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'A national disgrace' - Why even Colombia's president was enraged by promotion playoff farce

5:01 PM GMT 07/12/2021
LLaneros Union Magdalena Ivan Duque Colombia GFX
Union Magdalena went up in controversial circumstances, with opponents Llaneros seeming to offer no resistance to their winning goal

It should have been one of the most memorable moments of the entire Colombian football year.

With just minutes to play, Union Magdalena miraculously clawed back a 1-0 deficit to run out winners over Llaneros, thus securing promotion back to the Liga DiMayor.

Outside of the beautiful beachside resort of Santa Marta which the club calls home, however, few were amused.

None other than President of Colombia Ivan Duque led criticisms of the bizarre end to Saturday's match, which saw Llaneros' players effectively stop playing and watch their opponents walk in the two goals they needed to go up.

“What happened in the Primera Division promotion game is a national disgrace,” the head of state fired on Twitter.

“Sport requires transparency, honesty and zero tolerance in the face of any situation that delegitimises sporting ethics.”

Sports minister Guillermo Herrera echoed those sentiments, dubbing the episode a “national embarrassment” that left him “indignant”, while DiMayor president Fernando Jaramillo has already opened an investigation into claims that Llaneros threw the game.

Fortaleza, who were in line to go up before that curious late collapse and whose coach broke down in tears at his post-match press conference after learning of the events, have made a formal bid for the result to be overturned.

Llaneros trainer Carlos Francisco Serrano, meanwhile, maintained there was nothing suspicious about his side's 2-1 defeat, stating that “we competed as well as we could, we had chances and did not finish them.

“In that minute when [Magdalena] equalised, the game changed and we needed five goals, what more could we ask for psychologically? At that time, the psychological and emotional toll is very complex.”

After the humbling experience of having to relinquish the Copa America due to nationwide political protests and fierce police repression of the events, which is estimated to have left up to 75 dead and almost 100 missing, the scandal occasioned by Magdalena's 'miracle' comeback is yet another blow for Colombian football.

The nation also endured a torrid 2021 on the continental level, with not one of its teams managing to qualify the Copa Libertadores group stage and only America de Cali making the last 16 in the second-tier Sudamericana, where they went down 5-1 on aggregate to eventual winners Athletic Paranaense.

And while Colombia's national team may have fought through to the Copa America semis, they are currently clinging on to the last automatic World Cup qualifying spot by the skin of their teeth, in real danger of missing out on the finals for the first time since 2010.

To put it lightly, then, this uproar is about as welcome as a chronic case of toothache for those in charge of the national game – and one not exactly aided by the background of Magdalena's owner.

“I don't understand the question, we won,” club president Eduardo Davila replied when asked by Diario La Patria if the game had been rigged. “They [Llaneros] thought there was an offside and there was nothing. And our player took advantage.

“You guys make a living out of creating ghosts and suspicions all the time, that's what gives you the audience, the scandals. You should inform public opinion with all the facts of the two games... and tell your president Duque not to pass judgement without fully investigating the case.”

Davila, to clarify, was speaking to the press from Barranquilla's El Bosque prison, where he is currently serving a 34-year sentence for ordering the 2007 murder of his wife.

The 71-year-old has held a controlling interest in Union Magdalena since the 1980s, his ownership surviving that most recent legal scandal and several others beforehand.

In 1993, he was sentenced to serve 10 years in prison on drug trafficking charges, while four years local authorities again held the businessman, this time in the middle of a football match, and seized several of his Santa Marta beachfront properties after finding 1,900 kilos of marijuana during one of the homes in question.

A judge later ordered that 25 per cent of Davila's Magdalena shares be confiscated but it was not until 2009 that he finally handed himself in to authorities to answer the multiple charges against his name.

As well as the trafficking and murder conviction, he was also investigated by a Colombian anti-terrorist force for suspected links with fearsome ex-paramilitary leader Hernan 'El Patron' Giraldo.

This year, further criminal proceedings began against Davila over his alleged involvement in the murder of Judge Javier Cotes Laurens, who handed down that first trafficking sentence, although the court is yet to reach a verdict.

The scandal of Magdalena's promotion and the identity of one of its protagonists shows that Colombian football is still battling to overcome its own chequered history, in which giants like America de Cali and Atletico Nacional were exposed and, in the former's case, sanctioned over their links with criminal syndicates and cartels.

The outlook is much more positive now than at the lowest ebb in the 1980s and 90s, but episodes such as this, especially in the lower divisions where public scrutiny is usually less intense, continue to occur, and if wrongdoing can be proved only an exemplary punishment for all involved will serve to ensure that this shadow can finally be lifted from one of the world's most passionate and talented footballing nations.