December 17, 2011 was the nadir for Colombia's one-time super club America de Cali. Effectively bankrupt, crippled by economic sanctions, the club hit rock-bottom too on the pitch with their first-ever relegation from the top flight.
Many doubted whether the historic giants would ever be able to regain their place at the top table. But on December 7, 2019 America triumphed over Junior to take the Torneo Finalizacion, completing a comeback that was just as dramatic as their spectacular fall from grace.
America's woes began long before their drop to the second division. The side was a powerhouse in the 1980s and 90s, winning eight Primera A titles and finishing runners-up in the Copa Libertadores no less than four times. Freddy Rincon, Oscar Cordoba, Leonel Alvarez, Paraguay idol Roberto Cabanas and Argentine duo Julio Cesar Falcioni and Ricardo Gareca were just some of the illustrious names to line up at the Estadio Pascual Guerrero during their glory years.
Even while the trophies were still pouring in, however, America's dominance – and, more pertinently, the shadowy interests that funded it – was coming to an end. In 1996 the United States Treasury Department included the club on its infamous Clinton List, a blacklist of companies and individuals suspected of links with the drug trafficking cartels that for years ravaged Colombia, making the country one of the most dangerous on earth.
The side's majority shareholder was Miguel Rodriguez Orejuela, better known as the leader of the murderous Cali cartel that came to control an estimated 90 per cent of the world's trade in cocaine following the death of former associate and arch-enemy Pablo Escobar. Rodriguez Orejuela and brother Gilberto were arrested in Colombia in separate raids in 1995, but not until almost a decade later were they finally extradited to the US, during which time they largely continued to run the cartel from their cells.
Millions of illicit dollars were laundered through America from the late 70s onwards, helping to make the club one of the strongest in South America. And if the team's talent on the pitch did not suffice, that money could also be used elsewhere.
“They put together an almost invincible side that waltzed through all the stadiums of Colombia not just with their great players, but with the money that was a product of trafficking,” Fernando Rodriguez, son of Gilberto, told El Universal . “This also influenced certain results when they started to pay referees money to favour their team.” The go-between for the purchase of referees was one Hernan Velasco, an official himself and close friend of the family, who later attracted their ire and was kidnapped outside a Cali nightclub, never to be seen again.
With the Cali cartel's funds gone and all club accounts frozen, and with the Treasury Department also imposing a blanket ban on the entry of any sponsors or outside investment, America entered a slow, inexorable decline, although Primera titles in the 2000s helped preserve the impression on the surface that everything remained rosy. By the end of the decade, though, the club's woes could no longer be hidden.
America finished bottom of the Primera A in 2009 and were saved only by the average points system that governed relegation. Two years later, though, that same system condemned them to a play-off in order to keep their place in the top flight despite finishing 13th overall; after two 1-1 draws against Patriotas, they were defeated on penalties and sent down to the Primera B. Almost simultaneously the club itself was winding down and was relaunched at the start of 2012 under new owners, but fortunes on the field failed to look up as against all expectations promotion back to the first division remained elusive.
Not until 2017, after five long, painful years in Colombia's under-developed, mostly amateur second tier, did America rejoin the elite. Perhaps most importantly, in 2013 the club finally managed to take its name off the Clinton List, following 17 years of financial purgatory, allowing private investors and sponsors to inject funds into an institution that had been left with astronomical levels of debt thanks to years of corruption and mismanagement.
The road to redemption has been long and arduous for America, not only shedding the stigma of its links with one of the world's most powerful criminal organisations but at the same time re-establishing itself as one of Colombia's top teams. That journey was capped in December with the Finalizacion final triumph, with Apertura winners Junior pushed out over two legs that culminated in a 2-0 victory in front of a packed Pascual Guerrero.
It was the 14th title for the Rojo and perhaps the one that mattered the most, proving there was life after near-oblivion.
Seating just under 35,000 fans at capacity and America's home since the beginning of the professional era in Colombian football, the Pascual is one of the continent most handsome sporting venues. On Tuesday it welcomes Gremio, America's first Copa Libertadores rivals for over a decade after that title sealed qualification for the prestigious international tournament.
Even in the Primera B, however, the Rojo fans never stopped pouring through the gates. A division accustomed to tiny gates of 4,500 people was suddenly faced with the prospect of almost 30,000 America supporters flocking to see their side against the likes of Bogota FC, Atletico Bucaramanga and Expreso Rojo, a far cry from those fervent derby days locking horns with arch-rivals Atletico Nacional and Deportivo Cali. They never lost faith through those endless seasons in the B and on Tuesday they will be rewarded once more as America once and for all mark their return to the continental elite.
There is no longer a Rincon or Cabanas to watch, with the team relying on journeymen pros such as striker Michael Rangel, ageing stars like ex-Colombia international Adrian Ramos and young home-grown promises, led by defender Daniel Quinones – but having been through hell and back, there is finally optimism and hope for the future for a club which touched the top only to come crashing back to earth.