First featured on the award-winning website on football & pop culture – Goalden Times.
The first line of Colo-Colo’s official anthem says, “Let us all sing from Arica to Magallanes, for Colo-Colo, an example of valour”. This perfectly summarises the expansion of club’s fan base in Chile from Arica in the north to Magallanes in the south. The team has a special place in Chile’s heart and helped Chileans hope for unity during years of political turbulence. Tamas Sinha at Goalden Times takes us through the extravagant journey of a club that became a part of Chilean folklore in five extraordinary chapters.
Chapter One: La copa, la copa, se mira y no se toca
Atlantic and Pacific, the two biggest oceans on this earth, surround South America in the east and the west. While three countries from the Atlantic coast went on to conquer the world of soccer, the pacific coast countries remained mostly in their shadows. Even though the recent domination of Chile in Copa America made Lionel Messi retire from his national duties for few months, the so-called “Pacific Rim” is nowhere as great as its eastern counterpart. This superiority was always clearly visible in continental club championships as well. Since the inception of Copa Libertadores in 1960, the coveted trophy stayed within a few miles of Rio de la Plata for a decade. Then, in 1973, things changed. A Chilean club stood firmly in the way of Argentinian champions Club Atlético Independiente.
1973 was a historic year in Chile for more than one reason. In September, armed forces overthrew the country’s socialist government to establish the right-wing military regime under the leadership of Augusto Pinochet. Before that, however, the famous “Colo-Colo 1973” undertook an unforgettable continental journey to bring the politically divided nation together.
When a 17-year-old Carlos Caszely signed for El Cacique, their arch-rivals Universidad de Chile and Universidad Católica were dominating Chile’s domestic football. The kid soon became a goal scoring sensation. During his six-year-tenure at the club, he won two national titles (in 1970 and 1972), earning them a place in the continental championship. Tactician Luis Álamos gave the Chilean club a shape by giving Francisco ‘Chamaco’ Valdés, who later became the all-time highest scorer in Chilean Premier division, a role in midfield to feed the lethal Caszely – often known as the “king of square meter”. During his prime, in the 1973 edition of Copa Libertadores Colo-Colo stormed past the group stage, scoring an incredible five goals in each home game to meet Cerro Porteño of Paraguay and Botafogo of Brazil in the semi-finals. The semi-finals (home-away league format between three teams) started with a memorable 2-1 victory over Botafogo at the Maracanã. This unexpected win on Brazilian soil undoubtedly boosted the team’s confidence. Both Caszely and Valdés scored against the Brazilians, but a 5–1 humiliation in Asunción came as a shock to Colo-Colo and they were left with two home games to recover. They did get their sweet revenge, as they hammered Cerro Porteño 4–0 at the Nacional Stadium of Santiago within a month’s time. That win managed to keep their Libertadores dream alive. The resurgence of Botafogo after two early defeats denied Cerro Porteño a place in the final, and put Colo-Colo on the brink of that ultimate glory that no other Chilean club had yet reached.
Their opponent in the final was Independiente, who had claimed the title by defeating Universitario of Peru in the last edition. The defending champions had it much easier, being granted a direct semi-final berth in their 1973 campaign. In the semi-finals they overcame San Lorenzo, a team from the “big five” of Buenos Aires, and Millonarios of Bogotá. They secured their place in the finals by defeating San Lorenzo in a decider derby at Avellaneda.
Chile was going through political chaos at that time, and Colo-Colo gave the country hope and unity they so badly needed. The final match was so influential that the armed forces delayed their military coup – football was literally the only thing that was keeping Chile together. President Salvador Allende urged the team to keep on winning, reminding them that all of Chile had their hopes pinned on them.
The finals could not have been any more controversial. The first leg was played in the port city of Avellaneda in Buenos Aires, and the match made several headlines in Chilean newspapers. It is still remembered in Chile as “the robbery of Avellaneda”. Colo-Colo players later said that they were playing not only against Independiente, but against the officials too. The Chileans had a lead in this away match via an own goal from Francisco Sá, but Independiente equalised with an illegitimate goal scored by Mario Mendoza. The Chileans thought it was a clear foul on goalkeeper Adolfo Nef, when Mendoza pushed him into the goal (instead of the ball). Nef recalled later – “He [Mendoza] pushed me when I was falling, and he didn’t even head the ball.” Referee Milton Lorenzo of Uruguay was not ready to disallow the goal. Guillermo Páez of Colo-Colo received a yellow card as he kicked Mendoza during his celebration. Páez later said, “I kicked him because I could not accept what he did.” Decisions mostly went against the visitors and Sergio Ahumada, a dependable Chilean player, was later expelled by the referee. Ahumada kicked the ball during a foul around the centre-circle, and the referee showed him a straight red—no foul, no yellow card. This decision would make him unavailable in the return leg as well. Colo-Colo felt a sense of conspiracy there.
“The final match was so influential that the armed forces delayed its military coup—football was literally the only thing that was keeping Chile together. President Salvador Allende urged the team to keep on winning, reminding them that all of Chile had their hopes pinned on them.”
The return leg was no different. Romualdo Filho of Brazil was the referee in this match. Leonel Herrera later revealed in an interview that the officials came to the hotel where Colo-Colo team was staying. It was clear that they wanted money, but Colo-Colo President Hector Galvez wanted to win fairly. Herrera tried to convince the President that the prize money from the tournament would be enough the recover it, but Don Hector stood firm on his principles. Interestingly, the officials changed their hotel immediately. They also did not take this lightly, and reciprocated on the field. Even more controversy followed. Caszely was denied a legitimate goal in the match. Leonardo Veliz sent a perfectly timed cross that kissed the Independiente defender Ricardo Pavoni’s head before reaching Caszely. Caszely made no mistake to put in the back of the net and but it was disallowed due to offside. Video footage, however, tells a different story. Referee Filho kissed Caszely on the cheek before declaring his goal offside. Caszely later compared that to the “Kiss of Judas”. That goal could have earned Colo-Colo the glory they were seeking, but the match ended in a goalless draw and teams flew to Uruguay to play the finale. A draw in this match would have assured Colo-Colo the trophy with the away goal rule, and they knew already that it wasn’t going to be easy in this corrupt competition.
Mendoza gave the Red Devils an early lead in Montevideo, but Caszely equalised with a beautiful chip over the goalkeeper. In the last quarter of the match, referee José Romei of Paraguay gave Leonel Herrera a red card. This meant that Colo-Colo entered the 30 minutes of extra time with one-man-deficit. As expected, Independiente scored the decider in the extra-time to deny Colo-Colo their Libertadores dream. Caszely later claimed that they were cheated thrice. According to him, it was like stealing a ship—it happened in Avellaneda, then again in Santiago, and then in Montevideo too.
“La copa, la copa, se mira y no se toca”, which roughly translates “The cup, the cup, it is to be seen but it is not to be touched”, a popular chant that is supposed to have been born after the 1973 finals. It was aimed primarily at the Pacific coast teams who lost to Independiente in successive finals. It seemed like the dominance of the Atlantic teams would never end. It was the fourth Libertadores title of Independiente, and they went on to win next two years as well – making them the most successful club in the competition’s history. This record still remains unbroken.