Monday, February 11, 2013

Colombia – like Paraguay, unknown and uninteresting to outsiders. The great years of Colombian football – the 1950s – were long gone. With them – whatever novelty existed for outsiders. So far, Colombian football produced nothing – even in South America it did not rank high: may be above Bolivia and Ecuador, but lower than anybody else. Why Colombian football stayed so low is difficult to figure out: the sport was popular and drug money were available in the 1970s just like they were in the 1980s and later. Money were good by South American measures – the country attracted foreign players for long time and continued to be preferable destination. May be foreigners stifled local development – they were too many. But foreign players were beneficial to local football elsewhere, so why not here? Foreigners came in every possible shape – from veteran stars, nearing retirement, to virtual nobodies. They were all South Americans, unlike the 1950s, when some European players joined Colombian clubs. Ladislao Mazurkiewicz, Juan Veron, and Oscar Mas played in Colombia in 1977 – perhaps the biggest, but also over the hill stars. The Argentinians were perhaps the biggest group, a traditional trend. Some were fairly famous, like Nestor Leonel Scotta, who played for the national team of Argentina. Others were of smaller caliber, but became Colombian legends. Evidently, foreigners shaped Colombian football – 8 of the top ten goalscorers of the 1977 season were Argentinians – Veron, Mas, Scotta, Osvaldo Marcial Palavecino, Miguel Angel Converti, Jorge Ramon Caceres, Ramon Orlando Gomez, and Alberto Benitez. The two Colombians were not in the top three... Colombian football depended on foreigners too much. To the point of naturalizing foreign talent, like Caceres. A foreign talent, which was second rate at their native countries...

Anyhow, football is football. In the South American tradition, Colombian championships were complicated – two separate phases, Apertura – a standard two-legged tournament, followed by Torneo Finalizacion, in which the 14-team league was divided in two 7-team mini-leagues. Some results were carried over from the Apertura, so in the final table of Finalizacion each team ended with 21 matches total. Either that, or there were some inter-league fixtures. The logic of such complicated tournaments is incomprehensible, unless the motive is to keep fans intrigued and thus get full gates.

But even this was not the end: after Finalizacion the top three of each group played Final Hexagonal – two-legged round robin championship, finally deciding the champion of the year. Hard to tell what for the Apertura was played for - unless the champion was to be decided at last by a final between the winners of both championships. If so, there was no need this season – one club won both tournaments. Whatever the quality of Colombian football was, one thing cannot be denied – there was a lot of it. A fan of so-so club was able to see 47 matches. A fan of the contenders – 57.

Aperture was practically two team race – Atletico Junior and Deportivo Cali. Atletico Junior won by 2 points, seemingly thanks to supreme defense. Bellow the best was a thick group of fairly equal clubs – 7 teams positioned themselves largely on goal-difference. America finished 3rd with 29 points and Deportivo Quindio ended 9th with 27 points. Four clubs had 28. America topped Independiente Santa Fe with better goal-difference as well. The clear outsider was Cucuta Deportivo, finishing last, 7 points behind 13th placed Deportes Tolima. So far – so good, first stage finished.

In the second stage things were... confusing at best. Atletico Junior finished dead last in Group A. Deportivo Cali won the group very confidently – with 29 points, 3 points better than 2nd placed Millonarios and 5 points above Atletico Nacional at 3rd place.

Group B was either weaker or tougher, for there was no obvious leader – three clubs finished with 20 points and goal-difference decided their final places. The winners, Atletico Bucaramanga, ended with 2 points more. The pariah of Apertura – Cucuta Deportivo – finished 3rd! Looked like clubs chose in which tournament to play at full force, neglecting entirely the other. But Cucuta earned nothing at the end, for they did not make it to the real final...

Torneo Hexagonal – 6 participants. On what criteria, though? The best 6 of Apertura? Or the top three of each group of Finalizacion? Or may be combination of both phases? The top three of Group A were among the last six – Deportivo Cali, Millonarios, and Atletico Nacional. However, Millonarios was 5th in Apertura, and Atletico Nacional – 6th. Atletico Bucaramanga was 1st in Group B, and measly 11th in Apertura. Atletico Junior – winners of Apertura, but last in Group A of Finalizacion. Deportes Quindio and Cucuta Deportivo were 2nd and 3rd in Group B of Finalizacion, but 9th (Quindio) and last 14th (Cucuta) in Apertura. Seems the final six was made of the champions of the two groups of Finalizacion, plus the winners of Apertura, plus the next three of Apertura, allowing for duplications of winners in both stages. And it came to the already mentioned above plus Independiente Santa Fe - 4th in the Apertura, and also 4th in Group A of Finalizacion. Did not make much sense, except for providing some incentive for the clubs playing Group B – the lower half of Apertura final table. If not having a chance to go up, why playing at all? But to be the best among the worst hardly pays off – Atletico Bucaramanga finished last in the final group. They won only 2 games, earning a total of 4 points. No surprises by them. No surprises by Independiente Santa Fe either – steady, but not great in either earlier stage, they finished 5th at the end with 7 points. Atletico Nacional, also steady, continued to be just that, finishing 4th with 10 points. Millonarios and Deportivo Cali finished neck to neck with 12 points each – goal-difference decided their final position and more: the second placed club was going to represent Colombia in the Copa Libertadores. The most famous abroad Colombian club – Millonarios – ended empty handed – 3rd. And the championswere Atletico Junior – once again they sailed confidently, winning 7 matches and losing only 2. Two points ahead of the nearest pursuers – seemingly, they saved strength by neglecting Torneo Finalizacion... and now were fresher than the rest.

Deportivo Cali – silver medalists and thus earning the right to play in Copa Libertadores as the second Colombian participant. Some Colombian legends here, but one important member of the team is missing – the coach. One Carlos Bilardo.
Atletico Junior – the team of Barranquilla won the title. Old 'Bruja' Veron getting a title again. If anything, at least he was nearing the end of his career as a winner. For the club it was much cherished moment – their very first title! Always special, the first victory. One can even explore the magic: Atletico Junior faced mighty opposition – 'El Gordo' (Escobar), 'Frijolito' (Gomez), 'Pescadito' (Calero), 'Tola' (Scotta), 'Obelisco' (Landucci), 'La Tortuga' (Otero), 'El Tigre' (Benitez), and 'El Maestro' (Arboleda). But all together were no much for the old 'Witch' Veron! 'La Bruja' tamed them all. More seriously, it was Argentines vs Argentines: coach Bilardo, Alberto Cardacci, Abel Da Graca, Angel Landucci, Ricardo Cesar Luis Moreno, Carlos Alejandro Leone, Roberto Rogel, Alberto Benitez, Nestor Scotta, and the Paraguayan Aristides del Puerto for flavour (Deportivo Cali) vs coach Jose Varacka, Juan Ramon Veron, Camilo Abelardo Aguilar, Juan Carlos Delmenico, Cesar Lorea, Eduardo Solari, Carlos Alberto Vidal, and the Uruguayan Julio Avelino Comesana (Atletico Junior). Varacka either left or was sacked during the season and Juan Veron finished the season as playing coach. 'The Witch' prevailed over 'El Flaco' Carlos Bilardo, quite an irony from today's point of view, for Bilardo became world champion, and Veron's coaching career was mediocre. Just the opposite back in 1977, though, when both coaches practically started.

For Atletico Junior it was a long road to success – back in 1968 they even employed Garrincha (for whatever a single match is worth), but finally succeeded. Thus, Colombia became – without an administrative design – unique in South America: its football was not dominated by the capital, but it was diverse – clubs from Bogota, Cali, Medellin, and Baranquilla were fairly equal competitors. The strength depended largely on foreigners, mainly Argentinians. Colombian football was saturated by the 'Argos':

Here is Deportiva Independiente Medelin, known as simply DIM in South America. Without any search two Argos: Jose Peckerman and Hugo Horacio Londero. Neither was wold famous player, but Londero is well remembered not only in Colombia. As for Peckerman – he was coaching Argentina at the 2006 World Cup. Colombia appeared quite a fertile ground for good coaches in retrospect.