth players and unknown journeymen, and finished rock bottom of the 1957 championship. The league title wouldn’t return to Bogotá for another five years.
Colombian football would spend the next 30 years in financial ruin, and putting on an often chaotic and below-par standard of football for dwindling numbers of spectators. Its next boom would also be shrouded in controversy – awash with lavish finances of questionable repute – and cast under a global spotlight.
The current-day DIMAYOR, or Liga Águila as it’s formally known, exists as a kind of baffling tribute to Bogotá’s unique brand of bureaucracy. Since 2002 each season has produced two champions, and a lot of complex mathematics. Winners of the Apertura and Finalización, which is essentially a full 40-match season split into two halves, then face-off in the Superliga Colombiana for a place in the Copa Sudamericana.
At the other end of the table, relegation isn’t straightforward either. Upon culmination of the regular league fixtures, the two teams with the worst three-year average league record are relegated.
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Football in Colombia has often mirrored the country’s gruesome and cold-blooded history. As home to a significant population of lawyers, judges, policymakers and politicians, Bogotá has largely kept its hands clean. However, as the city is also home to the watchful and influential eyes of national and international media – and government – there’s been plenty of notable bloodshed on its carpets.
Much like El Dorado, Colombian football’s second period of global prominence was financed by outrageous amounts of cash, and laced with much controversy. During the late 1970s and early ‘80s, drug cartels infiltrated many of the nation’s football clubs. For some it was a hobby, for others it was another testosterone-fuelled arena to display a competitive edge, yet for all it was a highly significant means of money laundering.
As a lifelong football supporter, head of the Medellín cartel Pablo Escobar realised in the early ‘80s that buying into his beloved Atlético Nacional could be highly beneficial. Through manipulating transfer fees, inflating player salaries and reporting false attendance numbers, a significant amount of money could be laundered relatively easily.
Rival cartels soon caught on and, by the mid-1980s, the Colombian football league was rich again; this time awash with blood-stained dollars and carrying the stench of cold-blooded murder. Later investigations would find that six DIMAYOR clubs were being directly financed by various cartels.
Heads of the Cali cartel, brothers Miguel and Gilberto Rodríguez Orejuela, bought into their local club, América de Cali. In Bogotá, José Gonzalo Rodríguez seized control of Millonarios in 1982. As a member of Escobar’s inner circle, Rodríguez was Escobar’s man in the capital and the man responsible for ‘Tranquilandia’, one of the cartel’s largest jungle laboratory operations.
Escobar ruled the world’s cocaine market as his personal empire. From Medellín, he governed with his philosophy of Plata o Plomo (Silver or Lead). For the best part of two decades, rival cartels, police, government officials, journalists, and anyone else who stood in Escobar’s way, either took a bribe or a bullet. He was quick to draw with both.
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Read | Pablo Escobar and the Narco-fútbol years
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In 1984 Rodrigo Lara Bonilla – a staunch opposer to the cartels – who happened to be Colombia’s Justice Minister at the time, openly protested for the removal of drug money from Colombian football. He was assassinated three months later on Bogotá’s Calle 127, which has since been renamed Avenida Rodrigo Lara Bonilla. Bonilla’s murder would slowly prove the beginning of the end for Escobar, for it led to indictment and a long-running extradition battle.
Not until 1989 and the murder of referee Álvaro Ortega did the Colombian government step in. Ortega was shot after making some allegedly questionable decisions, with the 1989 DIMAYOR championship was cancelled. Inevitably, though, the 1990 tournament arrived with many “good intentions” being spoken, yet the cartels retained control of their clubs.
Predictably, Narco-fútbol led to more on-field success in Medellín than any other Colombian city. Escobar’s millions paved the way for a highly prominent and successful generation of Colombian footballers. Thanks to Escobar’s many sporting initiatives aimed at Medellín’s poorest families, a significant number of the country’s new superstars had just one person to thank. Escobar built pitches, paid for expert coaches and bloated salaries for his new football superstars. He reaped his rewards.
His millions ultimately led to an all-star Atlético Nacional team winning Colombia’s first Copa Libertadores in 1989. A breath-taking final against Paraguay’s Club Olimpia was decided by penalties. René Higuita cemented his own sense of celebrity by saving four and scoring his own spot-kick. Having defeated Millonarios in the quarter-finals, Bogotá hosted Nacional’s home leg of the final due to El Campín’s larger capacity, but Escobar had the whole squad fly straight back to Medellín to celebrate at his ranch.
Escobar’s brutal and dominating rule came to end on a Medellín rooftop on 3 December 1993. He was buried in a Nacional flag. Despite hopes on the contrary, peace rarely comes easily in Colombia, and the years immediately after Escobar’s death would prove exactly that.
In Bogotá, lawyers and politicians celebrated. A peaceful new dawn broke and Colombia’s national team, Escobar’s one positive legacy, would soon be en route to the 1994 World Cup, and hopes of football once again uniting a fractured nation were high. In qualifying for only their second World Cup since 1962, Colombia had recorded a famous 5-0 victory against Argentina, and had Pelé labelling them as outside favourites.
Notable moments over the next years are well documented. On home soil, Escobar’s death produced a bloody scrummage for control between rival cartels. Football remained inextricably linked with drug money and the national team looked a safe bet for success at USA 94. With large amounts of money staked on Colombia’s World Cup performances, the national team found themselves the focus of death threats. Minds blurred, results waned and an Andrés Escobar own-goal in defeat against USA spelt horrific tragedy.
Just weeks after that 2-1 defeat, a defiant Escobar penned an editorial in Bogotá newspaper El Tiempo, and went on a night out with friends in Medellín. As he was shot six times in a car park, his editorial sign-off held a terrible poignancy: “See you soon, because life doesn’t end here.”
The murder saw interest in Colombian football wane dramatically and condemnation from around the world. The nation’s football clubs once again entered a period of financial peril, and played out some mediocre football in front of half-empty stadiums.
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Around the turn of the millennium, Bogotá slowly became a hive of forward thinking. Influential mayor’s such as Antanas Mockus and Enrique Peñalosa have made Bogotá a living example of innovative urban design. Under their successive stewardship, Bogotá became not only a liveable city but a city in which life was to be enjoyed. With this came a new lease of life for football in the city.
Further local football teams came to prominence. Bogotá FC and Fortaleza formed in 2003 and 2010 respectively, and though originally formed back in 1982, La Equidad reached Colombian football’s top flight. All three share the city’s Estadio Metropolitano de Techo.
As Bogotáno’s stepped out to enjoy city-wide initiatives, such as Sunday’s weekly car-free Ciclovia, ladies-only night in bars and clubs, and a redesigned public transport system, football attendances increased once more.
Derby matches between Santa Fe and Millonarios, though, remain the city’s footballing centre piece. In truth, El Clásico Capitalino rarely delivers exquisite standards of football, yet given the widespread threats and worries people of Bogotá have had to deal with, that rarely stops the derby from being sold out. There aren’t many fixtures in Colombian football which lend a meaningful atmosphere, but this is one of them. Fixtures between either side and teams from Cali or Medellín also carry some gravitas.
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Read | Andrés Escobar and the tragedy of when football kills
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Historically, Millonarios, spurred on by Di Stefano and the Blue Ballet team, have the beating of Santa Fe. Millonarios boast 14 league titles to Santa Fe’s eight, and three Copa Colombias to two. Neither have come to much prominence in the Copa Libertadores.
The late-1990s saw Colombian football’s first specific fanatical supporters groups form in Bogotá. La Guardia Albi-Roja Sur are Santa Fe’s ultras, or Barra-brava as they’re known in Colombia. In 2005 they produced one of the biggest football flags ever seen. The 350×38 metre material spelt out Lienzo de Fe and covered half the stadium.
However, despite Bogotá and Colombia enjoying a prolonged period of stability and security, drug cartels would infiltrate football clubs once more. This time, the epicentre would be much closer to home, and only slightly less brutal.
En-route to a first league championship in 35 years, large-scale financial investigations were made into Santa Fe in 2011. On the field, there was renewed hope and carnival-like support from La Guardia Albi-Roja Sur. Off the field, the club had reportedly been at the mercy of Julio Alberto Lozano for the best part of a decade.
A powerful member of the aptly-named El Dorado cartel, Lozano had bought shares in Santa Fe through family and friends, and used the club as a front to launder part of his $1.5 billion profits. During the investigations it was revealed that a club auditor, who was assassinated in July after being questioned by prosecutors, was previously on the payroll of Pablo Escobar. Cerveza Aguila, the club’s main sponsor, immediately pulled their support.
Juan Manuel Santos, Colombian president since 2010, native of Bogotá, and lifelong Santa Fe supporter, was quick to act. In a hastily arranged speech, he labelled cartel involvement in football as “repugnant” and that he would personally put an end to the “macabre relationship between criminals and football”.
Around the same time as the investigations, Colombia hosted the FIFA under-20 World Cup. With lavish assistance and UA$112 million from the Colombian government, FIFA’s disgraced ex-vice-president made the calls. The tournament was marketed, showcased and supported as if it was the real deal.
In a rare opportunity to cheer on a national team, Bogotá hosted all of the Colombian team’s fixtures. In front of capacity crowds, Colombia won all their group games and squeezed past Costa Rica before exiting to Mexico in the quarter-final. Colour and carnival provided the backdrop to some truly noteworthy football. Players in attendance included Antoine Griezmann, Mohamed Salah, Isco, Danilo, Willian, Erik Lamela, Philippe Coutinho, and local hero James Rodríguez. At a packed El Campín stadium, Oscar’s final hat-trick crowned Brazil as tournament winners, and provided a bittersweet moment.
Since that final in August 2011, the pinnacle of aesthetic entertainment at El Campín has come from Lady Gaga, Justin Bieber, Shakira and the Rolling Stones. The modern-day Liga Águila does little to match its colourful spectators.
Santa Fe and Millonarios, like all Colombian clubs, are essentially a small part of an inconsistently functioning supply chain. From the homeland to Argentina or Brazil, then to Portugal of France, and finally to the promised lands of England, Spain, Italy or Germany, is the desired route of trade.
Combined efforts by the government and club presidents see that another cartel money-fuelled ‘golden age’ is thankfully unlikely. Safety and security breeds conformity, and despite a few lingering and prolonged court trials, Narco-fútbol and its hangover appears to be a thing of the past. That said, Bogotá is in Colombia, so the unexpected is to always be at least half expected.
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In an often divided country – politically, geographically and economically – football is one of the few things to truly unite Colombians, a sentiment reflected as a microcosm in Bogotá and evidenced as far back as the DIMAYOR league formation as a distraction from political unrest. For a nation synonymous with conflict, football has not only united Colombians; it has served to distract from unrest.
In 1985, at the government’s request, Colombian TV diverted a live report of riots and Bogotá’s burning Palace of Justice to show a Millonarios match. In hosting the 2001 Copa América as the ‘Peace Cup’, Colombia used the power of football as a desperate plea to the FARC to re-start peace talks. The tournament had been under threat due to many terrorist strikes in Bogotá. Similarly, Colombia’s hosting of the FIFA under-20 World Cup in 2011 masked not only FIFA’s insatiable greed, but also Bogotá’s latest Narco-futbol investigations.
As long as there is football and it’s modern corporate-sponsored carnival atmosphere, there is distraction from what’s negative. From Civil War, street assassinations, questionable politics, or self-indulgent decisions made by bloated FIFA officials, football in Colombia will always be susceptible to manipulation.
Bogotá, sitting atop the wild nation it tries to stabilise, mould and form, will most likely always oversee an unhappy allegiance between football and power.
By Glenn Billingham. Follow @glennbills