Colombian Football 101 (Episode 2 – Shep: Managerial Globetrotter)

It’s undoubtedly more complicated than any league in Europe.

Packing for a holiday is stressful. Packing to move house is even more stressful. Now combine the two and replace your Spanish holiday island with the North East of Colombia. I can already sense the sympathy.

I largely underestimated how much I had to do when I somewhat impulsively took this job. Taking over the reigns of a top tier football club is hard enough but add the pressure of learning a new language and moving over 5000 miles to the other side of the globe. It’s a mammoth task and one I’m almost positive will break me at some point. I won’t fall at the first hurdle by missing my flight however as I arrive at Heathrow 3 hours early. As I pull out my trusty laptop, it dawns on me that I don’t know the first thing about Colombian football. Obviously I know a few teams and a bit of history about Bucaramanga but in terms of format, external competitions or relegation, I’m honestly clueless. I connect to the free wi-fi and officially kick off my journey by googling ‘Liga Aguila’.

Now I wasn’t expecting a simple format where you play each team twice and that’s it. I knew there was some funky differences but it’s undoubtedly more complicated than any league in Europe. The league even has multiple fucking names. Liga Aguila, Liga Postobon, Categoria Primera A. So make sure you keep up.

Liga Aguila/Postobon/Primera A – A (Not So Brief) Summary

A season is split down the middle with a ‘mini-season’ either side of June and July. January to May is called the ‘Apetura’ (opening in Spanish) and August to November is called the ‘Finalizacion’ or the ‘Clasura’ (ending or closing in Spanish.) As I mentioned before, there are 20 teams each of which play each other once in your standard round-robin format. After each team has played one another, the top eight teams advance to the knockout stage. This is a relatively new change from a few seasons ago when the top eight would split into two groups with the winners of the groups playing a home and away tie to decide the champions.

But we weren’t here a few seasons ago so let’s focus on the current format we’ll be dealing with. The top eight will be drawn into home and away ties with each other. The four winners of the ties will progress to the semi finals where the two finalists will play each other two more times with the winners on aggregate being crowned the champions. As the season is split into the Apetura and the Finalizacion, there is potential for two different champions in one season of Colombian football. There strangely isn’t an ‘ultimate champions’ play-off if this scenario comes up, which is more often than not. I can’t help but think that a huge commercial opportunity is being missed there but hey, I’m just a manager.

I wouldn’t blame you if your head is a bit rattled by this system because I felt a stint of hangover deja-vu with the headache it gave me. There’s only a few more details so bare with me. The fixture list you receive in the Apetura will be the exact reverse in the Finalizacion meaning the first team you play at home in the Apetura will be the first team you play away in the Finalizacion. Also, relegation to the Categoria Primera B is bizarrely decided by the lowest average points over the last three seasons? I have no clue either.*

Finally. and most importantly, the champions of the Apetura and the Finalizacion will qualify for the following years Copa Libertadores, the South American version of the Champions League.

The Copa Libertadores is one of the most prestigious club competitions in the world, if not the most prestigious. And I don’t say that lightly. South Americans are known for their passion so nights in the Copa Libertadores are some of the best atmospheres in the world. Many players from Brazil, Argentina, Chile and even my new home Colombia have been quoted as saying they’d rather win the Copa Libertadores with their hometown club than win the World Cup so this tournament is a big deal. And my vision is to see my Bucaramanga team win it.

Let’s not get ahead of ourselves as we have to beat the teams in the league to get anywhere near the likes of River Plate, Colo-Colo and Palmeiras. I glance at my watch and see it’s still 2 hours until the flight so I decide to do some in depth research about each team in the Liga Aguila, Primera A, whatever the fuck it’s called.

Alianza Petrolera

From: Barrancabermeja, Santander

Ground: Estadio Daniel Villa Zapata (Cap: 10’400)

Last Season: 10th in Apetura – 18th in Finalizacion

A relatively new team at the tender age of 26, Los Petroleras don’t have that much history to recite. They only have the one trophy in the cabinet, the 2012 Primera B trophy which granted them their first ever season in the top tier the following year. They are our also our closest geographical rivals in a spread-out division so I’m looking forward to playing them.

America de Cali

From: Cali, Valle del Cauca

Ground: Estadio Olimpico Pascual Guerrero (Cap: 35’400)

Last Season: 7th in Apetura, Semi Finals – 6th in Finalizacion, Semi Finals

A much older and more successful club, America de Cali share a nickname with Manchester United as Los Diablos Rojos (The Red Devils). They picked up this nickname in the 30’s for being described as ‘playing like devils’, with the devil being added to the club crest shortly after. They have spent 65 of their 91 years as a football club battling in the top flight, being the third most successful team in Colombia with 13 top flight titles. The most recent of these titles was added in 2008. America de Cali have a fierce local derby with Deportivo Cali and competitive rivalries with some of the biggest Colombian clubs (Millionaros, Santa Fe and Atletico Nacional).

Atletico Huila

From: Neiva, Huila

Ground: Estadio Guillermo Plazas Alcid (Cap: 27’000)

Last Season: 15th in Apetura – 10th in Finalizacion

Runners up twice in the last 12 years, Huila are another young club at just 27 years old but wasted no time in trying to establish themselves at the top level. They only have two Primera B titles to their name in their short history and with their performances from last season in mind, it’s safe to assume they won’t add a first Primera A title soon.

Atletico Nacional

From: Medellin, Antioquia

Ground: Estadio Atanasio Girardot (Cap: 40’050)

Last Season: 1st in Apetura, Champions – 3rd in Finalizacion, Quarters

This lot are the big boys of Colombian football. They added their 16th first tier title last year, beating Deportivo Cali 5-3 on aggregate making them the most successful club in Colombian football history. Nacional are one of the two Colombian teams to win the Copa Libertadores but are the only side to win it twice (1989 and 2016). Due to the colour of their crest and kit, a lot of their nicknames revolve the phrase ‘El Verde’ which translates literally to ‘The Green’. Newcastle cult hero Tino Asprilla and Arsenal keeper David Ospina both plied their trades at Nacional before being snapped up by European clubs (Parma and Nice retrospectively). If there’s anybody to beat for the title this season, it’s Nacional.

Boyaca Chico

From: Tunja, Altiplano Cundiboyacense

Ground: Estadio La Independencia (Cap: 20’600)

Last Season: 5th in Apetura, Champions (Primera B) – 9th in Finalizacion (Primera B) – Tornea Aguila Champions

Boyaca Chico are an extremely new club, being founded in just 2002. In that time however, they have won Primera A, B and C titles which is somewhat impressive. You might think that as the 2nd tier champions, they’d be an easy side to play but they have spent over 80% of their time at the highest level so I’m cautiously wary of Los Ajedrezados (The Checkered). They are a millennial club who are still somehow very experienced.

Deportes Tolimas

From: Ibague, Tolimas

Ground: Estadio Manuel Murillo Toro (Cap: 28’100)

Last Season: 17th in Apetura – 5th in Finalizacion, Semi Finals

Tolima have had a some poor luck in the league as they’ve finished runners up 6 times in their history but only have the sole title, which was won 15 years ago. Their performance last season really define how competitive this league is. After winning just 5 of their games in the Apetura, they came out swinging and finished just 1 point away from the top spot in the Finalizacion before knocking Apetura champions Nacional out in the first knockout round. These seem like a mixed bag but they also give me hope that our lot in Bucaramanga can turn things around if things start sourly.

Deportivo Cali

From: Valle del Cauca

Ground: Estadio Deportivo Cali (Cap: 52’000)

Last Season: 6th in Apetura, Finalists – 14th in Finalizacion

Celebrating their 105th birthday this season, Deportivo Cali are the equally successful rivals of cross town club America de Cali. Winning nine Primera A titles and finishing runners up a whopping 14 times, Deportivo Cali have been in the premier division of Colombian football for almost 70 years and have rooted themselves as a massive club in recent times. Midfield legend Carlos Valderrama appeared 150 times for Los Verdiblancos in his career. I’d be very surprised if we don’t see them in the deeper end of the knockout stage this season.

Deportivo Pasto

From: Pasto, Narino

Ground: Estadio Departmental Libertad (Cap: 20’660)

Last Season: 3rd in Apetura, Quarters – 15th in Finalizacion

Playing out of what seems like a very official sounding stadium, Pasto have only won one Primera A title back in 2006. Unfortunately for them, it doesn’t look like they’ll be changing that any time soon. An away day to Pasto won’t be an easy task however as they are situated in the very south-west of the country whereas Bucaramanga are directly opposite in the North East but I think this is one of the teams we can pick up points from to try reach the knockout stages.

Envigado F.C

From: Envigado, Antioquia

Ground: Estadio Polideportivo Sur (Cap: 11’000)

Last Season: 19th in Apetura – 11th in Finalizacion

Cantera des Heroes. The quarry of heroes. How fucking cool is that nickname? They’re also known as ‘The Orange Team’ which is on the complete other end of the spectrum so I know which one I’m going to use. Envigado is renowned for their youth development with stars such as Fredy Guarin and even James Rodriguez beginning their careers there. Their current squad is made up of homegrown players except for fellow Englishman George Saunders so it’ll be interesting to have a chat with him. They’ve spent 26 of their 28 years in the top flight, finishing as Primera B champions in the other two so they’re definitely a first tier club.

Independiente Medellin

From: Medellin, Antioquia

Ground: Estadio Atanasio Girardot (Cap: 40’050)

Last Season: 2nd in Apetura, Quarters – 9th in Finalizacion

Independiente share their home ground with local rivals Nacional and while they are successful in their own right, they don’t share their trophy cabinet. Primera A has been won six times, four of those coming in the last 15 years. They also finished runners up four times in that time period so they are undoubtedly a dangerous side. After being knocked out of the Apetura last year by eventual finalists Deportivo Cali, they will be looking for another title this season. An interesting story upon research is in 1989 when Medellin had a goal which would have won them the league disallowed for offside by a linesman. A fan then hunted down and assassinated said linesman. I expect the refs to be a tad biased when we come up against these.

Jaguares de Cordoba

From: Monteria, Cordoba

Ground: Estadio Jaraguay (Cap: 12’000)

Last Season: 5th in Apetura, Quarters – 8th in Finalizacion, Quarters

Jaguares are the youngest team in Primera A at just 5 years old. Well technically. The owner initially founded a club called Girardot F.C in 1995 and multiple name changes/relocations later, Jaguares stuck in 2012. They won Primera B in 2014 and despite their finishes last season, they seem to be a very middle of the way team.

Atletico Junior

From: Barranquilla, Atlantico

Ground: Estadio Metropolitano Roberto Melendez (Cap: 46’700)

Last Season: 12th in Apetura – 1st in Finalizacion, Quarters

Junior’s nicknames don’t really make sense. ‘El Equipo Tiburon’, ‘Los Reyes de la Costa’, ‘Tu Papa’. The translations of those are ‘The Shark Team’, The Kings of the Coast’ and ‘Your Dad’. Really, look it up. Your dad. Anyways, Junior is a huge, huge side and as you might guess, they sit right on the coast of the Atlantic at the tip of Colombia. Since the turn of the century, Junior have finished in the top two 9 times and considering how strong they look on paper, it wouldn’t surprise me if they get to double figures by the end of 2018. Shark team indeed.

La Equidad

From: Bogota. Capital District

Ground: Estadio Metropolitano de Techo (Cap: 10’000)

Last Season: 13th in Apetura – 7th in Finalizacion, Quarters

The Insurance Team isn’t a nickname I’d be over the moon to hold.  But being ranked in the top 100 clubs in the world by the same IFFHS that put Liga Aguila 11th in the world; that’s not a bad title at all. They haven’t won the league in the 35 years of existence but did finish runners up 3 times in the space of 5 years not too long ago so like Tolimas, these are another mixed bag.

Leones F.C

From: Itagui, Antioquia

Ground: Estadio Metropolitano Cuidad de Itagui (Cap: 12’000)

Last Season: 6th in Apetura, Quarters (Primera B) – 4th in Finalizacion, Champions (Primera B) – Torneo Aguila Finalist

Despite being founded back in 1957, this is Leones first ever season in the top tier as they played in amateur leagues for almost fourty years. Following a quick rebrand a few years back of course. Coming up as the best aggregate team in Primera B, the media backs these to be the team most likely to finish bottom which is a fair enough assessment but we won’t take it easy against them. We can’t take it easy against anyone, especially the ‘lesser’ teams.

Millonarios F.C

From: Bogota, Capital District

Ground: Estadio El Campin (Cap: 36’343)

Last Season: 4th in Apetura, Semi Finals – 4th in Finalizacion, Champions

Officially founded right out World War 2, Millonairos are the second most successful Colombian team with 15 Primera A titles. Because of their table topping antics, they are fierce rivals with both America de Cali and Deportivo Cali as well as Nacional. However, despite their domestic dominance, they are yet to win the Copa Libertadores and have failed to in any of their 17 appearances in the competition. Considering their solid performance last year in which they were crowned the second champions of the season, getting anything against these will be a bonus this season.

Once Caldas

From: Manizales, Caldas

Ground: Estadio Palogrande (Cap: 28’680)

Last Season: 16th in Apetura – 17th in Finalizacion

I distinctively remember the name of this team as 2004 was the year of surprises in the footballing word. Porto winning the Champions League, Greece winning the Euros and Once Caldas winning the Copa Libertadores. You’ve got to love this game. Since then, Caldas won back to back titles in 2009 and 2010 but had a largely disappointing season in 2017 finishing miles away from the top eight both times. They do have an strong team so I’m expecting them to bounce back and be up there this time around.

Patriotas Boyaca

From: Tunja, Altiplano Cundiboyacense

Ground: Estadio La Independencia (Cap: 20’600)

Last Season: 11th in Apetura – 16th in Finalizacion

Celebrating their 15th anniversary, Patriotas share stadiums with Boyaca Chico and are yet to add any silverware to their cabinet. Widely regarded as distinctively mid-table, it’s difficult to imagine a world where Patriotas set the world alight. But as I mentioned, nobody is to be underestimated.

Rionegro Aguilas

From: Rionegro, Eastern Antioquia

Ground: Estadio Alberto Grisales (Cap: 14’000)

Last Season: 14th in Apetura – 20th in Finalizacion

Another very young club follows in the Colombian roster. At just 10 years old, they haven’t had much time to win trophies but won Primera B in 2010. Even though they are nicknamed something as cool as ‘Las Águilas Doradas’ or ‘The Golden Eagles’, they finished rock bottom at the end of last season. I can’t imagine them having the Midas touch this season either with most already predicting a similar finish.

Independiente Santa Fe

From: Bogata, Capital District

Ground: Estadio El Campin (Cap: 36’343)

Last Season: 9th in Apetura – 2nd in Finalizacion, Finalists

It seems like sharing stadiums in something common in the built up cities of Colombia which, while cost and space effective, it loses some of the ‘home’ feeling. Los Cardinales are the penultimate club in the 20 team Liga Aguila roster. Santa Fe have won 3 of their 9 titles in the last five years, finishing runners up in the Finalizacion last year also so they are obviously one of the bookies favourites to pick up a title this season. Estadio El Campin is going to be a tough place to visit for sure.

And last, but certainly not least…

Atletico Bucaramanga

From: Bucaramanga, Santander

Ground: Estadio Alfonso Lopez (Cap: 28’000)

Last Season: 8th in Apetura, Quarters – 19th in Finalizacion

My new boys had a disappointing second half of the season which lead to the managerial vacancy after the sacking of Jaime de la Pava. Bucaramanga have never won Primera A, only finishing as runners up once in 1997. The 2018 season will be their 60th year in the top flight. They have won two Primera B titles with the most recent just 3 seasons ago. Their sole appearance in the Copa Libertadores was a short one as they were knocked out in the Round of 16. Hopefully that’s not an omen for any future appearances under my guidance.

Some positives about Bucaramanga however is their performance in the Apetura last year and the fact Estadio Alfonso Lopez has been renovated as recently as 2017. Freshly laid Bermuda grass and vibrantly patterned seats located smack bang in the centre of the city. We do share the stadium with Primera B side Real Santander, who were pipped to promotion last year by Boyaca Chico, but the stadium is firmly our own.

Bucaramanga are a club with some well documented financial issues so I’m not expecting a small fortune to be handed to me upon arrival for new recruits which is good in a way. My skills as a manager should be tested as I’ll have to scour for some bargains, wheel and deal to the best as my abilities and most importantly, get the best out of the players already there. Los Leopardos will turn 70 next year and I’d love to give Bucaramanga some silverware as a present.

Sparing a second glance away from my screen is as many hours, I see people lining up at the gate. I shut down my laptop, inhale deeply and join the queue. A strange impulse to turn and sprint the other way spreads like a virus but I fight it. Walking down the tunnel to boarding the plane feels completely normal but the final step onto the plane is different. I momentarily pause, only to be ushered on by a member of the cabin crew. I walk the aisle, load my carry on into the overhead rack and strap myself into my seat. No turning back now.

*This won’t affect us as the Categoria Primera B is not in FIFA 19.

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