By Cameron Mcalpin.
Flamengo and River Plate are set to battle in the Copa Libertadores final on Saturday, showcasing to the world two of the best teams in South America.
The game also hints at the dominance Argentina and Brazil have had in South American football’s biggest club competition.
Saturday will mark the 60th edition of the Libertadores and of the previous 59 winners, Argentinian and Brazilian teams have accounted for 43 of them.
If you throw in the other traditional big nation Uruguay, then the total jumps up to 51. For most of the Libertadores era, the ‘big three’ have held a grip over South America and left the remaining countries to feed on scraps.
But in 1989 there was a new team at the head of the table, and while it came from an unlikely source it wasn’t an unlikely team.
A slightly different format was in place for the 1989 Libertadores compared to this year’s competition. 20 teams competed from five different countries. Each country had two representatives, with both teams in the same group along with two teams from another country.
The usual suspects could be found in the 30th edition, with Boca Juniors from Argentina and Penarol from Uruguay, so it had the potential to be business as usual in terms of the teams who would be around come the end of the tournament.
Colombian teams had made four finals before the ’89 competition but were yet to win one. The Colombian representatives of ’89 had also never reached the final of the Libertadores final so experience could play a part.
Atlético Nacional entered the competition after finishing runners up in the Colombian league. The team was by no means an outstanding one but they did have some great players such as Andrés Escobar, Leonel Álvarez, and John Jairo Tréllez, who helped lead the defence, midfield and attack respectively.
Nacional were drawn in Group 3 along with fellow Colombians Millonarios, and Ecuadorian sides Deportivo Quito and Emelec.
While they weren’t opponents to overlook, the Ecuadorian teams could be seen as the lesser teams within the group.
The top three teams from each group qualified for the knockout stages, which meant they didn’t have to be all that great to qualify.
In the group, Atlético Nacional did what they had to do to qualify, winning two, drawing three and losing one. Finishing second behind Millonarios, they had done what was needed to give them a chance.
A meeting with former winners, Racing Club, in the last 16 was an immense challenge for Atlético Nacional.
To win the Copa Libertadores, you will have to beat teams from at least one of the big three countries, that challenge came straight away for Nacional.
Following a hard-fought battle over two legs, Nacional emerged victorious after hanging on to a 3-2 aggregate win and progressed to the next round. In the quarter-finals, they met a very familiar foe.
Mural en una calle de Medellín en honor a César Cueto y otro ídolos del Atlético Nacional, donde jugó entre 1979 y 1983 pic.twitter.com/iVOegynB
— Alianza History (@alianzahistory) November 7, 2012
The matchup against Millonarios pitted Colombia’s finest against each other, and one team would emerge a step closer to becoming the country’s first-ever Libertadores winner.
There was no clear-cut favourite, and both teams had a great chance of moving on to the semi-finals. A 1-0 victory for Nacional at home in the first leg meant that, going to El Campín, Millinarios home in Bogotá, Nacional had put themselves in a great position.
The second leg was a thrilling affair and ended in a 1-1 draw, meaning Nacional progressed. The game itself, though, is remembered more for the officiating.
Around 65 minutes into the game Arnoldo Iguarán of Millonarios was brought to the ground by Nacional’s goalkeeper, René Higuita. Replays show Higuita was nowhere near that ball, but the referee failed to point to the spot. He even dropped his whistle, and after recovering it pointed for a corner which sent the Millonarios players into a frenzy.
The game finished one apiece and Atlético Nacional moved on to the final. The referee continued to be called into question after the full-time whistle. The Medellín cartel was accused of threatening the referee to make sure that Atlético Nacional got the calls in their favour and progress.
The subject is still a sore spot for Millonarios fans, and an intense rivalry has existed ever since.
Away from the controversy, Nacional faced Danubio of Uruguay in the semi-final.
While coming from a prestigious football country, it was very much new territory for Danubio, who had never made it further that the first round of the Libertadores.
Hopes were high, and there was a feeling that this was a great opportunity for Atlético Nacional to book a place in their first-ever Libertadores final.
After a goalless draw in Uruguay, Atlético Nacional grabbed the opportunity at home with both hands and didn’t leave anything to chance. A six-goal drubbing of Danubio meant that, not only for the first time in Atlético Nacional’s history would they be in the final of the Libertadores, but also for the first time in the history of the Libertadores the finalist wouldn’t include a team from Brazil, Argentina or Uruguay.
Olympia were the opponents, and they had reason to feel confident. They had experience on their side, having been in two previous finals, winning one of them in 1979.
They also had the added advantage of playing their home tie at their home stadium. Something Atlético Nacional were unable to do as they had to move to the El Campín in Bogotá due to capacity issues.
The first leg in Asuncion did not go well for the Colombian team. A devastating two-goal defeat meant that they had to dig themselves out of a hole to stand a chance of lifting the trophy.
Atlético Nacional, as they had all tournament, turned up when they needed to most. They wiped out the two-goal deficit but couldn’t find the winner in regulation.
Penalties would be the deciding factor, and after Olimpia missed their ninth penalty (only nine of the 18 penalties taken were converted) it gave Atlético Nacional the victory.
Two goals to nil on the night and a 5-4 victory on penalties saw Atlético Nacional lift their first-ever Libertadores.
It was a momentous victory, not only for Atlético Nacional and Colombian football, but also for the other nations who could see it was possible to topple the big boys and win the Copa Libertadores.
It allowed other teams to dream and realise that it wasn’t impossible to win it all. Yes, the draw fell kindly for Atlético Nacional, but they could only beat the teams in front of them. 30-years on, it’s a reminder that the Libertadores is special for the same reason many other cups around the world are — any team can win it.
The ’89 campaign will always have controversy around it. Pablo Escobar’s involvement in the club was always questioned, and reports emerged that he had officials threatened to make sure his beloved team won.
As a result, Conmebol banned all Colombian teams from the 1990 campaign, except for Atlético Nacional who were allowed to take part as defending champions but were made to play their home games in Chile.