Colo Colo’s brush with death (literally)


Last week, Chile’s biggest club, Colo Colo, escaped relegation and had a brush with death along the way.

The ghost of the B is hauntingly familiar to fans of many South American football clubs. It is used by rival fans to taunt them about relegation, previous or imminent. Just ask any River Plate fan, or RiBer Plate as their rivals Boca Juniors have affectionately named them following their season spent in Argentina’s second tier in 2011-12.

Last week, fans of Colo Colo, Chile’s biggest club and the only never to have been relegated, avoided the ghost’s kiss of death by the barest of margins; via a relegation Play-Off against lowly CD Universidad.

The chances are, if you’ve heard of any Chilean football club, that club is Colo Colo. By far the biggest club with an estimated 42% of Chileans identifying as fans, Colo Colo have won the domestic title 32 times, 12 more than the next on the list and their fierce rival Universidad de Chile.

The Santiago-based outfit are also the only Chilean team to have won the Copa Libertadores, the South American equivalent of the Champions League, back in 1991. Whilst it is unlikely you will have heard of many of their current squad, they have rich footballing heritage; former players include Alexis Sanchez, Claudio Bravo, and Arturo Vidal to name a just a few.

In the 2019 season, played out with full stadia the whole way through, Colo-Colo finished a comfortable second and qualified for the Copa Libertadores group stage. Although they did not mount a convincing title challenge, there was little indication of how south things would turn in 2020, a year of the unexpected.

Domestically and internationally, Los Albos’ season was one of lowlights. They finished rock bottom of their group in the Copa Libertadores, one not exactly filled with household names as Jorge Wilstermann of Bolivia and Athletico Paranaenese of Brazil qualified for the knockouts.

Off the pitch, however, Colo Colo’s real Copa Libertadores nightmares manifested themselves as their league game with Deportes Angofasta had to be postponed following one of the squad catching Covid-19 on their ill-fated away trip to Athletico Paranaenese which they lost 2-0, courtesy of two own goals.

It later emerged that the Chilean club also failed to submit their PCR tests on time for the game and they were subsequently fined for the match’s postponement. This was an episode characterized by failure (to follow the correct covid-protocols), poor organization, and bad football; Colo Colo’s season in microcosm.

Domestically, their demise was most apparent. Three managers held the reins but were not able to steady the ship sufficiently.  Despite a win against eventual runners-up, Union La Calera, they only managed nine wins in 34 and finished in 16th – the relegation Play-Off spot, narrowly avoiding relegation by just one point.

In fact, Colo-Colo nearly avoided the Play-Offs and headed into stoppage time in their final match drawing 0-0 with 17th-placed, already relegated Deportes Iquique.

This would have given them the point they desperately needed to move up to 15th. In a season of misfortune, however, fate was once again unkind to the club as Iquique scored a 96th-minute penalty to win 1-0 and put Colo Colo on the brink of their first relegation in their history.

This Play-Off, before its description, requires some context. For Colo Colo, and many other un-relegated South American sides, relegation is a stick they bash their rivals with, an unremovable blemish on their history, as sung by Boca Juniors, ‘esa mancha no se borra mas’ (that stain will fade no more).

Unlike in European football where big sides go down occasionally and their relegation is only the source of mirth for a few seasons to come, the giants of South America are NEVER relegated, and when they are, as were River Plate in 2011 and Alianza Lima in 2020, fans of opposition clubs use it as a source of endless taunting and banter. They do not let them forget it.

Famously, a drone carrying a sheet cut into a ghost figure with ‘B’ written on it was flown over La Bombonera in the Superclassico in 2015, and the ‘drone de la B’ has gone down in Superclassico folklore.

Neither have Palmeiras’ rivals let them forget their brief spell in Brazil’s second tier despite their ten domestic titles. Colo-Colo did the same to fierce rivals Universidad de Chile and still bring up their relegation in 1988, dressing up as the Ghost of the B when the teams meet.

When El Eterno Campeón began to look like potential relegation candidates this season then, it was no surprise that practically all of the non-Colo Colo supporting 58% of the country wanted them to go down, and pictures of fans brandishing the ghost of the B began circulating on social media.

After all, just four years ago, Colo-Colo fans unveiled a banner at a game claiming ‘Chile is too small for us’ – how the mighty have fallen.

Given this context, however worrying a comment on Chilean society, it was rather unsurprising that instead of words of support for their beloved club and players, Colo Colo’s Barra Bravas (the South American equivalent of Ultras) revealed a banner outside their stadium before the Play-Off that simply read:

‘Win or we kill you.’

Underlining just how much avoiding relegation means to some fans, the sinister banner was more likely to generate fear amongst the players than act as any morale booster.

It must be noted, however, that the banner was an isolated incident and testimony to the love felt for the club across Chile, there was an outpouring of desperate support from fans who could obviously not attend to cheer their team on.

For nearly the whole of their 250km journey to Talca for the Play-Off, fans lined the highway to cheer on the team bus as it passed, with flags and songs. Back in Santiago, 5000 fans crowded in a desperate fiesta outside the training ground to see off their team.

The game too was a desperate affair, characterized by one moment of brilliance. Pablo Solari, the Colo-Colo midfielder aged only 19 and on loan from Argentine side Talleres, scored his first goal for the club after going on a mazy run through the UD Universidad defence. It was one that could have been from Colo Colo’s golden age.

Defending for their lives (quite literally as it may have been) for the rest of the match, they lived up to their nickname once again and survived by the barest of margins with a 1-0 win.

Tears and hugs heralded the final whistle, more of relief than jubilation. Understandably glad, manager Gustavo Quinteros told the press:  “I’ve taken a big weight off my shoulders”.

In a season of lows and uncertainty, he guided them to a win in what was described as their ‘most important final of all’ by the club’s social media pages.

Colo-Colo have escaped the ghost of the B for now. Next season will be crucial in their future. It will define whether they can reach their previous heady heights at the pinnacle of Chilean football, or remain a relegation contender. Either way, for all its many lows and few highs, this has been a memorable one for Colo-Colo fans.

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