Final whistle at Atanasio Girardot stadium two days ago. The scoreboard shows NACIONAL – 4 CHAPECOENSE – 1. The meaning of this score is title no. 27 for the Colombian club from Medellin. Millonarios is the second most successful team with 17 titles. It was the Recopa Sudamericana game, which is the Super Cup of South America when the Copa Libertadores winner play vs. the Copa Sudamericana winner. Chapecoense won 1-2 at home, but in Medellin the dominate team was Nacional who erased the score from the first match and became the first Colombian club to lift the Recopa.
Atletico Nacional is a traditional club in Colombia. It’s one of the only three clubs who played in the first division since the it was founded in 1948 (Along with Millonarios & Santa Fe) and as for today it’s the most popular club inside and outside Colombia with the highest number of fans. But despite these facts, until the late 80’s Nacional was a good team but not the best in Colombia. The teams from Bogota dominated the league (Millonarios & Santa Fe) while Nacional only had 4 Championship titles until 1989. It was also the year when Nacional established itself as the most successful club in Colombia.
It’s not a secret that back in those days, the drug cartels in Colombia were very involved with the football teams. It was like this with Jose Gonzalo Rodriguez Gacha and Millonarios, Gilberto rodriguez Orejuela with America Cali and, of course, Pablo Escobar with Atletico Nacional. Despite the fact that Escobar helped a lot to the team with his money, he was also threat and ‘bought’ referees to let his club win titles according to the rumors. Nothing extraordinary, just something that all drug barons acted for their teams. Nacional and Millonarios biggest rivalry started in the 1989 Copa Libertadores quarter final, when Nacional won but Millonarios claimed that Escobar bribed the referee in order that Nacional will qualify. Eventually, Nacional reached the final, won Olimpia Asuncion and was crowned as the first Colombian club to win Copa Libertadores.
Nacional was also the base for the national team who qualified for the World Cup in 1990 and became the main force in Colombia when they won the titles in 1991 & 1994, won Copa Interamericana 1990 and reached to the final of the Libertadores once again in 1995 but lost to Gremio. Escobar was killed in 1993 and the connection between the team and the cartel was cut. The wealthy business-man, Carlos Ardila-Lulle, bought the club in 1996 in order to make it as the best Colombian club ever. until the end of the decade, Nacional added two Copa Merconorte titles in 1998 & 2000 and one league championship in 1999. The team started to threat the hegemony of Millonarios & America de Cali.
The first decade of the Millennium was good with a three more league titles, including back to back in 2007 tournament which Nacional was the first to achieve in the new league system. But the major change happened in 2010, when Juan Carlos De La Cuesta was appointed as the new president.
De La Cuesta started a process which at the end the goal was to add another Copa Libertadores and to bring Nacional back to the top clubs in the continent. Nacional won another title in 2011 under coach Santiago Escobar (Andres’s brother) but he failed in the Copa Libertadores of 2012. He was fired and Juan Carlos Osorio took his place. What seems as a huge mistake at first, became a history of Nacional. At first the team looked horrible under Osorio. The fans demanded his resignation, including several players who didn’t perform well. But De La Cuesta didn’t listen and he was knew why.
everything changed when a 89-minute-goal by Juan David Valencia, gave Nacional the possibility to reach the final and win another title on Santa Fe’s expense. the relationship between Osorio and the fans changed and Nacional looked like a dangerous team. They managed to win another two titles and completed three league titles in a raw, the only team to do it in the new system. Another two Copa Colombia and one SuperLiga , all of a sudden Osorio became the most successful coach of Nacional. every break the teams would have changed few players but keep the main squad. They kept stability, which is probably one of the most important thing in sport clubs.
Nacional dominated the Colombian league completely but the International trophies were missing. In 2014, the club finally did it and qualified to the Copa Sudamericana final vs. River Plate. 1-1 in Medellin wasn’t enough and river won the match in Argentina to lift the cup. It was also the end of an era to Juan Carlos Osorio, who decided to move to Sao Paulo, but he surely will be remembered forever as one of the best coaches of the club. It was Rienaldo Rueda who was appointed instead of Osorio. Can he be good at least like Osorio?
The answer is yes. Until Rueda Nacional registered even better numbers. They didn’t win the Apertura 2015 but they did win the second Colombian tournament and complete 15 Colombian champions – The club who won the most. But the best year was ahead of them, in 2016. Nacional was brilliant. Rueda used his squad perfectly, divided the group to players who play in the Libertadores and those who play the league. He gave the chance to young talents when one of them, Marlos Moreno, was eventually a key member in the team. Nacional won the Copa Libertadores when they beat good teams like Rosario Central, Sao Paulo and Libertad. The second semester continued like nothing’s change and Nacional reached one more time to the Copa Sudamericana final vs. Chapecoense, in oder to finally win it after three times. But the destiny had other plans, Chapecoense airplane crashed and almost all the team was killed, the final of course cancelled and Nacional, with a huge gesture, decided to ask the CONMEBOL to give the Copa Sudamericana to Chapecoense. Because of the gesture, Nacional won the 2016 Fair Play award by FIFA. In the 2016 IFFHS ranking that was published in April 2017, Nacional was the leader before teams like Real Madrid, Barcelona or Bayern Munich.
With Rueda the team added another Copa Colombia, another SuperLiga and the 3rd place in the Clubs World Cup. And now the Recopa Sudamericana. It seems that Nacional changed the Colombian mentality. The came for every match in order to win, either it’s in Atanasio Girardot or not. It is true that Nacional is the richest club in Colombia and money sure helps. They buy the best players, they have the best and deepest squad in the league, no wonder that their second string is also at the top of the table with 45 points out of 51. But money is not everything and Nacional showed vs. Sao Paulo for example, when they won the Brazilians 1-4 on aggregate in the Copa Libertadores semi final.
So stability, consistency, great fans and tradition are the keys to be a successful club. Nacional has all this plus the best and the most professional management in Colombia. If a team wants the reach far, they must copy the model of Atletico Nacional. In the meantime, Los Verdolagas are running towards their 16th Colombian title.