April 20, 2020
Lying in the southwest of Colombia, Santiago de Cali is a city that is well known for a few relevant things. On one hand, it is the third largest city of the country, surrounded by the finest geographical conditions one could ask – a rich valley sitting in the middle of two mountain trails and with plenty of rivers flowing through. This green city is also known for being the world’s capital of salsa (the music genre). Joy, laughter and banter are part of the DNA of the “caleños”.
But let’s be honest, we are here to talk about football. While Bogotá is the capital of the country, Cali is the sporting city and also home to one of the fiercest and most respected derbies in Colombia and South America: El Clásico Vallecaucano. The city’s two biggest clubs, América de Cali and Deportivo Cali are prominent names in Colombian and South American football over the last 4 decades or so.
From being the first Colombian club to reach the Libertadores Cup in 1978 against Boca Juniors – Deportivo Cali – to winning 5 consecutive titles from 1982 to 1986 and reaching without any success 4 Copa Libertadores finals – América de Cali – , Cali is definitely a landmark location for Colombian football.
Having been born in Cali myself, I went for the Red Devils or la “mechita” as they are called since I was little. My father was born in Bogotá and supported Millonarios, but there was a connection back then with América despite the success of Atlético Nacional from Medellín, who won the Copa Libertadores in 1989 – the first ever of its kind for a Colombian club. I won’t lie, this blog will be biased towards the Red Devils – just look at that fabulous badge.
América de Cali: A fabulous tale of curses and victories
In Colombia, América de Cali is known as “la pasión de un pueblo” , something like the people’s devotion. And it truly is. Unlike their city rivals, Deportivo Cali which are linked to the local businessmen and the elite, America is more tied to the everyday citizen who just loves football. Nonetheless, over the history, there have been a handful of remarkable aspects that have made this club stand out.
The club was founded in 1918 but only turned professional in 1927 – although their first appearance on the Colombian League was in 1948. This particular moment is linked to the famous Garabato curse, which has followed us fans forever. It turns out that one club Director, Benjamin Urrea – also known as garabato- was against the club joining the league. And he famously stated: “turn it into a professional club, I don’t care, but you will never be champions”.
Well, he was right for 31 straight years, until our first title in 1979. After that, the club became a powerful force in South American football – mostly because it was unfortunately funded by the Cali Cartel, which lured the best players in the continent to play for “la mechita”.
It seemed the curse was over but then it went to a different level with the Copa Libertadores. We lost 3 finals in a row in the most dramatic ways. The one we hate the most was in 1987 against Peñarol from Uruguay. We had to play a third match in neutral grounds to decide the title and América only needed to draw. Well, we lost 1-0 in extra time. We all believed the curse was real. And then it went downhill with our relegation to the second division in 2011, and despite all odds we had to stay 5 years in hell. Something our rivals enjoy reminding us every single time we meet at the Clásico Vallecaucano. Fortunately we came back stronger to the First Division and we are the reigning champions in Colombia!
El Clásico Vallecaucano
When the two local teams collide, the city divides. That is the case in Cali and has changed the history of the two clubs. América has won this game 99 times and Deportivo Cali 123 times – we still have some work to do.
The Pascual Guerrero stadium is the temple that hosts this game. Located in the San Fernando neighbourhood and surrounded by residential buildings, the first impression is that we are in the heart of the city and this location is where the fate of the city gets decided. Something similar to going to Mestalla in Valencia, Spain.
Rivers of red and green shirts flow through all surrounding streets – the best pre-match experience is definitely to grab some food on the stall on the street and have some beers with them. There are a few of nearby cafes and taverns where fans gather, but the real fans do it on the street. What can’t be missed is a few shots of aguardiente – an anis-flavoured spirit extracted from the sugar cane – before and during the game so the nerves are calmed.
Quite recently the derby has been very picturesque. For instance, one of our greatest idols in the 80s and 90s, Antony “el pitufo” de Ávila, was a record man when he decided to play again for our club in the late 2000s and scored a winning goal in the derby, aged 46. Remember the date: September 13, 2009 – what a legend! But also, when we came back from the second division, Deportivo Cali made sure to let us know of that disgraceful period in our club history. For instance, it was confirmed by the police that several traffic lights were “vandalised” by Deportivo Cali fans as stickers with a B were pasted on the red lights – in Colombia the second tier is called the B division. Hate to say that’s proper banter.
The atmosphere at the ground is like no other. The Pascual Guerrero, which was refurbished for the FIFA U-20 World Cup in 2011 is a gem. Despite being an “Olympic” stadium with an athletics track you feel really close to the pitch. Our fans won’t stop singing and chanting and, of course, tifo and pyros are guaranteed. It is the utmost experience Cali is red!
Cali may be one of the unluckiest cities in world football, but it could surely be worse. A derby worth visiting in a city that breathes football rivalry, but that welcomes fans from everywhere to enjoy this party.
Written by Daniel Velásquez
Photographies by @Brightside_inc