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América de Cali Miss Promotion As Ghosts of Narco-Past Still Haunt

For notorious Colombian club América de Cali, this was supposed to be the year. “Operation Return” they called it. They had two goals: removal from the ‘Clinton List’, and promotion to the Colombian top flight. Unfortunately, they only scored one.

Last week, the Red Devils, Colombia’s second most successful team with 13 league titles, were dumped from the promotion playoffs. In the “inferno” of Colombia’s Categoría B they will remain for another season.

América de Cali supporters have certainly suffered in recent years, but many Colombians believe the club's hardships are well deserved.

This past April, after an 18-year damnation on the Clinton List, the U.S. removed the shackles. Alas, this meant less stigmatization, new sponsors, new revenue and, ideally, a rapid return to competition against the Colombian elite. Not so fast.

Despite winning league titles in 1997, 2001, Apertura 2002 and Finalizacion 2008, América de Cali's demise really began around the turn of the century.

The club's 1995 inclusion on the Clinton List, a collection of companies banned from doing business in the U.S. due to drug trafficking ties, meant $1 million in frozen assets, a loss of sponsors, and a debt that would mount to $10 million. Under regulations, they could only rely on ticket and shirt sales to keep them afloat.

In 2011, they sank. A devastating drop to the second division on Dec. 17 that resulted in riots in and outside the historic Estadio Olímpico Pascual Guerrero. It marked how far they’d fallen.

In the 80’s and 90’s, like Colombian society, Colombian football belonged to the drug cartels. Stadiums hosted more than matches, but ego battles between drug lords. Cali Cartel heads Miguel and Gilberto Rodriguez Orejuela, América de Cali’s long-time benefactors, battled with Pablo Escobar’s Medellin cartel and his Atlético Nacional. Gonzalo Rodriguez Gacha (alias ‘The Mexican’) came to play with Millonarios F.C. too. Today, the league title tally goes Millonarios (14), América de Cali (13), Nacional (12).

But the Rodriguez Orejuela brothers outlasted their rivals. Gacha was killed in 1989. Escobar in 1993. The Orejuela’s were captured in 1995. But before then, they’d funded eight league titles, including five in a row from ’82 to ’86, and wages for star players such as Willington Ortiz (COL), Antonio Gareca (ARG), Juan Manuel Battaglia (PAR) and former New York Cosmos-er Roberto Cabañas (PAR).

So fervent was their desire for shiny toys, it’s said that over lunch in 1979, Miguel Orejuela offered 20-year-old Diego Maradona $3 million and $500,000 up front to play for him. Maradona accepted, but his manager declined. He was already off to Barca.

However, the Copa Libertadores always alluded the Red Devils. They lost in the final on three straight occasions from ’85-’87. When they lost the final for a fourth time in 1996, the same year the IFFHS ranked them the second best team in the world, handfuls of devout Colombian football fans smirked alongside the football gods.

In recent years, like many Colombian clubs, América de Cali has restructured, opened up for new public investment and submits all stakeholders to a money laundering prevention program run by the federal government. Despite all this, in 2012, it was reported the Red Devils were still $2 million in debt to the United States.

However, the city of Cali picked up the bill and earlier this month, the club and the city agreed a repayment deal. In total, the club owes Cali $3.4 million, including capital and interests. How can a club focus entirely on signing strong squad and securing promotion when they are still in that kind of debt?

But as Colombia and its football cleans up, América de Cali seems to be its poster boy for full animorph. Almost there, but not quite.

However, it is as though América de Cali’s decline has paralleled that of cocaine cartels in Colombia. A plight that has seen Colombia go from producing 74% of the world’s coca in 2000 to 42% in 2011. Last year, Peru and Bolivia over took Colombia as the top cocaine producers for the first time since 1995. 

Meanwhile, other countries are dirtying. In 2009, Fernando Rodriguez Orejuela, the son of Gilberto, claimed that Mexican clubs, specifically Cruz Azul and Club América, have been infiltrated by drug money. As was the case during the 90’s in Colombia, we can all assume this is true, but wouldn’t dare to find proof. 

But world football can learn a lot from América de Cali. Indulgence digs a hole. Get caught, and good luck climbing out.