Behind the Mayan prediction of the apocalypse lies their conception of a world where time is circular. To all appearances the world was not coming to an end in 2012, but in Colombia, Bogotá’s Los Millonarios have come full circle.
On 16 December, immediately prior to the ‘impending’ apocalypse, the blue-whites from the capital restored themselves to the top of Colombian football by winning the championship in front of an ecstatic El Campín crowd. It was their fourteenth title (represented by a star to be added to the team’s crest) which makes them once again the most successful team in league history. But it took a dramatic evening for ‘Millos’ to finally find success after twenty-four years without a title.
Their last championship, in 1988, had also come in dramatic fashion. Going into the last match-day of the final round of the tournament (an eight team mini-league), Millonarios, who played Junior in the city of Barranquilla, were tied at the top with Francisco Maturana’s Atlético Nacional, who played away at Santa Fe, in Bogotá. At half time Nacional were winning and Millonarios were losing by the slightest of margins, 0-1. Struggling against the heat of the port city, the would-be winners edged out an equalizer but when their match was over, play was still going on in Bogotá where the score was also 1-1.
Anxious moments followed and remain engraved in fans memories with the image that made the front page of El Tiempo the next day: Omar Franco, the goalkeeper for “Millos,” on his knees, with his gloved hands together, in prayer for nothing to change in the other match. When news of the final result arrived, cheers and hugs replaced agony and concern. Back in Bogota, the fans took to the streets to celebrate the team’s thirteenth star.
That front page from the Monday after, December 19, also spoke of a city that was in chaos, crippled by holes in the streets and garbage piles on the sidewalks. Flash forward to 2012, when the very Monday that Los Millonarios graced the cover of El Tiempo as champions, concerns about a new waste management scheme to start on Tuesday abound on the pages of the newspaper.
The garbage problem had been dealt with by 1990. The city’s inefficient public waste management entity, the EDIS, had been liquidated and garbage collection had been placed in the hands of a private company through tender offer. Eventually the city improved its roads and arrived in the new millennium with favourable winds blowing.
However, a run of bad administrations have seen the city relapse into the chaos of yesterday. The road network has grown less than 10% while cars in the city have doubled in number. Streets are in disrepair, riddled with holes and filled with traffic. This week, after a failed transition back to a public garbage collection, the city has seen garbage piles once again take the colour away from the Christmas season. Bogotá has gone back to the dirty 80’s.
Millonarios, having overcome its debt problems and modernized its administrative structure, faced quite a scandal this past September, on the eve of a friendly match against Real Madrid. Felipe Gaitán, their president, admitted that the team would consider giving back their two championships from the late 80’s, as a gesture against the role that drug money from the cartels had played in beefing up the team’s finances at the time. The fans, however, would have none of it. Twenty-four years without a title and now this?
To add insult to injury, Real Madrid played the cruellest of hosts by humiliating Millonarios 8-0. The fixture, the Santiago Bernabéu Trophy played by the ‘Merengues’ at the start of every season, harkened to the rivalry that both teams sustained during the early 50’s when Millonarios boasted Alfredo Di Stefano amongst its star-studded squad. Back then, “Millos” outclassed Real Madrid and took three victories out of their five encounters with the remaining matches ending in a tie. After this year’s re-match, the blue-whites felt a long way from the glory days of El Dorado and their nickname of “The Blue Ballet.”
Alfonso Senior had been the president at the time. A legendary statesman of Colombian football, who had taken Booby Moore to stay at his house during the ‘Bogota Bracelet’ affair, Mr Senior would have turned 100 this year. A “thank-you” banner on the stands after the title win made a clear reference to his significance.
This year, the final league encounter saw Millonarios facing Hernán Dario Gómez’ Medellin after a scoreless draw in the first leg. Gómez had been Maturana’s assistant in 1988 and was now looking for personal redemption after a public disgrace (he allegedly punched his mistress after leaving a bar in Bogotá during the u-20 World Cup) that saw him resign the Colombian national team position in 2011.
Millonarios had switched coaches at the start of the tournament and replaced Venezuelan coach Richard Paez with Hernán Torres, who quickly gave the team a clear sense of direction. Playing a 4-2-2-2 formation that prioritized possession at home and away matches, the team found its stride early in the season and finished the first round of the tournament in first place. They also managed a semi-final run in the Copa Sudamericana, going out to Tigre from Argentina. For a moment it seemed they had overstretched themselves and would not make it out of their semi-final group of four teams. But, after a last minute goal away at Tolima, followed by a tie in Bogotá, Millonarios had scraped through to the final.
Fans filed into El Campín from the early afternoon and kept chanting that Millonarios where going to be champions at last. Outside, street-vendors offered all sorts of souvenirs to mark the occasion of the 14th star. One could be forgiven to think of this as bad luck and recall Brazil’s debacle in 1950, but there was no preventing it, no stopping the confidence that the capital’s fans had at the start of the match.
It was soon to be replaced by moments of anxiety, as, once the match started at 5.30pm, Millonarios were having trouble turning possession into chances and had seen Medellin dangerously close to scoring on the counter-attack. Just before half-time, Wilberto Cosme, the team’s leading goal scorer despite a tendency to misfire, found the net after meeting a waist-high cross with his right foot and barely sneaking the ball into Medellin’s goal for the lead.
Joy and confidence returned to fans faces. Many had feared going into the second half still goal-less and with twenty-four years of expectation on the players’ backs. For the hard-core supporters, the ‘Comandos Azules’, it was time to set some fire-works alight and as they did so, shortly after the re-start of play, the game was halted and the ‘Comandos’ whistled for their fiery persistence. It proved too much of a distraction and Medellin, who had come out looking for an equalizer, found it with a goal from a set piece play in the 54th minute. Luis Delgado, Millonarios’ goalkeeper, fumbled what should have been an easy save, and placed the ball right at the feet of an onrushing Medellin player who tapped in for a goal.
Delgado, originally a substitute to Nelson Ramos, had been one of the best players of the season, coming into the starting role after an Achilles tendon injury sidelined Ramos. His first match in goal had been against Real Madrid, but Mourinho’s men were by no means the biggest challenge he’d face during the semester. His wife, Tatiana, was undergoing treatment for breast cancer at the age of 29. As a gesture of support, Luis and his two sons shaved their heads. Delgado spoke publicly about the situation after that and showed character and personal strength throughout the tournament.
After the equalizer, Medellin had their forward Pardo sent off with a second yellow for a defiant celebration in front of the home crowd. As play continued, Millonarios pressed on with determination. Coach Torres tried adding a striker and removing a defensive midfielder with some success in creating chances, but Millonarios remained wasteful in front of goal. Suddenly, a cross trickled through to Wason Renteria who fired in from close range. A roar was heard from a welcoming crowd as Renteria approached the south-stand and started dancing. As he kept on jigging, the crowd realized the goal had been ruled-out for offside. But the striker was still caught in the excitement and danced away while the game resumed.
The atmosphere became tense. People looked around at each other and watched on as a dominant Millonarios came up empty time after time. Was it not to be? Would penalties prove too much pressure for the players? The whistle blew, the tired players stretched-out and the fans struggled to sing as they had done at the beginning. As Renteria took the first spot-kick for “Millos,” his team-mates lined up on their knees in midfield. The Medellin players, for their part where standing together with arms over each other shoulders. Millonarios were clearly holding out for something more to take them through the moment. Renteria confidently beat the keeper, 1-0 to Millonarios. Luis Delgado was cheered on as he took his place in goal. He’s was then made to look silly, falling for a start-stop trick by Sebastian Hernandez who, seeing Delgado move to one side, calmly placed the ball in on the other side.
Pedro Franco made it 2-1 without a fuss. Then, when Diego Herner, an Argentinean defender, hit the post for Medellin, the stadium erupted with joy, and it did so again as Ortiz scored the third penalty. The home side were up 3-1 but then Medellin pull one back with Delgado again looking hopeless. It’s 3-2. Omar Vasquez stepped but the moment proved too much for him. His shot was stopped easily and again the crowd felt that destiny was not on the side of Millonarios. Franco is quick to console his team-mate as he walks back in agony. Medellin score, 3-3, then 4-4 after five kicks each. Luis Delgado is to take the 6th penalty.
The ghosts of failures past, the memory of Alfonso Senior, and the dreams of fans of the city’s biggest team, flew around the stadium and placed a spot-light that seemed as big as the sun on the southern goal. Delgado shot down the middle and squeezed the ball just below the cross-bar and into the upper part of the net. He then took his time in going towards goal, talking to the Medellin player as the Referee told him to take his place. The crowd, on its feet, watched the ball fly towards Delgado’s left, not too far… and yes, he stopped it. At last, at long last, the stadium exploded with an energy that had been held back for too long.
Millonarios had finally found a way back to its place in Colombian football. Through good management both on and off the pitch, “Millos” had laid to rest the problems that had haunted them for so long. In what may be the start of a new era, the team hopped on top of a bus like those you see in Europe and fans took to the streets to celebrate as if it was the first time. Days later, the garbage bags piled up in a city tired of the potholes on those very same streets that had run with blue and white all through that glorious December night. It was 1988 all over again.
By Stany Sirutis
This article originally appeared in In Bed with Maradona