Colo-Colo’s Copa Journey: The long winding road to the 91′ Copa Libertadores victory

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Colo-Colo are a Chilean institution, engrained with their culture and at the forefront of their sporting pride. A true giant of their country’s game, with their fortunes ebbing and flowing with the greater Chilean football scene. They’ve never been relegated and always feature somewhere near the top of the Primera Division, winning the most titles and attracting the most support. They are truly a national interest in a country where football is an obsession.

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Whilst Colo-Colo have often found themselves at the very apex of their own national division, sweeping aside their biggest rivals, success on the continental stage had always alluded them. They had reached their first Libertadores final in 1973, losing a tight game to Independiente who were the reigning champions, and later swept up another 2 titles afterward with their all-conquering 1970s team. They were regular knockout stage participants, a bridesmaid on multiple occasions, their lack of Libertadores’ success mirrored Chile’s own national team’s record at a continental level. A good test for the bigger teams, but ultimately beatable.

Colo-Colo in the 1980s was very much still in that mold. At the turn of the decade, under Pedro Garcia, they won the league twice, followed by a Copa Chile double but as the 80s’ moved on, Colo-Colo hadn’t managed to move past the group stages of the Copa Libertadores once.

The Copa Libertadores had been the plaything for three countries since its inception in 1960. Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay had shared the spoils on every occasion, except for Paraguayan champions Olimpia’s success in 1979. To find yourselves in the closing stages for any team not from the big three was a small feat in itself and one that as every passing year went by, increased the desire for Los Albos to finally break through.

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By 1988, Colo-Colo had spent most of the decade in a period of dominance with only Cobreloa offering any kind of resistance to their onward march. A team, slowly built by Arturo Salah in his first managerial role was taking shape and the mental fortitude needed to advance further into the Copa Libertadores was also forming. Not only that, but after years of stop starts, Colo-Colo had finally finished their Monumental Stadium project, and felt the building blocks were in place to achieve their first international title.

Marcelo Barticciotto, a young Argentinian was brought in to lead the line. A pacy and skillful forward, Barticciotto’s footballing sense belied his young age, and he soon found his feet in the physically demanding Chilean Primera. Jaime Pizarro was a product of the Colo-Colo youth system, tenacious, hardworking, a tricky right midfielder and a natural leader, Pizarro was part of the Chilean national team that had reached the 1987 Copa America final. Then there was the wily Lizardo Garrido had been a mainstay in many Chilean teams over the years, but he was firmly at home at Colo-Colo, a key focal point of the sturdy Los Albos defence.

After a first last 16 appearance in 1988 in the Copa Libertadores for 15 years, Colo-Colo had found their feet. But there was also a shift happening in the big three dominance. The 1989 final was the first to feature two teams outside of the big three, with Atlético Nacional beating Olimpia for their first Copa Libertadores title. Then as the 1990s came around, Olimpia picked up their second title, again facing a team outside of the big three, defeating Ecuador’s Barcelona.

The 1990 edition saw Colo-Colo lose to Vasco Da Gama again in the last 16 in a tight affair, losing on penalties after a 3-3 aggregate draw. But 1990 also heralded a change for Colo Colo. Arturo Salah had been sacked and in his place was Mirko Jozic. Jozic had been in charge of the wonderful young Yugoslavian team who had swept to the 1987 FIFA World Championship, hosted in Chile. Chile’s Chairman Peter Dragicevic, himself a Croatian descendent sensed an opportunity. Knowing Jozic was ambitious and keen to cement his burgeoning career offered him the role of Head Coach. Dragicevic’s calculated gamble paid off as Jozic quickly got to work building the team that would take them closer to tasting international glory.

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Jozic was relentless in his coaching, relentless in his scouting and relentless in his demands of his players. He improved his team and after sweeping to the double in his first season in charge in 1990, Jozic could sense that the one trophy that had alluded Colo-Colo was within their grasp.

“We’re going to win the Copa Libertadores” was Jozic’s reply when asked about their chances by Journalists. They collectively laughed before noticing that Jozic was serious. This comment was designed to pitch Colo-Colo as serious, but whilst they had conquered Chile, this comment meant winning the Libertadores was an obligation, and Colo fans were not known to let people off the hook when expectations are voiced.

To do that, Jozic needed to refresh and tweak his team for their 1991 tilt at the biggest prize. Gabriel Mendoza was a speedy right-back, known for his marauding forward runs and turn of pace. He added balance and an attacking threat. Jozic was forever searching for new dimensions for his team and Rubén Martinez was another piece of the puzzle needed. Martinez was the classic 6-yard specialist, an Iván Zamorano type player who could complement Barticciotto’s more adventurous style. Eduardo Vilches offered flexibility in the middle of the park, quietly doing the dirty work whilst the attacking threat peppered the box and stretched the opposition’s defences.

Colo-Colo’s group stage in 1991 was a reasonably straight forward affair. Their tight defence led by Garrido only conceded 3 goals, with two of them coming in a 2-2 draw with the 1989 finalists Barcelona. Three wins from their 6 games, meant they topped their group and found themselves against Peruvian champions, Universitario. As ever with two legged ties, a strong performance away from home would always give you an advantage, and Jozic knew that if they were still in the tie by the time, they played at the raucous Estadio Monumental in Santiago, they would always have a chance. And so, it proved, after a tense 0-0 draw in Peru, a brace by Rubén Espinoza lead to a 2-1 win and Colo-Colo’s first appearance in the quarter finals since the 1970s.

At this point, fans began believing that they could possibly do it. The chatter amongst press and fans we’re full of Colo-Colo seizing the moment, knowing that it might not come around again. The quarter finals brought National to the Monumental Stadium. Colo-Colo by this time were in their groove and a brave and confident display swept National aside as they won the first leg 4-0. A second leg in Montevideo was a 2-0 defeat, but the damage had been done to National’s hopes in the first leg, Colo-Colo were now only one step away from their second ever finals appearance.

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In their way, was their toughest competitor to date, Boca Juniors. Boca Juniors had a young explosive Gabriel Batistuta, the Libertadores’ top scorer that season, backed up by Diego Latorre, himself on the cusp of a big move to Fiorentina. But they were an aging side, in the throes of their own changing of the guard. A tight 1-0 defeat to an Oscar Graziani goal, emboldened the Colo-Colo faithful. The feeling was if they could get an early goal in Santiago in the second leg, they could go on to win the game.

As the minutes ticked on in the second leg, the nerves were clearly kicking in. Jovic paced up and down the touchline, railing at the hard-hitting nature of Boca’s tactics, designed to unsettle Colo-Colo. As the second half got underway, the Monumental atmosphere was like a cauldron, expectation clearly giving way to anxiety. As Colo-Colo turned the screw, they finally got their breakthrough. Martinez tapped in a Barticciotto cross and the Monumental erupted. What stemmed from that was pandemonium. Photographers, journalists, fans ran onto the pitch, climbing the barriers and antagonising each other. After it calmed down to a degree, the game restarted but a second goal caused even more delirium. Skirmishes broke out on the pitch and the sidelines as Jozic embraced his players, the final now in their grasp. Latorre drove in a response from Boca on 79 minutes, briefly silencing the feverish crowd.

As the coaches from each team lobbied insults to each other, and fans spilled onto the pitch at certain occasions, Colo-Colo kept their cool, until Martinez rounded the Boca keeper and slotted home the winner. Boca were convinced he was offside, surrounding the referees and the Colo players, and finally, as the final whistle drew nearer, it was reckless abandon. Both benches started fighting with each other, photographers and security attacked players and fans spilled onto the pitch. The officials escaped to a safe point whilst crude missiles were lobbed across the pitch. All told, the Battle of Santiago had 120 detainees, 8 injuries, 7 arrests, and at the end of the violence and a bitterness stoked between both sets of fans for years to come.

After the game and all the furor and finger pointing from both clubs, Colo-Colo dusted themselves down, Jozic keen to make sure that Colo-Colo ignored the noise around them.

As the final came around though, they were to play Olimpia, the toughest test at altitude in Paraguay. Colo-Colo adopted the same tactics they had done throughout the tournament, keep it tight away from home and take the initiative when back at the Monumental. The first game at Olimpia’s home ground in Asuncion, was exactly what they wanted. An uneventful 0-0 draw created a unique opportunity at immortality for Colo Colo. And they knew it.

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Jozic said before the start of the 2nd leg that it was entirely in their hands, but there was no room to make mistakes, he wanted to make sure that Colo-Colo kept their eyes on the prize. And in truth, the 2nd leg was a calmer affair than when they played Boca Juniors. Two goals from Luis  Pérez, brought into the team for the suspended Martinez piled on the pressure on Olimpia to respond but as the final whistle drew closer, Colo-Colo sucked the life out of Olimpia’s response. There was no road back, as Leonel Herrera sealed Los Albo’s place in history with a 3-0 victory.

To this day, Colo-Colo remain the only Chilean team to win the Copa Libertadores, and Jozic was the first foreign manager to win it. By the time he had left in 1994, he had delivered a further Chilean title, a Copa Chile and the 1991 Recopa Sudamericana after a tight penalties win over Cruziero.

But that team’s legacy lived longer than just Juric’s time in Santiago. The dream had been realised; legends had been made. The team that won it, was gradually unstitched, Barticciotto left in 1992, Pizarro and Martinez followed in 1993 and Colo-Colo went through bankruptcy and didn’t feature in another intercontinental final until the 2006 Copa Sudamericana. But, that magical night in 91 made it all worthwhile.

“It was a beautiful time, a wonderful way to do it. My heart will always belong to Colo-Colo and that period. I will always be Colo-Colo” Jozic said years later. And in truth, those players will always be Los Albos.