Boom and bust

wsc301When their drug money dried up, one of Columbia’s most successful clubs experience their first ever relegation, writes Carl Worswick

América de Cali, Colombia’s best supported football club with 13 league titles and four appearances in the Copa Libertadores final, have hit the bottom. They were relegated in December following a play-off defeat to a team of minnows from the second division. The Red Devils are at their lowest ebb in their 84 years of existence.

After failing to find a winner in either leg of their promotion-relegation header against Patriotas FC, penalties decided América’s fate. The former powerhouses of South American football were outgunned from 12 yards by a side formed just nine years ago. Players wept, the coach Wilson Piedrahita fell to his knees and the fans’ frustration exploded. For four hours Colombia’s third city rioted.

The shame of being the first of the country’s big three clubs – along with Millonarios of Bogota and Nacional from Medellin – to be relegated was manifested in a seething rage. Houses, shops and cars went up in flames; 66 people were arrested and 15 were hospitalised. Cali’s mayor, Jorge Ivan Ospina, delivered an understanding response: “The sadness is massive. América, the team of the people, is crying.”

The tone of the sympathetic politician mindful of his electorate was not replicated elsewhere. For everybody else, América’s collapse was deserved: a just penalty for a team whose successes were reaped from the influence of drug money. América had not won a trophy before the Rodriguez brothers, heads of the Cali drug cartel, took control of the club in 1979. With narco-funds helping to assemble the finest crop of footballers ever to play for the club, titles swiftly followed. The Cali side won five consecutive league titles between 1982 and 1986, and reached three successive Copa Libertadores finals.

By the time América reached their fourth Libertadores final in 1996, their drug-funded success was under attack. The previous year, a US government bill was passed. Known as the Clinton List after its author, the law sought to strangle the life out of Colombia’s drug trade by blacklisting anyone suspected of being involved in it. With the Cali Cartel controlling 90 per cent of the world’s cocaine trade, the target was clear. América of Cali were immediately placed on the list.

At first, life continued as before with América enjoying success on the field. The Rodriguez brothers’ sophisticated accounting networks kept them ahead of the lawmakers. They had years of experience hiding money, squirrelling it away in operations the Clinton blacklist failed to detect.

But gradually the economic boycott began to pinch. Sponsorship deals dried up, business contacts lost confidence and América’s debts mounted. By the time of relegation last month, liabilities were estimated to be over £5 million. In 2009 América finished bottom of the clausura table recording just one win in 18. The Colombian league rules are designed to protect big clubs from relegation. Clubs are demoted not after a one-season blip in form, but by considering point averages over three seasons, so Cali were saved.

The fickle fan, happy to turn a blind eye to abuses of management while triumphs on the field continued, suddenly became alarmed. They ratcheted up the pressure on the management of Corporación Deportiva América (CDA), the entity running the club. At an extraordinary meeting in May 2010 the old guard released some ground. Supported by Cali’s mayor and fan groups, New América was set up as a separate organisation to kick-start a democratisation process so the club could eventually be taken off the Clinton List.

The old management stubbornly refused to give up control, however, while New América could not attract enough cash and support to give it any muscle. The club was left trapped between the two organisations, with groaning debts and the lingering spectre of the Clinton List strangling the life out of it. In February 2011, América were refused permission from the league to register new players for the apertura season due to unpaid debts.

Mayor Ospina called for the club to boycott the league rather than face the ignominy of fielding their youth team. Eventually the league buckled and players such as` goalkeeper Leandro Castellanos signed. This temporary reprieve only papered over the cracks. Four months later Castellanos was gone. Tired of not being paid, he walked out to join rivals Deportivo Cali.

After their relegation, it is not clear what the future will hold for the club. “Nobody wants to invest or risk doing business with a team that’s included on the Clinton List,” said Alvaro Guerrero, president of the CDA. Eduardo Lara, the ex-Colombia national team coach, has been appointed the club’s new manager. It is a shrewd move, but for all his experience and skills the local-born coach may find he has an impossible job unless América’s crippling off-the-field problems can finally be resolved.

From WSC 301 March 2012