The little Colombian club that could
Colombia has a new first-time champion, Boyacá Chicó. But has the tiny club from the mountain town of Tunja broken the mold, or is it part of a recurring pattern?
Chicó's opponent in the final was América of Cali. It was a final that few would have predicted. América is one of the heavyweights of the Colombian game, with 12 national titles to its name. In the 1980s, it was practically a Latin American Real Madrid, signing big-name players from all over the region. The club was bankrolled by the Cali cocaine cartel, which had turned it into their plaything.
Nowadays, América is paying for such links. The club is on the so-called "Clinton List," a register kept by the U.S. authorities of tainted institutions that are allowed no contact with the American financial system. América can't even have a bank account in its own country. Forced to put its faith in youth, it reached the final with a dynamic and occasionally unstable side.
América lost on penalties to Boyacá Chicó after two 1-1 draws. There was some justice in the outcome. At the end of the first leg in Cali, referee Wilman Roldán pulled a Clive Thomas, the Welsh official notorious for ruling out a Brazil goal in the 1978 World Cup (Thomas blew for time as Zico headed a last-second corner kick into the net).
Thirty years later, Roldan showed a similar lapse of common sense. He sounded the final whistle just after the ball was played to Chicó's Frank Pacheco in a good attacking position. Pacheco cut in to score, and the home crowd groaned, not realizing that the goal wouldn't count.
In the second leg last Sunday, the home crowd was celebrating, this time in Tunja after Chicó won the shootout and recorded its first title after just six years of existence.
Founded in 2002, Chicó was first based in Colombia's capital, Bogotá. Lack of support forced the club to look for a more welcoming home, and it climbed higher up the Andes to Tunja, the capital of Boyacá department.
Presided by former top player Eduardo Pimentel, what is new about Chicó is that it is the first Colombian club to be organized as a sociedad anonima -- a business where, as Pimentel stresses, "Everyone can come and invest. We're the most democratic club in the country. We're pioneering a new scheme in Colombian football. Our objective is in five or 10 years to have between 25,000 and 30,000 supporters who are partners in the club, carried out with an ambitious marketing plan."
This represents something new in a land where efforts to turn the major clubs into businesses with full financial transparency have so far been thwarted. But is it the start of a new era? Or is Boyacá Chicó merely the latest in a line of small clubs to get five minutes in the sun?
With the quantity of drug money in Colombian soccer greatly reduced, the clubs are poorer than they were, promising players are swiftly lured overseas and the overall level of the domestic game has fallen. And as has been seen all over South America, a leveling-down of standards gives the smaller clubs much more chance to shine.
Colombia stages two separate championships a year. Three of the last six tournaments have produced first-time winners: Deportivo Pasto, Cúcuta and now Boyacá Chicó. The other three all featured first time finalists: Cartagena, Huila and La Equidad.
It doesn't always prove easy for these little clubs to consolidate their success. Real Cartagena, for example, was runner-up in the second championship of '05 and has already slipped back to the second division. Will this be the fate of Boyacá Chicó?
Business-like methods clearly can bring benefits to the administration of soccer clubs -- transparency can go a long way towards aiding the efficient application of resources.
But soccer and pure business can be uneasy bedfellows. The professional game walks a narrow line between business and culture. In pure investment considerations, especially in the short-term, the best deal that South American soccer throws up is the selling of players.
Indeed, one of Chicó's most successful moments was the transfer of striker Wason Rentería to Internacional of Brazil. Some of the club's investors might have enjoyed that sale more than winning the Colombian title last Sunday.