Copa Libertadores. New formula was introduced this year – the tournament started with its 5 preliminary groups of 4 teams as ever, but the top 3 in each group qualified to the next stage. Next were the 1/8 finals and so on to the final. The 15 teams qualified in the first stage were joined by the 1988 Cup holder in the 1/8 finals. The change was not so great since only 5 teams were eliminated in the first stage, but on the other hand finally there were more games to be played – and watched – and the real thrill of direct eliminations all the way to the final. The final itself was slightly changed as well – the 2 legs remained, but in case of a tie there was third match on neutral ground, but penalty shoot-out. The first stage practically provided no surprises – perhaps Colo-Colo disappointed, but they played in the toughest Group 1 (Paraguay and Chile). Colo-Colo finished last only because of a goal less they scored compared to Olimpia (Asuncion). The new formula, it turned out, benefited teams which were not all that strong at first – neither of the this year finalists ended on top of their groups and in the previous years the first stage would have been the end for them – but not now. The other early eliminated teams were Sport Maritimo (Group 2, Venezuela), Emelec (Group 3, Ecuador), Sporting Cristal (Group 4, Peru), and The Strongest (Group 5, Bolivia). Boca Juniors and Racing Club finished with equal points – 7 each – in Group 4 and Boca was placed 1st on better goal-difference. Millonarios (Columbia) was the best in the first stage: they finished unbeaten with 10 points in Group 3. Bahia (Brazil) also finished unbeaten with 10 points in Group 2, but Millonarios had 12-3 goal-difference. They were the team scoring most goals and also receiving the least in the group stage.
In the 1/8 finals there was a bit of bad luck – Penarol (Uruguay) faced Internacional (Brazil). Instead of tough battle and penalty shoot-out, everything finished in the first leg in Porto Alegre, where Inter destroyed Penarol 6-2. For a good measure Inter won in Montevideo too – 2-1. Meantime Millonarios struggled against Bolivian Bolivar and prevailed only in the penalty shoot-out. Olimpia (Asuncion) made a minor surprise – having difficulties in the first stage and practically lucky to go ahead, now they eliminated Boca Juniors and that in Buenos Aires: Olimpia won 2-0 at home and then somewhat survived Boca’s assault – 3-5 – which brought them to the penalty shoot-out. It was long affair, which ended in Paraguayan favour 7-6. One more duel ended with penalty shoot-out: Sol de America (Paraguay) managed to get the upper hand over UA Tachira (Venezuela): 3-2. At the same time Atletico Nacional cut off the hopes of Racing Club (Argentina, with Ubaldo Fillol, Ruben Paz, Julio Olarticoechea and Ramon Medina Bello, coached by Alfio Basile) and the Montevideo derby ended with the elimination of Nacional by Danubio, a surprise of a kind.
In the ¼ finals Danubio continued to excite – they eliminated Cobreloa (Chile, beating them twice. The other three pairs were domestic clashes: Inter won over Bahia 1-0 and 0-0, Atletico Nacional prevailed over Millonarios 1-0 and 1-1 and Olimpia did not disappointed againt Sol de America – 2-0 and 4-4. The second leg was a fiesta of goals, which is always great for the fans.
In the ½ finals Danubio was finished. At home they managed 0-0 against Atletico Nacional, but in Colombia they were destroyed 0-6. The other semifinal was tougher – first Internacional won in Asuncion 1-0, but contrary to expectations Olimpia prevailed in Porto Alegre 3-2 and penalty shoot-out followed. The whole city was grieving after that – Olimpia won the shoot-out 5-3. And thus the unlikely finalists emerged: Atletico Nacional and Olimpia. Under the old structure of Copa Libertadores neither team would be finalist and for the first time in the history of the Cup the finalists were not group winners in the first stage.
Atletico Nacional reached the final for the first time, but Olimpia already won Copa Libertadores in 1979. Naturally, both finalists were highly motivated to win the trophy.
The first leg in Asuncion gave comfortable advantage to the hosts.
Olimpia scored twice. The lead was highly encouraging.
Olimpia had high hopes, because not only they went to Colombia with good lead, but also because the second leg was not played in Meddelin. The rules required a venue holding at least 50 000 and there was no such stadium in Meddelin, so the second leg had to be played in Bogota. In theory, the crowd there would be if not hostile, at least cool to Atletico Nacional.
But Colombian fans turned out to be mainly patriotic and enthusiastically supported Atletico Nacional, which was determined to win.
The advantage of Olimpia was neutralized.
The hosts equalized the result in the 65th minute and the match ended 2-0 Atletico Nacional. Penalty shoot-out followed and the public was kept on tiptoes for a long time.
The shoot-out started with immediate advantage to the hosts: in the duel of the goalkeepers, the Uruguayan-born Paraguayan national team goalkeeper Ever Hugo Almeida was beaten by flamboyant Rene Higuita in the first penalty. But it took 18 shoots altogether before there was a winner and if at first penalties were scored, eventually there were more and more misses.
And after Sanabria missed the net, Leonel Alvarez stepped in and scored. To the frenzied delight of the crowd Atletico Nacional won. 5-4.
Luis Carlos Perea received Copa Libertadores
It was wonderful moment of triumph.
Everybody deserved to hold the Cup.
Coach Francisco Maturana most of all.
Olimpia (Asuncion) lost its opportunity to win a second Copa Libertadores. Standing from left: Ever Almeida, Roberto Krausemann, Herib Chamas, Jorge Guasch, Gustavo Benítez, Fidel Miño.
Front: Rafael Bobadilla, Carlos Vidal Sanabria, Raúl Amarilla, Gustavo Neffa, Alfredo Mendoza. This is not a picture from the final, but from the battle against Sol de America much earlier, yet, Olimpia had a stable line, so the same players appeared in the final. Their Uruguyan coach Luis Cubilla did wonders rebuilding the team without losing its strength – only Jorge Guasch remained from the heroes winning Copa Libertadores 10 years earlier. Around him were young players now and only one import: the Argentine defender Roberto Krausemann. Ever Almeida was born in Uruguay, but by now he had Paraguayan citizenship and played for the national team. Given the limited resources of Paraguay, Olimpia made a very good team, thanks to Luis Cubilla and the dedication of the young players. Jorge Guasch was very proud of his teammates and pointed out that the offensive stile Cubilla employed was the key for their success – to a large degree, their style pleased South American crowds and Olimpia practically played as a home team everywhere. Did not work in Bogota, unfortunately, but there was always the next year.
This was the heroic line in Bogota, but photos of the Copa Libertadores winners around the world favoured the losing side of the first final leg.
In general, this is the most popular photo of the winners – a picture not from any final leg. Suarez, Galeano, and Villa did not play at the finals. But never mind – there are much more important things about the fresh conquer of Copa Libertadores. For the first time Colombian team won the trophy, a historic victory. It was the 4th attempt of Colombian team to win, but Atleitico Nacional reached the final for the first time and instantly won – thus, they came above America (Cali), which lost 3 consecutive finals. In local terms, the team from Medellin became more successful than famous rivals America (Cali, rightly the strongest Colombian club for a long time) and Millonarios (Bogota). That is, provincials topped the Colombian more important clubs and cities. And in quit unusual manner too: as rule of thumb, strong Colombian teams depended largely on foreign players and coaches – Atletico Nacional had Colombian coach and only Colombian players. Francisco Maturana was rapidly becoming world-wide famous and so were his players. Almost the whole squad were current Colombian national team players, which were coming to maturity – winning Copa Libertadores not only boosted confidence, but also propelled the national team to previously unreachable heights. Maturana is to be praised for building this squad and players like Hiquita, Escobar, Alvarez as well for their loyalty to club and coach, but there was something else, another side.
Did Pablo Escobar attended the final? At least in Bogota, if not in Asuncion? He was more than a fan – it was hardly a secret that he and the Medellin Cartel financed Atletico Nacional. The cocaine lord and his sinister ways were big trouble already – yes, he supported the poor in Medellin, he cared for football, and probably without drug money Atletico Nacional would not became great, but was the loyalty of coach and players real? Or fear kept them together and in Medellin? Under normal circumstances it was more than likely the stars would join bigger and more successful clubs. But it is academic – the fact is Maturana and the boys were playing with green and white to the delight of Medellin, Pablo Escobar included. The new fame also opened other avenues for the protagonists – Maturana became coach of the Colombian national team, some of the players moved to Europe right after conquering South America (perhaps those were the wisest – a few years later Andres Escobar will be killed by displeased mafia). To a point, Pablo Escobar and the Medellin Cartel masterminded Atletico Nacional’s success and such ‘benefactors’ are always whimsical and lethal. That was behind the scene – on the field strong, hungry and quite delightful team really put Colombian football on the world map. At last.
So, here are the heroes once again – they had no way to prove how good really were at home this season, thanks again to Pablo Escobar and his buddies.