This guide will provide an insight and introduction into the stars, the major clubs and iconic stadiums of one of the world’s rich, underappreciated footballing powers.
Colombian club sides have enjoyed periods of dominance in South American club football while the national team has played some wonderful, revolutionary football.
European clubs increasingly turn to Colombia for exceptional young talents and Colombia has the potential to become the dominant football force in South America in the coming years.
The list is not complete or wholly determined by footballing contributions,but rather focuses on the stories I am keen to share with someone interested in finding out more about football in the country I love.
By Simon Edwards
Born in Bucaramanga in 1938, Germán Aceros played in Colombia’s first ever World Cup appearance in Chile in 1962. Nicknamed ‘Cuca’, Aceros scored the first goal in Colombia’s 4-4 draw against the Soviet Union.
The forward played the entirety of his career in Colombia, appearing for Atletico Bucaramanga, Millonarios, Deportivo Cali, Medellin, Pereira and Real Cartagena. Aceros suffered a career-ending knee injury whilst playing for Real Cartagena in 1972. Since retirement he has moved into management with Bucaramanga, Tolima, Magdalena and Minerven in Venezuela.
A popular figure, Aceros is considered to be amongst the greatest players to come from the Colombian state of Santander.
Born in Bogota in 1985, Abel Aguilar has been an important player for the Colombian national side since his debut in 2004. An intelligent deep-lying midfielder and ball-winner, Aguilar has played with great consistency in Colombia, Italy, Spain, Portugal and France.
Alberto Grisales Stadium
The Alberto Grisales Stadium is located in Rionegro, around 45 minutes from Medellin, and is the home of Rionegro Águilas. The stadium was previously used by Deportivo Rionegro and has a capacity of 14,000.
Rionegro Águilas are now keen to make the ground their permanent home, and in 2016 the artificial pitch was replaced by natural grass turf.
Born in 1945, the dynamic midfielder is Unión Magdalena’s all-time record goalscorer. A Santa Marta native, Arango led the side to Colombian league glory in 1968 and has scored 104 goals for the club.
While Unión Magdalena have spent much of their recent history in the Colombian second tier, Arango was one of the truly great players who put the side on the map in the 1960’s and 1970’s.
Arango also went on to win league titles with Millonarios in 1972 and Junior in 1977.
He represented the Colombia national team at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City and passed away in 2005.
Alfonso Lopez Stadium
The Alfonso Lopez Stadium in the Santander state of Colombia was inaugurated in 1941. The stadium has been used by Atletico Bucaramanga since 1949 and initially had a capacity of between 10,000-15,000. In 1996 the capacity was doubled to accommodate around 30,000 spectators.
In 2006 the stadium installed an artificial surface but a decade later the natural grass returned. Since 2016 the stadium has undergone a number of upgrades and new seating has been installed in the main stand.
Alianza Petrolera is a growing force in Colombian football and is now an established fixture in the top flight.
The club was founded in 1990 and in 1992 joined the Colombian second. Throughout the 1990’s the club had a series of unremarkable campaigns, and in 1997 they only just escaped relegation to the third tier. In 2002 they finished in second place, but continued to be mid-table side in Colombia’s second division.
At the mid-point of the 2009 season they were again threatened by relegation, but a partnership with Millonarios meant they were able to bring in the players to avoid relegation.
In 2011 they became an affiliate of Atletico Nacional, a move which helped change the fortunes of the side. Faced by financial difficulties, the agreement meant Nacional would cover staff costs and allow young Atletico Nacional players to move on loan for free, to support the club and benefit player development.
This partnership resulted in an immediate upturn in results, in 2011 the club were beaten finalists and in 2012 they achieved promotion to the top tier of Colombian football.
Following promotion the side had to upgrade their stadium in Barrancabermeja, which added further difficulty to the challenge of top flight survival. Over the following years the side played at times in Floridablanca in their home state of Santander, but also forced the side to play home games in Guarne and Envigado in Antioquia, hours from their home support.
The side overcame the challenge, and in 2015 returned to their home in Barrancabermeja. Upgrades have continued since and they now have a well-suited 11,600 all-seater stadium in a picturesque spot close to the river.
With greater stability, results have continued to improve. The club has become less reliant on Nacional youth players and have developed an attractive, attacking style of football.
In recent years the club has become a consistent play-off contender and the side is now well placed to potentially win a league title in the coming years.
Atlético Fútbol Club is a Colombian second division side based in Cali in the Cauca Valley.
In 2004 Habib Merheg founded Pereira FC following the purchase of Colombian second tier registration rights from Real Sincelejo. Pereira FC were founded to potentially replace established local side Deportivo Pereira, who had a financial crisis and were facing closure.
The popular, well-established Deportivo Pereira began to stabilize and the Merheg venture no longer seemed viable. The administration moved the club to the Cali municipality of Cartago in 2005 and renamed the team to Depor FC.
In 2006 they played in Jamundi. Facing financial difficulties, the club was purchased by public utilities company EMCALI in 2009. Since 2010 they have played home games at the Olimpico Pascual Guerrero. In 2015 the team was renamed Atlético de Cali Futbol Club or simply Atletico FC.
Cali has two giant, popular, established sides – America and Deportivo Cali – so Atletico FC struggle to compete for fans and influence in the city. Their stadium holds over 42,000, but they rarely attract more than a few hundred to home games.
The club’s biggest successes in recent years have come from their youth sides’ performances, where they have produced some excellent talent and consistently compete nationally.
Leonel Alvarez is one of the best ball-winning midfielders in the history of Colombian football.
Born in 1965, he began his playing career for Independiente Medellin in 1983. During a 21 year career, Alvarez became a key player for sides in Colombia, Spain, Mexico and the United States.
After three years with Medellin, in 1987 he joined city rivals Atletico Nacional, winning the 1989 Copa Libertadores with the side. He also picked up league championship wins with America de Cali in 1990 and 1995. In 1996 he moved to the US, where he was a star for Dallas Burn and New England Revolution, also spending a year with Veracruz.
Alvarez was a key player for the national team, playing in seven Copa Americas and both the 1990 and 1994 World Cups for Colombia. As a tenacious, ball-winning midfielder, he really enabled the stylish Carlos Valderrama to run the game. Most noted for his defensive work, Alvarez was also reliable, tidy and consistent in possession.
Following retirement, Alvarez moved into coaching. Initially an assistant manager, he became Deportivo Independiente Medellin manager in 2008 and quickly led the team to the Colombian league title. He was briefly the Colombia national team manager, and has since worked for Deportivo Cali and Itagui. In 2015 he returned to Medellin and again won the league title with the side. He was replaced in 2017 and has since moved to Cerro Porteño.
A hard-working, passionate player, who would sacrifice himself for the team and enable those around him to excel, Alvarez had an impressive playing career and has shown himself to be an interesting coach with some early success. His on-field dedication is only matched by his unwavering commitment to his voluminous, permed mullet, which has been a permanent fixture since his 1983 debut.
America de Cali
America de Cali is one of the biggest and most successful clubs in the history of Colombian football, with 13 league championships and consistently strong performances in continental competitions throughout the 1980’s.
America de Cali was formed officially in 1927, but can trace its routes back even further to 1919.
The club was far from an immediate force in the Colombian league. They finished second in 1960 and 1969, while they also had an unbeaten season in 1967, but they didn’t win any trophies until 1979.
Manager Gabriel Ochoa Uribe has been credited with the side’s upturn in fortunes, and following the 1979 win, the team went on to enjoy five consecutive league title winning years from 1982 to 1986.
The club had signed some of the top players from across Colombia as well as bringing in international stars to bolster the side.
As well as five consecutive title winning years, America also made it to 3 consecutive Copa Libertadores finals, all of which they lost. As the side fell short in the biggest games, some fans have looked back to ‘the curse of Garabato’ to explain the heartbreak.
Benjamin ‘Garabato’ Urrea was an ex-player and director who publicly opposed the clubs move to professionalism in 1948. He reportedly said “let them become professional, America can do what they want, but I swear to God they will never be champions…”.
The club’s 35 year wait for a title, followed by failure to win the continent’s biggest prize and ultimate relegation has been seen as indicative of the Garabato curse.
In 1996, America got to another Copa Libertadores final, but they were seemingly once again victims of the curse, losing to River Plate following an uncharacteristic error from the usually reliable Oscar Cordoba in goal.
The club became one of the most consistent powers in South American football thanks to shrewd management and good football, but it is undeniable that the side’s upturn in results internationally was not coincidental to the booming cocaine export trade in the country.
For cartel leaders with newly acquired millions, football in many ways is a very rewarding investment. Money laundering through misrepresentation of match day revenues or over-reporting of transfer fees was something many of Colombia’s big clubs were guilty of at the time. Helping to turn the local side into an international power is also a very effective way to build public support for those profiting from the country’s lucrative new export.
On top of the diplomatic and financial considerations, many cartel leaders were big football fans with money to spend.
While many sides in Colombia were guilty, America was the side that was hit hardest by political sanctions.
In 1995, America de Cali was put on the watch list following Executive Order 12978, known as the ‘Clinton List’. As part of the United States’ efforts to punish companies reportedly linked to drug trafficking organizations and deter future engagements, America had assets of around US$1 million frozen and all companies that wished to do business in the US to cease any financial ties to the club.
This meant that the club no longer had a bank account, a shirt sponsor or kit manufacturer. The club depended heavily on shirt and ticket sales to stay afloat, reportedly accruing US$10 million in debt in the years that followed the ruling.
Player salaries over time fell below league average, and while they did manage to win three further league titles, the club struggled for stability, and in 2011 was relegated to the second tier.
After multiple final day heartbreaks, America returned to the top tier of Colombian football in 2016, and in the six months following, immediately re-established themselves as league title contenders.
The ‘red devils’ are now once again a force in Colombian football, and the side had the highest average attendance in the months since their promotion.
Juan Pablo Angel
Juan Pablo Angel made his name at local side Atletico Nacional, becoming a fan favourite with his 1994 championship winning goal against local rivals Deportivo Independiente Medellin. During his spell at his hometown club he scored 45 goals in 147 games.
In 1998 he joined River Plate to replace Herman Crespo as the side’s centre forward. Whilst in Argentina he scored 62 goals in 132 games for the Buenos Aires giants, and 16 times in 25 games in the Copa Libertadores. Seen as a man for the big occasion, Angel became a real fan favourite at the club; fans would wear angel wings in celebration of their star goalscorer. He won two league titles with the club in 1999 and 2000.
In 2001 he moved to Aston Villa for a club record £9.5 million. Expectations were high and the fans were initially concerned as the striker struggled to settle in the Midlands. In the coming years he really found his form scoring 23 goals in the 2003-2004 season and becoming the side’s third highest Premier League goalscorer in their history. While Angel was popular with the fans at Aston Villa, his form in front of goal was at times inconsistent. He scored 62 goals in 205 games for Villa.
In 2007 he moved to the MLS with New York Red Bulls, where he enjoyed 4 excellent seasons and became one of the league’s star strikers. He then had spells with LA Galaxy and Chivas USA before returning to hometown club Atletico Nacional in 2013.
Angel was once again a key striker for the side, scoring 23 goals in 63 games for the side. He helped them to three league championships and the Colombian cup before retiring in 2014.
Juan Pablo Angel was a classy, complete forward, who linked well with the midfield and had excellent movement. Solid in the air and dangerous in front of goal, he was a striker who was much loved by the fans of the clubs he represented.
Atanasio Girardot Stadium
The Estadio Atanasio Girardot is the municipally-owned home stadium of Medellin rivals Atletico Nacional and Independiente Medellin.
The stadium was inaugurated in 1953. The current capacity is around 45,000, and the stadium is now at the heart of the Atanasio Giradot Sports Complex which hosted athletics events at 2010 South American Games. The stadium hosted games during the 2001 Copa America and the U20 World Cup, with full seating installed prior to the tournament.
Argentina 0-5 Colombia
For many, Colombia’s 1994 World Cup qualifier win in Buenos Aires was the high point for what many consider to be Colombia’s greatest team.
Colombia approached the penultimate game of qualifying with an undefeated record, but the historical superiority of former world champions Argentina meant the home side were dismissive of the visitors chances. Argentina had never lost a competitive game at El Monumental, and wouldn’t lose since the Colombia defeat again until 2015.
Before the game Diego Maradona reflected the mood of many Argentines during an interview. He said “You can’t change history, history shouldn’t be changed: Argentina up, Colombia down.”
The game began as expected for the home fans, with an Argentine attack led by Gabriel Batistuta in the ascendancy. Oscar Cordoba made a string of good saves to keep Colombia level, and when Carlos Valderrama slipped a typically perfectly weighted through ball to Freddy Rincon, he coolly rounded the keeper to give Colombia the lead.
With a win important to secure qualification, the goal before half-time unsettled the home fans. Colombia began to find their rhythm, with Valderrama conducting play in midfield, and the pacey wingers providing the perfect outlet on the break.
Shortly into the second half, Faustino Asprilla effortlessly plucked a long ball out of the air, dropped a shoulder, cut inside Borelli and slid the ball under the outrushing keeper. On the 73rd minute Alvarez broke forward and swung a deep cross to the far post and Freddy Rincon sliced a volley that wrong-footed the opposition keeper.
Midfield dominance, direct, pacey forwards, and a touch of fortune left El Monumental silent.
Moments later, it would get worse. Asprilla intercepted a pass and broke down the left to dink a perfectly weighted lob over the helpless Goycochea in the Argentine goal. A truly exceptional goal from a difficult angle, on a night when everything fell into place.
With five minutes remaining, ‘The Train’ Adolfo Valenica finished the job by walking the ball into the net. Asprilla cut in from the left and nonchalantly slipped a perfect through ball, for Valencia to round the keeper with one touch and marshal the ball into the net.
Colombia in the early 90’s embodied a possession-based style influenced by great Argentine players who moved to Colombia during its inaugural years. On that night in 1994, Colombia won the respect of one of South America’s great football powers.
The stunned Argentine fans were as impressed by Colombia as they were dismayed at their own collapse. The Colombian players left the field to a prolonged standing ovation from those in attendance – including Diego Maradona.
Armando Maestre Pavajeau Stadium
The Armando Maestre Pavajeau is the home of Colombian second division side Valledupar FC.
The stadium initially had a capacity of around 11,000 but is currently being expanded and upgraded with a new pitch and capacity of around 30,000.
Jairo Arboleda is a true Deportivo Cali legend and one of the finest midfielders to ever play in Colombia.
Born in 1947, Arboleda played briefly for Deportes Quindio in 1969 before signing for Deportivo Cali, where he would be the side’s star player for a decade.
Dubbed ‘the master’ or ‘the king of the nutmeg’ by fans, Arboleda was one of the great early playmakers in Colombian football. A man with great intelligence, vision, poise and control of the ball, who could sit back and pick passes or drive forward, exchanging passes and creating chances.
He moved to Quindio and Once Caldas in 1979 but was forced in relatively early retirement due to knee injuries.
Arboleda moved into coaching later in life, working with the excellent Deportivo Cali youth sides and there are few better teachers than the classy playmaker.
Victor Aristizabal is one of the most prolific goalscorers in the history of South American football, rightfully dubbed ‘Aristigol’ by fans.
Aristizabal is the highest goalscorer in the history of Atletico Nacional, the highest foreign goalscorer in the history of Brazilian football, the 2001 Copa America top goalscorer, the top goalscorer in Medellin derbies, the highest foreign goalscorer in a single season in the history of Brazilian football, and has scored 13 hattricks – the most of any player in Colombian history.
Born in Medellin, Aristizabal made his professional debut alongside Faustino Asprilla for local side Atletico Nacional in 1990. In his first full season he won the Copa Interamericana, and a year later he won his first of five league championships with the club.
In 1993 he moved to Spain with Valencia, but didn’t settle in Europe. After a brief spell with Blackburn Rovers, he returned to Atletico Nacional.
Aristizabal made an immediate impact following his return to Nacional and again won the league title in 1994.
In 1996 he moved abroad again, this time to Brazil. In Brazil the Colombian poacher enjoyed incredible success, over six seasons with five different clubs. In 1996 he joined Sao Paulo and then Santos, returning to Brazil in 2002 with Vitoria, Cruzeiro and Coritiba.
His most successful spell in Brazil was with Cruzeiro, where he won the league title, the cup and the state championship in one season. He also won state championships with Victoria and Coritiba.
In 2005 he returned to Colombia with Atletico Nacional, where he won three further league titles before his retirement in 2008.
Aristizabal was in the squad for the 1994 World Cup, played at the 1998 World Cup and led the Colombian national side to glory in the 2001 Copa America.
An intelligent, instinctive striker, Arisitizbal had excellent movement and was impeccably composed in front of goal.
Pablo Armero is a quick, athletic full-back who played a key role for Cali, made an impressive impact in Italy and was a charismatic part of Colombia’s impressive 2014 World Cup side.
Armero began his career with with America de Cali and immediately stood out for his solid defensive work and his ability to contribute in attack. The attacking full-back played an important role in America’s final league title winning side before the club’s financial troubles led to the team into decline and relegation.
After four seasons with America, he moved to Brazil with Palmeiras for two seasons before he was signed by Italian side Udinese, where he helped the side to an impressive fourth placed finish, and in 2011 he was included in the Serie A team of the year.
He moved to Napoli for the 2013 season, but struggled to hold down a first team place in Europe through the following years, with spells at West Ham and AC Milan.
Despite a drop in his club performances, Armero continued to be a key main at full-back for the Colombian national side. His explosive pace and attacking contribution was a key weapon for the national side.
Known as Miñia, Armero was very popular with the Colombian fans for his enthusiasm and charisma. Much of that good will has been soured following his 2016 arrest in Miami for violence against his wife. His recall to the national team in 2017 was greeted with widespread criticism.
Tino is Tino.
An effervescent enigma, a loveable rogue. At times infuriatingly thoughtless and naïve, but irrepressibly endearing and charming. An incredible talent, a huge personality, and a true Colombian great.
Faustino Asprilla began his career with Cucuta in 1988, scoring 17 goals in 36 games for the side.
A year later the pacey, long-legged forward joined Atletico Nacional, where he linked up with the aforementioned Aristizabal. After three good seasons with the Medellin side he was signed by Parma in Italy in 1992.
At Parma he scored 44 goals in 63 league games during his four years at the club, but his impressive performances on the field were always tainted by off-field distractions. After a mixed 92-93 season, Asprilla was set to lead the line for Parma in the Cup Winner’s Cup Final. It was reported by the club that a broken bottle was to blame, when in reality he had kicked the glass door of a bus following an argument with a bus driver.
He had a tumultuous relationship with officials in charge of the Colombian national team; he was unafraid to criticize teammates and decisions, while also arriving late and going missing when on international duty.
He ultimately received a suspended one year prison sentence for firing a gun into the air during a new year’s eve party, a ruling that allowed him to continue playing but further damaged his reputation.
The ruling was made at the mid-point of Parma’s two legged UEFA Cup Final against Juventus. Asprilla kept his place in the team for the second leg, and Parma won the trophy with a 2-1 aggregate victory.
Parma hoped to attract Fabio Capello to the role of coach and, according to reports, removing potentially disruptive Asprilla was one of the terms of Capello’s agreement.
Asprilla signed for Newcastle United in February 1996 for £6.7 million, with Kevin Keegan hoping the signing would propel the side to their first Premier League title. Asprilla made an immediate impact on his debut, but his reckless personality emerged the following game, picking up a straight red for a deliberate elbow.
The impact of Asprilla in Newcaslte has been much debated. It is clear that he was an exceptionally talented player, with great pace and ability that set him apart from his teammates. However, he is also a tricky personality, and he had limited playing time in the six months prior to his arrival.
Asprilla averaged a goal every three games for Newcastle, and had some incredible standout performances, including a hattrick in the Champions League against Barcelona.
In 1998 he returned to Parma, where he had two good goalscoring seasons, before moving back to Latin America with Palmeiras, Fluminese, Atlenate, Nacional, Universidad de Chile and then Cortulua. He maintained a good scoring record, but injuries limited his minutes and his impact.
At his peak, Asprilla was an exceptional, unstoppable force. His pace and power, combined with a silky touch and an unorthodox hunched running style, meant that he was a real force. Tino had a carefree approach to life, his beaming smile and incredible talent made him a joy to watch.