How Barcelona and an American businessman helped form Ecuador’s Immortal Derby, one of South America’s finest games

How Barcelona and an American businessman helped form Ecuador’s Immortal Derby, one of South America’s finest games

When American businessman George Capwell arrived in Guayaquil, Ecuador in 1926, he knew very little about football. He’d only come to manage his electrical company. Almost a century later, that same business is going toe-to-toe in a stadium bearing his name with a footballing powerhouse named after one of the most famous clubs in the world.

The Clásico del Astillero, between Club Sport Emelec and Barcelona Sporting Club, is the pinnacle of Ecuadorian football, a rivalry built on geographical, competitive and passionate foundations, which sits in great company with other South American animosities.

Eutimio Pérez, a Spanish immigrant hailing from Catalonia, had no idea of the beast he would be associated with creating. His love for Spain’s new-found game, football, forced him to create his own club and bring the growing sensation to Guayaquil, Ecuador’s most populated city.

Innocently named after Pérez’s hometown, SC Barcelona competed in their first amateur tournament in 1925, playing in all black. A year later, Capwell came to the same city to manage his electrical company, the Empresa Eléctrica del Ecuador. A keen sportsman, he headed the foundation of a sports club so that the employees could play in the amateur leagues. 

The club’s name was made up of the first syllable of the company’s title – ‘em’ from ‘empresa’ and ‘elec’ from ‘eléctrical’ – and became Emelec. Initially competing in traditional American sports like baseball and basketball, Capwell eventually agreed, with a significant degree of reluctance, to start up a football team 15 years later.

Success was almost instant as Emelec dominated the local championships before they moved into the club’s baseball stadium when it was finished in 1942. They met their match a year later. Now sporting the red and blue strip of their namesake, Barcelona were competing with Millonarios and Deportivo Cali of Colombia – and beating them. 

Their first meeting in 1943 was as dramatic and eventful as the 242 that would follow. Despite Barcelona coming out on top, Emelec were the talk of the town. During the game, which saw seven goals add up to a 4-3 triumph for Barcelona, Emelec struck the woodwork several times, their misfortunate forever immortalised by the name given to the match, El Clásico de los Palos (Derby of the Posts). In 1948, the rivalry was labelled the Clásico del Astillero (Shipyard Derby) due to the part of the city where both clubs resided.

Hostilities started to bubble under the surface between the two teams after a controversial power-cut cost Los Toreros a famous win over Emelec. With Barcelona leading 3-0 at the George Capwell Stadium, the floodlights run by Capwell’s electrical company failed and halted the game. When light was eventually restored, proceedings took an unexpected twist as Emelec battled back to draw the game 3-3. Conspiracy stories spread amongst the Canarios supporters, who claimed that the power shortage and subsequent turnaround was far too coincidental to be an accident.

With regional divisions the peak of football competition in Ecuador, Barcelona and Emelec began to see Guayaquil as not big enough for them both. During an era of flux in Ecuadorian football, Guayaquil’s two powerhouses formed part of the first Campeonato Ecuadoriano in 1957. They competed for the national title against Deportivo Quito and Aucas, both from the capital Quito, in a round-robin format where they would not face each other.

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Emelec were the history-making champions that year, finishing a point clear of second-place Barcelona. By then, the latter had abandoned their red and blue stripes, with bad luck cited as the reason, in favour of their traditional yellow and black. The regional leagues were also scrapped a decade later, with two national divisions being devised by CONMEBOL as a replacement.

Over the course of the calendar year, two different leagues took place. The winner of the first league would face off against the winner of the second at the end of the year to determine the national champions. If one team won both leagues then they would automatically be crowned champions without the need for a playoff.

It sounds complicated but it throws up a unique and dramatic conclusion of a national title being decided over two legs. And when the two biggest clubs in the country meet in this all-important climax, the stakes multiply. Despite the success of Emelec and Barcelona, they would go on to avoid each other in this final to end all finals for generations to come.

Barcelona ended up dominating the 1980s, winning five titles in the decade alone and taking their overall tally up to a massive ten in comparison with Emelec’s six. After sharing Guayaquil’s Estadio Modelo with Emelec for almost 30 years, Barcelona’s push for a place of their own finally came to fruition in 1987, when their Estadio Monumental was built.

With room for 90,000 spectators, its grand opening saw the visit of Spain’s Barcelona, neighbours Emelec and Uruguay’s Peñarol for a surreal mini-tournament. Ecuador’s Barcelona defeated their namesake to set up a final with Emelec. Fans of Los Eléctricos still boast about the party-spoiling 1-0 scoreline that fell in their favour.

Pelé, who was in attendance for the competition on invitation, said: “If [the] Maracanã is the largest stadium in the world, Monumental is one of the most beautiful in the world.” Those words are written on a golden plaque inside the stadium today.

While Barcelona and Emelec remained two of the striving forces in domestic football, they would continue to be plagued flying the Ecuadorian flag in international competition.

A fiercely contested Copa Libertadores quarter-final between the two in 1990 saw Barcelona squeeze through. Penalties were required against River Plate in the semi-finals but Barcelona again prevailed to reach their first Copa Libertadores final. A 2-0 defeat in Paraguay to Olimpia did the damage as they sadly failed to bring home Ecuador’s first continental trophy.

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Brazil’s Vasco followed in Olimpia’s footsteps by beating Barcelona in the 1998 final. With the Estadio Monumental coming with its obvious advantages, Emelec moved back into the renovated George Capwell Stadium and have remained there to this day. South American success of their own could’ve come at the turn of the millennium but a devastating shoot-out loss to Millonarios at home denied them glory in the Copa Merconorte.

However, Emelec’s domestic drought would end in 2002 as they won their tenth Ecuadorian title after 11 years without one. Meanwhile, the Clásico del Astillero began to attract the attention of a wider audience. A friendly was held in New York and people across the world were starting to discover this startling tale of competitive hatred.

Tragically, though, in a league game at the George Capwell Stadium in 2006, the rivalry reached its lowest point, revealing a darker side. Barcelona’s ultra group, Sur Oscura, are associated with a violent past and never was this more evident than during a Clásico in which Barcelona found themselves 3-0 down by half time. With passions running high and anger reaching boiling point, the Sur Oscura took the law into their own hands and sparked a furious riot. Objects were thrown onto the pitch, one hitting and injuring a linesman, before the fans turned their attention to things off the field. 

They invaded and looted the media section and radio booths, causing other spectators to run onto the pitch in fear of their own safety. Parts of Emelec’s stadium were destroyed and a total of 40 people were hurt. Nine arrested were made by police and the game was abandoned.

The Sur Oscura would also have blood on their hands the following season. With a Clásico due to begin at El Monumental, flares were fired from where the ultras were grouped, with one hitting and killing a child in one of the suites inside the ground.

All the progress that was made to attract football fans to watch one of the greatest derbies in world football was truncated by the shameful acts of the protagonists in this part of the story. For a game also known as the Immortal Derby, these events left a more bitter taste than any defeat would ever do.

Positivity returned to Barcelona in 2012 when they were victors in both leagues and earned their 14th Ecuadorian title. Emelec moved onto their 11th the season after, repeating Barcelona’s double feat. After a time of toil and struggle, on and off the pitch, it seemed as if Barcelona and Emelec were heading into the 2014 season as the two favourites for the championship.

Experienced Uruguayan coach Rubén Israel was in charge of Los Canarios while former Bolivia international Gustavo Quinteros, who would go on to manage Ecuador, was in the Emelec dugout. Going into the start of the campaign, Barcelona had a squad that contained Ecuador goalkeeper Maximo Banguera and future Watford right-back Juan Carlos Paredes, while Ecuador international Jorge Guagua and former Everton striker Denis Stracqualursi were amongst the Emelec ranks.

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After a disappointing first half of the season, eventually finishing nine points and three places off table-topping Emelec, Barcelona moved to sign 31-year-old striker Ismael Blanco. Blanco’s goals fired Barcelona to victory in the second half of the year, setting up the final Ecuadorian football had been waiting over 70 years for.

The build-up to every Clásico del Astillero is immense; tensions and excitement in Guayaquil will reach fever-pitch right up until the match kicks off. Then the streets are empty, the shops are closed and the roads are quiet for 90 minutes. This game was exactly the same but also different in every way.

Dubbed La Final del Siglo (The Final of the Century), hostilities reached boiling point, greater than ever before. It wasn’t only Guayaquil that was obsessed with this particularly Clásico, or just Ecuador. The whole continent of South America dropped their footballing tools and took notice.

The first leg was held at the fittingly-named Monumental, with a raucous atmosphere whose din drowned out any communication between the players on the pitch. The crowd were meant to be silenced when Ángel Mena put Emelec in front after 19 minutes but that only angered the wasps’ nest.

A sea of yellow and black urged Los Canarios to get back into the game, but as time flew by from a Barcelona perspective, their prospects were looking slimmer. That was until Blanco’s soaring header found its way past Esteban Dreer and into the back of the net with two minutes of normal time remaining. 

While El Monumental has an allure of grandness about it, the George Capwell Stadium is close and compact. There is nowhere to hide. With the two sides locked at the start of play, vicious and violent challenges started to fly in. The home fans, each decked out in the Emelec’s blue and white colours, bayed for blood, but it was Barcelona’s Álex Bolaños who saw red after two bookings inside the first ten minutes resulted in his dismissal. His brother, Miller, watched the departure from the other half of the pitch with an Emelec badge on his chest.

Halfway through the first period, Maximo Banguera brought down José Perlaza inside the area only to see Mena put the ball into the roof of the net anyway. However, El Clásico de los Palos reared its ugly head once more as Emelec hit the bar and post during the first half.

On any other occasion, a second goal would calm the nerves of the supporters inside the stadium, but when Miller Bolaños headed in to double Emelec’s lead, pulses went up that extra notch. The George Capwell Stadium, first built for baseball by an American businessman, erupted with noise, streamers and flare smoke.

With brother Alex watching on from the changing room, Miller secured the win three minutes from time with his second goal. There was one final roar of the day as the trophy was lifted in the Guayaquil dusk before half of the city partied long into the night.

The following three Ecuadorian titles would be shared among these two great rivals. They would also go to the Vicente Calderón and back to New York in aid of charity. With the Ecuadorian season starting, keep an ear out for the Clásico del Astillero, one of the lesser lights but utterly enthralling games of football that shows no signs of slowing.

By Billy Munday @billymunday08

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