Fireworks, smoke from flares and ticker tape filled the Buenos Aires night sky as Boca Juniors lifted their 32nd Argentine championship in June 2017. The title had been sealed five days earlier after Banfield – the last remaining side with a mathematical chance of pipping Boca to the title – lost at San Lorenzo. Boca’s coronation took place with an elaborate celebration on the pitch following the 2-1 home victory over Unión, but amidst the blue and yellow could be found the Colombian tricolour, held proudly aloft by Boca’s Colombian contingent.
All but four of Boca Juniors’ championship-winning squad in the 2016/17 season were Argentine. One of those was young Uruguayan midfielder Rodrigo Bentancur, who will be featuring for Juventus next season after an €8 million move this summer; the other three were Colombian.
Perhaps the most influential of the trio last season was flying left-back Frank Fabra, whose style is reminiscent of Patrice Evra. Fabra began his career with Envigado FC, a club based in the city of the same name which borders Medellín, and one often incorrectly labelled a suburb of its larger neighbour. The city is most famous for being home to notorious drug trafficker Pablo Escobar, who at one time was one of the world’s richest yet most bloodthirsty men.
Envigado’s football club, however, is considerably more modest with their stadium holding just 11,000. The club was only formed as recently as 1989, and counts two second tier titles on its honours board.
El Equipo Naranja consistently punch above their weight in Colombia’s football system, thanks in no small part to a superb youth system which has produced James Rodríguez, Fredy Guarín, and Juan Quintero to name but a few. Fabra is another graduate from La Cantera de Héroes and the full-back made over 100 appearances for the first team in a four-year spell after debuting in 2010. After a spell on loan with Deportivo Cali, Fabra made the short move to Independiente Medellín in January 2016 before joining Boca just six months later.
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During Boca’s 2016/17 championship-winning season, Fabra started 18 games and came off the bench twice, averaging 81 minutes per match. Defensively, no player in the Boca squad completed more interceptions than Fabra, but he was also an effective weapon going forward, proving to be a key man in many of Boca’s attacks. He managed one goal and three assists, although only two players were caught offside more than Fabra, which perhaps gives an insight into his adventurous spirit on the ball.
The low point of Fabra’s season came in an ill-tempered goalless draw in La Plata against Estudiantes. The home manager – and former Arsenal player – Nelson Vivas was sent to the stands for protesting what he thought was a blatant penalty for his side, after which he comically ripped off his shirt Incredible Hulk-style to reveal a physique belying his age. Less amusing was the racial abuse Fabra suffered, causing him to leave the pitch in tears. Vociferous complaints by Boca captain Fernando Gago to referee Silvio Trucco sadly fell on deaf ears.
As with most full-backs of an attacking persuasion, Fabra is prone to the odd mistake. He gifted Ecuadorian minnows Independiente del Valle a goal in Boca’s shock Copa Libertadores semi-final defeat in 2016, and despite only 11 caps for Colombia to date, Fabra has already been culpable for gifting goals to international opposition. However, he more than makes up for any defensive frailties with what he offers going forward, and is already off the mark for his national team.
Wilmar Barrios joined Los Xeneize from Deportivo Tolima – with whom he won the Colombian Cup in 2014 – in August last year for €2.7 million. Golazo Argentino, an English-language website about Argentine football, named Barrios as the signing of the season and it’s not hard to understand why as he clearly looks like a player born to wear the Azul y Oro. Boca won every game that the tenacious midfielder started, and Guillermo Barros Schelotto’s decision to leave him on the bench in the Superclásico defeat at La Bombonera in May was baffling as the game was crying out for a player with his style.
Operating from a deep-lying position in Boca’s midfield, Barrios demonstrated a capability of blocking and tackling as well as proving economical with the ball, boasting a pass completion rate of 85 percent as well as providing three assists. Barrios has three caps for Los Cafeteros but he’ll surely become an influential player for his national side in the upcoming months ahead of next year’s World Cup in Russia. In February 2016, along with Fabra, he was named in the World Soccer 500, where the magazine named their top 500 most important players on the planet.
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Sebastián Pérez signed last August from Medellín side Atlético Nacional, where he won five national championships, two domestic cups, two super cups, the Copa Sudamericana and the icing on the cake, the 2016 Copa Libertadores. The highly decorated midfielder debuted for his national team in May 2016 and now has six international caps. The 24-year-old only managed 12 appearances for Boca this season, however, with eight of those coming from the bench.
Despite limited appearances, Pérez proved himself to be an adept passer of the ball, completing 89.5 percent of passes, the highest in the Boca squad. In April he ruptured the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee and will miss six months. His stop-start career at La Bombonera will have to wait a little longer before taking off.
The departure of Bentancur to Juventus freed up a space in Boca’s foreigner quota, one that was filled by a Colombian, making the trio a quartet. In July 2017 Edwin Cardona signed from Mexican side Monterrey on a one-year loan deal, making an immediate impact with two goals in his first three pre-season friendlies, including a superb long-range effort that has almost become his trademark. The gifted 24-year-old has almost 300 career appearances to his name after spells with Atlético Nacional, Junior and Santa Fe, and most recently in Liga MX with Monterrey.
So highly thought of is Cardona at La Bombonera that he has been gifted the almost-mythical number 10 shirt. “I hope he plays better than me,” was a recent quote from perhaps one of the most famous former stars of said shirt, Juan Román Riquelme.
Fabra, Barrios, Pérez and Cardona are far from the first Colombians to ply their trade in Argentina, nor at Boca for that matter. In the 1950s this trend was reversed when several Argentines joined the Colombian league during its golden period. Professionalism in Colombia, as well as a dispute between the league organisers and the national FA, led to several Argentine players making the move across the continent, including River Plate’s Adolfo Pedernera and the incomparable Alfredo Di Stéfano.
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Towards the end of the century, as there was more prestige and money in the Argentine game, Colombians began flocking the other way, many using Argentina as a stepping stone before crossing the Atlantic to Europe. James Rodríguez, from the same famed Envigado cantera as Frank Fabra, spent two years with Banfield, followed by stints at Monaco and Porto, before becoming a Real Madrid galáctico in 2014.
Radamel Falcao moved to Buenos Aires at the age of 15 to sign for River Plate before becoming one of the world’s most feared strikers following spells with Porto and Atlético Madrid. Juan Pablo Ángel formed part of River’s feared cuatro fantásticos alongside Javier Saviola, Pablo Aimar and Ariel Ortega before becoming a cult hero at Aston Villa. There have been countless other examples and there are now Colombians playing professionally in over 60 countries worldwide.
Perhaps Boca’s most glorious spell at the turn of the millennium coincided with the arrival of three Colombians. Mauricio ‘Chicho’ Serna, Jorge Bermúdez and goalkeeper Óscar Córdoba represented the club between 1997 and 2002 when Los Xeneizes won three league titles, two Copa Libertadores trophies and the Intercontinental Cup, being the last team to beat Real Madrid in an international final. The three provided the defensive backbone of the all-conquering side, endearing themselves to a generation of Boca supporters.
Serna recently gave his seal of approval to one of the current crop of Colombians, visiting Barrios in the changing rooms after a victory over Newell’s Old Boys in La Bombonera in May. After providing the assist for what would prove to be the only goal of the game, Barrios left the pitch to a standing ovation. Serna received Barrios’ shirt as a gift, stating that it would have pride of place in his private museum. Talking to TyC Sports after the game, Serna stated that Barrios was at a “high level” and that he was “made to wear Boca’s colours”.
Boca will enter the 2017/18 season with their sights firmly set on lifting the Copa Libertadores for the first time in more than a decade. If the current quartet reach anywhere near the level of Serna, Bermúdez and Córdoba they’ll go a long way to writing themselves into Boca Juniors folklore.
By Dan Williamson