Lying in the northwest of the South American nation of Colombia is a city surrounded by the finest geographical conditions one could ask. Renowned for its several flowing rivers and tropical climate, Cali is Colombia’s third-biggest city, and arguably, its most visually striking. And amongst the natural beauty lies a passion amongst its faithful, a passion for football, that often creates an equally wonderful atmosphere in an arena.
While Bogotá may be the capital of the country, it is often Cali that is considered the sporting (more specifically football) destination to be at. The city’s two biggest sides, América de Cali and Deportivo Cali are prominent names in Colombian sport and have attracted the biggest names in South American football over the course of several different generations.
Los Diablos Rojos
Colombia wasn’t the safest of places to be in between the 1980s and 1990s largely due to the influence of dangerous drug cartels and narco-terrorists that dominated the surroundings and put lives at risk. Many of these cartels’ leaders have invested heavily in football, and América de Cali was one of the beneficiaries through the 1980s. The Cali Cartel, led by the Orejuela brothers, were one of the most noteworthy drug cartels in the world at the time and pumped piles of money into the club. This spurred them on to great success – including a brilliant five consecutive league titles between 1982 and 1986 as well as several trips to the final of the Copa Libertadores.
The club was formed in 1918, but didn’t turn professional until 1927. But that change came with a price. The team’s decision was met with great disappointment and a subsequent “curse” by a profound dentist who went by the name of Garabato.
“If the team is professionalised, I swear to God it will never become champion” – Garabato
Every failure that the club has seen is often linked to Garabato’s curse including the Copa Libertadores finals they lost. The aforementioned clashes of the 1985, 1986 and 1987 finals where Argentinos Juniors and River Plate of Argentina and Peñarol of Uruguay got the better of the Colombians and in 1996, where it was once again River Plate that compounded América de Cali’s misery. This curse also links to the club’s most recent relegation and their failure to find the way back to the top as of late, thus, giving the club’s fans the tag of being the most superstitious on the continent.
Their rivals on the other side of the city, Deportivo Cali are undergoing much more different fortunes in recent years. Deportivo are title challengers in the top division of Colombian football and frequently compete for the highest honours in continental competition as well. But just like América de Cali, they too have never won the Copa Libertadores.
They became the first ever side to reach a Copa Libertadores final when they met Boca Juniors in 1978, but they were thumped 4-0 in the second leg in Buenos Aires after the first game ended goalless. Their second appearance in the final came in 1999, this time against Brazilian side Palmeiras, who managed to finish the tie at 3-3 and prevail on penalties. The two results, combined with that of América de Cali’s, arguably makes Cali the greatest South American city to have never won South America’s greatest domestic footballing honour – a tag which will come as a shock to many, considering some of the names that have worn the two club’s esteemed shirts.
Formed in 1912, the club have made great strides over the years, and, despite not being as successful as Colombia’s ‘big three’ of Atlético Nacional, Millonarios and América de Cali, they’ve got their own legacy in the South American country’s footballing folklore. The mid 1960’s to 1970’s were arguably the most profound in the club’s history as they won 5 league titles in the space of 10 years and attracted the finest talent overtime. Several Colombian heroes such as Carlos Valderrama, Faryd Mondragón, Mario Yepes and current centre-half pairing Jeison Murillo and Christian Zapata have all donned the famous green and white of Deportivo Cali overtime.
Just like any other major city in the footballing world, when two local teams collide, the city divides. That is the case in Cali and has changed the history of the two clubs. In 1948, the two met in their first ever professional derby where Deportivo won 4-3. América de Cali, however, were recognised for their aggressive style of football and were labelled as ‘devils’ by the journalists that reported on the game. The tag has stuck with them ever since – and is even inscribed on the club’s official crest. The intensity of the rivalry can simply be put in one phrase, claimed by former Deportivo Cali player, Abel Da Graca:
“América and Cali fans wouldn’t even speak to each other. Once I hailed a taxi with a little devil hanging from the mirror. As soon as he recognised me, he swore at me and drove off”
And just like any other derby, there’s obviously the vicious side which should be nowhere near the footballing aspects and joy they bring to the fans. Amidst the flares, tifos, confetti and colour of smoke, there’s the deaths and the most notable incident coming in 1982 at the end of a derby which ended 3-3 at the Estadio Olímpico Pascual Guerrero, which was shared by both sides. Drunken youths inhumanely urinated on the stands below, provoking a stampede which resulted in the untimely death of 24 fans and left over 250 more injured.
Colombia’s third most populous city is renowned for its sporting culture and its two football clubs have not let it down in the eyes of the country. A continental title is sure to come in time, but for now and ever, football can continue to be blessed by the stunning rivalry Deportivo Cali and América de Cali share that is fared as one of the most intense, brutal, and at the same time, magnificent. Cali may be one of the unluckiest cities in world football, but it could surely be worse.