Atletico Nacional are Colombia’s most successful club with 15 Primera Division titles to their name, but their illustrious history has a dark side.
In the 1980s, the Medellin giants received heavy financial investment from Pablo Escobar, the notorious drug trafficker who perpetrated heinous crimes and built one of the world’s biggest criminal empires.
Escobar was a keen football fan and, despite ulterior motives, the money he poured into the club helped build a golden age in Colombian football, with America de Cali and Millonarios among the other outfits to benefit from the funds of cartel bosses in what came to be known as the ‘narco-football’ era.
Such backing helped Atletico become the first side from the country to win the Copa Libertadores title in 1989. Their triumph, though, will always be marred by allegations of influencing referees through the use of intimidation – Argentine official Juan Bava claimed to have been threatened at gun-point and pressured into favouring Atletico ahead of the semi-final clash against Danubio.
Atletico did not need the referee’s help. After a goalless draw in the first leg they thrashed the Uruguayan side 6-0 to book a place in the final, where they beat Olimpia on penalties to get their hands on the trophy.
There was no such controversy 27 years later as the they surged to a deserved second Libertadores title. Atletico finished the group stage as the top seeds and progressed beyond Huracan, Rosario Central and Sao Paulo before defeating surprise package Independiente del Valle in the two-legged final.
That victory brought the club’s murky history with Escobar – whose dubious legacy was revisited in a recent Netflix dramatisation of his life – back to the fore, but they have since established a new, altogether more wholesome narrative.
Atletico had the chance to emulate the achievement of River Plate last year and hold both the Libertadores and Copa Sudamericana titles simultaneously, but tragedy struck their impending opponents Chapecoense ahead of the final for the latter.
The plane carrying the burgeoning Brazilian team to Colombia crashed, resulting in the deaths of 71 people including players, backroom staff, club directors and journalists.
In a show of the utmost class, Atletico suggested that CONMEBOL crown Chapecoense as champions in honour of the deceased, a request South American football’s governing body agreed to.
— Fatma Samoura (@fatma_samoura) December 6, 2016
Atletico held a vigil for those who lost their lives on the night the first leg of the Sudamericana final was due to be played. The stands of the Estadio Atanasio Girardot were packed in a moving tribute, the name of Chapecoense chanted at full volume.
— CONMEBOL.com (@CONMEBOL) November 30, 2016
— CONMEBOL.com (@CONMEBOL) December 1, 2016
They had hoped to honour the deceased further by impressing at the Club World Cup in Japan this week, but a 3-0 defeat to Kashima Antlers scuppered their hopes of a clash with Real Madrid in the final.
The Atletico fans unfurled banners in tribute to the victims of the plane crash before kick-off and their response to the tragedy earned a heartfelt message from Chapecoense.
“Thank you, @nacionaloficial. Regardless of the result, the magnitude of your actions has conquered the world,” read a tweet from the club’s account.
While they may have failed to reach the final, Atletico have ensured they will no longer be primarily thought of as Escobar’s money laundering service. They will now be considered a beacon of compassion and unity throughout the world for their sensitivity and empathy in the face of one of modern football’s most harrowing disasters.
— Atlético Nacional (@nacionaloficial) December 3, 2016
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