The rise and fall of America de Cali encapsulates the turmoil of the last four decades in Colombia. The club was able to reach new highs as the influx of drug money in the 1980s swelled the pockets of club owners. However, the money came and went, and the Red Devils have since suffered the implications of their former mafia connections. United States policies crippled the club financially and after ten years of struggle, the team's humbling collapse came in 2011 as they were relegated to the second tier of Colombian football.
The club was officially founded on 13th February 1927, taking the name América from a successful youth side formed by school children a decade before. The club built upon the youth teams success and won four amateur championships in quick succession. Humberto Salcedo Fernández became club chairman 1948 and took immediate steps to professionalise the sides operations. Benjamin Urrea, a local dentist and passionate América fan, took exception to the new owners ambitious plans and publicly put a curse on the club. The fan, better known as "Garabato", announced "if the team is professionalised, I swear to God it will never be champion". Many superstitious fans of the Red Devils breathed a sigh of relief in 1979 as the club defied Señor Urrea's warning by winning the league championship. However, others remain convinced that Garabato's in-bittered smite continues to plague the club, as they have been beaten in all four of their Copa Libertadores finals since.
Gabriel Ochoa Uribe was appointed coach in 1979 and brought immediate success to the club. Within a year Ochoa had led América de Cali to its first ever Colombian championship, overcoming a strong Unión Magdelena side in their final fixture. The club went on to win an unprecedented five consecutive Primera A championships between 1982 and 1986.
As cocaine became the drug of choice for the rich and famous in the United States, the small number of Colombian gangs who oversaw production and controlled trafficking routes amassed a huge amount of wealth. The Cali Cartel was led by José Santacruz Londoño and the Rodríguez Orejuela brothers Gilberto and Miguel. The group originally focussed on kidnapping, but then moved to trafficking marijuana, and associate Helmer "Pacho" Herrera moved to New York to create a distribution network. The group moved to trafficking cocaine in the late 1970's. With Pacho's New York connections and the Rodríguez brothers ruthless use of violence, the group, which became the Cali Cartel, were able to oversee cocaine production and control the trafficking routes throughout the south of the country. Through bribery and the threat of violence the Rodríguez brothers became untouchable in the city. The brothers poured huge amounts of illegally earned cash into the Cali club. By investing in the city's working-class club the pair successfully developed their support and connection to those living within the city's poorer neighbourhoods. Throughout the 1980's the Cali Cartel was engaged in a bitter rivalry with the Medellín Cartel to the north. While América de Cali received money from the Rodríguez brothers, Atlético Nacional was heavily back by the Medellín Cartel's Pablo Escobar. José Gonzalo Rodríguez Pacho, alias "El Mexicano" and also of the Medellín Cartel, became the owner of Bogotá club Millonarios. Personal and competitive rivalries between the Cartels were played out in proxy on the football field.
The influx of money allowed América de Cali to attract international stars and create an exciting, attacking side. The Red Devils signed Willington Ortiz from bitter rivals Deportivo Cali, as well as Peruvian World Cup stars Guillermo La Rosa and César Cueto, Paraguayan striker Roberto Cabañas and Argentine international goalkeeper Julio César Falcioni. The side played exciting, fast-paced football; with two attacking midfielders and a front three who became known "los tres fantasticos", consisting of Antonio Gareca, Juan Manuel Battaglia and Roberto Cabañas. Gareca was dubbed "the six million dollar man" by Cali fans, as club officials allegedly demanded this fee from any foreign clubs interested in signing their star player. Over lunch in 1979 Miguel Rodríguez is said to have offered a 20 year old Diego Maradona $3 million to play the remainder of the season for América de Cali. Maradona is reported to have accepted the offer, before his club manager at Argentinos Juniors scuppered the deal by revealing an agreement had already been reached with Barcelona.
Despite the club's incredible domestic success, the goal of continental silverware was never achieved. Reflecting on this, star striker Willington Oritz noted "winning the league doesn't compensate, the team was put together to win the Copa Libertadores". In 1985 the club were denied on penalties after trading 1-0 victories with Argentinos Juniors. In the penalty shoot-out the first nine spot kicks were converted, and goalkeeper Falcioni was set to take the potentially decisive fifth kick for the devils. Falcioni buckled under the immense pressure and responsibility was passed to 20 year old striker Antony de Avila. Known as "The Smurf", 5 foot 2 inch de Avila was thrown into a terrifying situation and missed from twelve yards as América were denied. The following year América again made the final, but were beaten 3-1 over two legs by Boca Juniors.
While América de Cali dominated domestic football and frequently beat their great rivals Atlético Nacional, they never achieved their ultimate goal of Libertadores success. This frustration was soured further as Atlético Nacional won the trophy in 1989 in their first appearance in the final and Pablo Escobar was photographed holding the trophy as he boarded his private jet.
As the 1980's ended drug related violence continued to spiral out of control within Colombia and beyond. Throughout the 1980's the drug cartels operated in Colombia with very little opposition. The cartels offered officials two options; they could either accept a generous bribe, or refuse and face the violent consequences for themselves and their families. Very few refused the offer, and thousands of state officials became involved and implicated in the cartels' criminal activities as a result. In 1989 presidential candidate Luis Carlos Galán publicly criticised the violence and criminality of the cartels. Galán received widespread public support for his campaign, and was the favourite to win the 1989 election before he was gunned down during a public address. The drug cartels no longer had a free reign in Colombia and the United States began to enthusiastically support efforts to bring those involved to justice. Cocaine consumption in the United States was on the increase and the huge influx of crack cocaine as a cheaper alternative had brought with it thousands of new addicts in poorer neighbourhoods. Drug related crime in the US rose steadily, and the US Drug Enforcement Agency switched their efforts from combating heroin to cocaine, with Colombia the new focus of their operations.
In 1993 Pablo Escobar was shot and killed on a Medellín rooftop in a combined effort between Colombian and US officials, with alleged support from right-wing paramilitaries and a group supported by the Cali Cartel called Los Pepes. While the Cali Cartel outlived Escobar's Medellín Cartel, the tide had changed, and in 1995 six of the heads of the Cali Cartel were arrested. Those who profited from cocaine could no longer flaunt their wealth in such a public fashion and club finances were increasingly scrutinised.
Despite the loss of their infamous and extravagant financial backers, América continued to enjoy on-the-field success into the 90's. They won the Colombian championship in 1990, 1992, 1997, 2000 and 2001. In 1996 IFFHS ranked América de Cali as the second best club side in the world, only beaten by Italian champions Juventus. The same organisation ranked the Red Devils as the 35th best club side of all time in 1999. In 1996 they got to yet another Copa Libertadores final, but were again denied by Argentine opposition. The Colombian side led after the first leg of the final, as Antony de Avila scored an excellent chip from a tight angle to give América the advantage. The Smurf had come a long way since his 1985 disappointment, becoming the club's record goalscorer and most capped player. However, in the second leg it was Colombian international goalkeeper Oscar Cordoba who would become the villain as América again fell at the final hurdle. With the ball rolling out for an América goal kick Cordoba inexplicably rushed to clear. With the keeper out of position Boca quickly whipped a cross into the box for Hernán Crespo to head into an empty net. Crespo later scored a second to once again deny the Cali side. Bemused by his decision, Cordoba explained how "only now I can think about it ... I guess the thing I've learnt most in my career is to save the ones that are going in and leave the ones that aren't".
At the turn of the millennium the Cali side finally picked up their first international silverware, as the club beat Bogotá rivals Santa Fe on penalties to win the 1999 Copa Mercanorte, the competition which was later rebranded the Copa Suramericana in 2002.
While the side continued to enjoy footballing success, they also faced new crippling financial challenges. Corporación Deportivo América was investigated as part of Executive Order 12978, commonly known as the Clinton List in Colombia. As a result of previous connections to the Rodríguez family all of the club's US based assets, valued at around US$1 million, were seized, and the all companies which had connections to América de Cali were prevented from legally operating in the United States. This meant that no sponsorship deals could be signed and the club relied solely on ticket revenue and merchandise sales to cover its costs. Furthermore, club president Carlos Puente insists the América was also denied the $200,000 prize money they were due for winning the Copa Mercanorte in 1999. In 2010 the club finally managed to escape the limitations imposed by the Clinton list. The club was restructured with the support of local government, and was able to change the name of the holding company without giving up the team name, trophies or physical assets. Despite this, the club still has over $US2 million of debt and player salaries have been limited to a maximum of US$3,000 a week or US$36,000 a year. The side can not compete with the wages offered by rival Colombian clubs, let alone those available in wealthier leagues to the north and the south.
América has become a selling club, and over the last ten years they have repeatedly lost their strongest players. While this is a common phenomenon in Colombian football, their limited funds means they have no way of attracting talented replacements. Any money generated is used to keep the club afloat and maintain debt repayments. It is not unusual in Colombia for a club to have an unbeatable attacking side one year and a toothless disappointment the next. The Colombian league structure accommodates clubs' inconsistency, and relegations are decided by the total points of each side over three years. The bottom club is then relegated and replaced by the best placed Primera B side. The team who finishes in the second lowest position over three years then meets the second highest placed Primera B side over two legs, with the winner participating in Primera A the following year. The decisive second leg is played at the home ground of the current Primera A side, giving them the advantage. The league's organisers hope that this will keep the country's most popular sides in the top division. The inconsistency of some of Colombia's most popular teams is demonstrated below.
Despite the club's prolonged decline, nobody expected that they would be beaten by minnows Patriotas de Boyacá over two legs. The first leg finished 1-1, but América de Cali remained confident they would be able to pick up the home win which would keep them in the league. The home side took the lead just after half time, but Patriotas snatched an equalizer mid-way through the second half and held on to take the game to penalties after 180 minutes. América fell behind in the shoot-out, but were able to draw level with one penalty each remaining. With the game finely balanced, club captain Jersson Gonzalez stepped up for América. The 36 year old full-back, never looked confident as he took a short run up and side footed his penalty low to the keepers right. He beat Carlos Chavez in the Patriotas goal, but he also hit the post. As the ball ricocheted away he looked stunned. Motionless he looked up at the packed crowd behind the goal, before the powerful defender broke into tears as he realised the implications of his error. The Patriota goalkeeper then calmly stepped up, blasted the ball into the top corner and turned around with an apologetic look, before being was engulfed by jubilant team-mates. The unthinkable had happened, and shell-shocked América fans vented their frustration after the whistle. They squared-off against police in the stadium, before rioting in the streets surrounding the ground.
Last night America de Cali celebrated their 85 year anniversary with fireworks, music, and a procession of former players and silverware in front of a packed crowd of the 35,000. The fans were then treated to a polished, albeit scrappy, 2-0 win to take the home side joint top in the league. All went to plan, and those in attendance went home happy. The evening acted as a reminder of the club's great history and passionate support. América are still a huge club, and they are still able to attract some of the largest attendances in Colombia. Relegation has been costly, but it may give the Red Devils time to restructure the club and concentrate on creating the foundations for a more sustainable future. Away from the intense pressure of Primera A, América now have time to nurture young talent within a competitive environment and return the focus to what remains great about the club. América de Cali have some of the most passionate fans in the league and I hope the Red Devils can return to the Primera A, resurgent and with a new focus.