The story of O’Higgins: From tragedy to triumph

CAMPEONIt is February 8 2014, fans of O’Higgins have gathered on la calle Millán in Rancagua. However, this isn’t a buoyant gathering to honour the first top-flight title in the club’s history. Nor is it to celebrate the club’s upcoming return to the Copa Libertadortes for the first time in 20 years.

The fans have assembled to pay tribute to 16 of their fellow Rancagüinos who tragically died when making their way back from witnessing O’Higgins defeat Clausura 2012 champions Huachipato 2-0.

In the early hours of Saturday morning, February 9 2013, just after 1am, news emerged that a bus carrying fans home from the Estadio CAP in the city of Talcahuano in the south of the central zone of Chile had been involved in an accident. Barely 40km into their journey north, the bus was passing through Tomé on the Cuesta Caracoles in the dark, on a road that was narrow, steep and treacherous. The combination of factors saw the bus veer from the road and plummet down a ravine. Of the 37 people on board, 16 passed away, including the bus driver, with the remaining passengers suffering injuries.

As fans paid their tribute a year on, with supporters group La Trinchera Celeste organising the 16 Estrellas, Siempre Estarán’ memorial, which saw bands play until 1.20am on Sunday – the time of the tragedy – it marked 12 emotional months that will be hard to forget. For good and for bad, from the lowest of lows to incredible highs for the players, the fans and anyone else associated with the club.

O'Hig8The mere mention of O’Higgins piques the interest of many a football fan. One of many South American teams who have a unique and interesting name, O’Higgins’ take theirs from Bernardo O’Higgins – the Chilean independence leader who liberated the country from Spanish rule in the early 1820s. Compared to their European contemporaries, O’Higgins are a relatively young club having formed in 1955 following the merger of two rival clubs in Rancagua: O’Higgins Braden and América de Rancagua.

The intervening 59 years have, on a whole, been reticent. Up until a few months ago the club had only had a couple of Segunda División titles to show for their efforts, plus two runner-up places in the Copa Chile and a runners-up place in the league in 2012.

The last two and a half years have been the most successful in the club’s near 60-year history and much of it is owed to the man appointed at the end of 2011.

The man who oversaw this appointment and the pivotal turning point in the club’s history was president Ricardo Abumohor. He had headed the group which took over the club in 2005 and his father was involved with the country’s football association when they requested that the two Rancagua clubs merge in 1955 to form O’Higgins. Abumohor was also the man who gave Jorge Sampaoli his break in Chilean football, but he had the revolving door spinning at such a speed it was as if Road Runner had been let loose and couldn’t stop himself; six managers came and went between 2010 and 2001. But there was one man who had caught his eye. A former Argentine internationalist he was a long-time admirer of: Eduardo Berizzo.

The former River Plate, Marseillie and Celta Vigo centre back started his career with Newell’s Old Boys under the intense gaze of Marcelo Bielsa – the man who would go on to give Chilean football an identity that it had been crying out for.  Berizzo’s formative years as a player were spent under Bielsa, and his career came full circle when his first steps into coaching saw him work as assistant to El Loco when he was in charge of La Roja. It was here where he caught the eye of Abumohor, but the president, at first, had to wait before he could attract Berizzo to Rancagua. The man who picked up 13 caps for Argentina opted for Argentine side Estudiantes. The spell would be short-lived, however, as he lasted less than a year before crossing the Andes to the city 54 miles south of Santiago.

After reaching the play-offs of the 2011 Apertura following a fifth place finish, the Celeste spiralled down the table in the Clausura finishing 16th in the 18 team league. The turn around was immediate, however, as the Berizzo-effect became transparent. With the Bielsa craze having swept the country following its journey to its first World Cup since 1998, clubs were looking to snap up coaches who had worked under Bielsa or were certified Bielsa disciples. Late last year, Marco Antonio Figueroa, at the time manager of Universidad de Chile, the club who are modelled closest on the national team, quipped that a coach who has even shared a coffee with the eccentric manager was getting a job in Chile.

However, anyone expecting manic football in formations of 3-4-3s or 3-1-3-3s at Estadio El Teniente was to be disappointed. Until, of course, they had actually witnessed the intelligent football professed by Berizzo. He himself recently admitted he was no Bielsa disciple. He felt it was Sampaoli who was the closest thing to El Loco and he only had 1 per cent of the intelligence of Bielsa.

Berizzo has forged his own way and his own style, while taking aspects of Bielsa’s workings, such as the studious preparation or the interest in all aspects of the club. His approach is almost altruistic, wanting to have a firm understanding of everything that is happening at the club.

O'Hig6At the start of 2012 Chilean football was riding the high of Universidad de Chile’s Copa Sudamericana run and the esteem in which they were held for the way they were playing under Sampaoli – the Copa Sudamericana was only the second continental trophy a Chilean team has won after Colo Colo’s Copa Libertadores win 23 years ago.

In 34 regular season games in 2011 O’Higgins conceded 52 goals. There was a clear issue defensively, but rather than sugar coat it by focusing on scoring one more than the opposition Berizzo, on arrival, instilled a 4-2-1-3 formation that served up a concoction of defensive solidity and attacking threats from different areas of the pitch.

The balance and responsibility of players to contribute to both phases of the game was epitomised by the full-backs and wide forwards. The former were charged with supporting from deep and offering width, while the latter had to work, work and work some more off the ball. In the centre of the pitch a solid base provided by two energetic midfielders gave Ramón Fernández the platform to produce his moments of excellence from the number 10 position; twisting and turning, driving and probing, providing the ammunition for Enzo Gutíerrez to score 11 in the first half of 2012.

With only 15 goals conceded – the third best defence – they qualified for the Apertura play-offs in second place behind the Universidad de Chile juggernaut, and ahead of Universidad Católica and Colo Colo. A quite remarkable turn around under Berizzo, but even the most fanatical O’Higgins aficionado could not have primed themselves for the drama which was set to unfold.

After coming through two-legged ties against Unión La Calera and Unión Española, O’Higgins travelled to the Estadio Nacional to face La U with a final first-leg lead of 2-1. Their destiny awaited them against the all-conquering Los Azules.

The lead became 3-1 by half-time of the second-leg. Seventeen regular season games, five and a half play-off games and 57 years of wait came down to the final 45 minutes. Those 45 minutes passed as the game entered stoppage time with the aggregate score 3-2 and both teams down to 10 men. Then Guillermo Marino, draped in Universidad de Chile azul, evoked Steven Gerrard versus Olympiakos/West Ham United and thundered a shot in from the edge of the box. The clock read 92+2. Penalties followed, as did exuberant celebrations from those in dark blue. Fifty seven years of waiting had been taken away within minutes.

The fallout would continue in the second half of 2012. Their success seemed to be their burden as they entered the Copa Sudamericana, falling at the first hurdle, and they had lost Gutiérrez to La U. While they finished only three points off the last play-off place – three points separated seven teams – the defensive foibles had returned, and with some might, as they conceded 27 goals in 17 games.

But 2013 was going to be different. Berizzo was going to make sure of that, even if he had lost the creative fulcrum Fernández, who linked up with Gutiérrez in the Capital, and saw his charges falter in the first game of the season against Universidad Católica. With no play-offs a title challenge was in their mind. They responded with a pair of 2-0 wins, against Santiago Wanderers and Huachipato.

The fateful day followed. The city, the players and the country mourned for those who had not arrived back from watching their team defeat the champions. While some fans were unable to face going back to watch the team so soon after their loved one’s death, the players showed their equanimity and did what only they could to help bring a modicum of joy back to the city, they continued to play football and win. The following weekend they scored two goals in the last 10 minutes to defeat Palestino 3-2 in front of a passionate home crowd. It was the first of a run of 12 games where they suffered defeat only once, beating champions-elect Unión Española and Colo Colo, while drawing with La U.

Despite a fourth-placed finish, the defensive stubbornness had returned, while in the absence of Fernández and Gutiérrez, rather than others stepping into fill the vacuum the team as a whole grew. Juan Rodrigo Rojas moved forward to the number 10 role which allowed for the emergence of prodigious talent César Fuentes to join the experienced Braulio Leal in midfield.

As emotional wounds from the 2012 play-off defeat and the tragic accident slowly healed, the second half of 2013 was looking bright, even if La U swooped to add Paraguayan Rojas, O’Higgins’ best player in the first half of 2013, to their squad as well as number one goalkeeper Luis Marín as back-up to Jhonny Herrera. However, sticking to the 4-2-1-3 system two signings would emerge as improvements to the duo that travelled north. Coming the other way was Iker Casillas look-a-like and Chilean internationalist Paulo Garcés to fill the void between the sticks and rangy Argentine playmaker Pablo Hernández arrived from Argentinos Juniors.

O'Hig7Yet, due to renovations to El Teniente (above) for next year’s Copa America, which will bring the stadium up to international standards with a capacity of 14,000, the team were unable to entertain in Rancagua. Instead they had embarked on a nomadic lifestyle. Santiago would be their ‘home’ for the 2013/2014 Apertura – Colo Colo’s Estadio Monumental, Unión Española’s Estadio Santa Laura and the ramshackle Estadio La Piñtana in the south of the city.

In the first dozen games of the  Apertura the team struggled to pull away from the pack, which included a very confident looking Universidad Católica. They were in the upper echelons of the league but with it being a 17-game season one slip could be ruinous. Up until the end of October there were seven wins, three draws and two defeats. Six of those wins were by the single goal. It was these victories, on days where they may have not been as exhilarating as in the two previous campaigns, which suggested they did have what it took to be champions. A madurez, maturity, Berizzo would call it.

There was also a bit of luck. In September the club were handed a 3-0 win over Santiago Wanderers following the Valparaíso side having fielded six foreign players in the teams’ 2-2 in August.

Meanwhile, in October, eight months after the crash, nearky 300 family, friends and fans attended the crash site to pay their respects to those no longer here as they made their way to the game against Universidad de Concepción. A stark reminder of the tragedy that had befallen the city and the team.

After the win in Concepción and defeat  at ‘home’ to Colo Colo, five games remained with the club searching for the best way they could pay tribute to the 16: a first ever top-flight title and a return to the Copa Libertadores. It was in these 450 minutes of football that a player could immortalise himself in the club’s record books and in the minds of the fans.

Throughout the league season Garcés and Aregeninte centre back Julio Barroso were formidable in keeping out the opposition. Alejandro López and Yerson Opazo were the dependable full-backs both in defence and attack. Leal was combative, while partner Fuentes strengthened his position as Chile’s most promising midfield talent with a slick passing ability, savvy reading of the game and a tenacity to complete the triumvirate of essential qualities for his role.

While a defence and structure wins you leagues, attackers and more pertinently goals win you games. That is what O’Higgins needed. That is what they got with veteran journeyman striker Pablo Calandria – 14 clubs in four countries – and el diez Pablo Hernández (right), who performed so well he won a cap for Chile, thanks to his Chilean grandmother, in a friendly defeat of Haiti earlier this year.O'Hig1

Cobresal, Cobreloa, Unión La Calera, Unión Española and Rangers. WWWWW. Twelve goals scored. Four goals conceded. Calandria netted five of his nine league goals for the Apertura in the run. Hernández three of his seven.

But it was so nearly different.

Universidad Católica, who had lost out on goal difference to Unión Española in the Torneo Transición, had held the top spot for much of the Apertura. But a defeat to Antofagasta with three games remaining opened the door for O’Higgins.

Both came into the final game of the season level on points knowing a play-off would played if they finished level on points, rather than the league being decided on goal difference. At half-time O’Higgins were top of the league as they led Rangers 2-1, while Católica were drawing 0-0 away to La Calera. But that was only an Amuse-bouche for what was about to transpire – one of the most exciting conclusions (well, kind of) to a league season you are likely to witness.

Rangers equalised to bring proceedings back to square one before a goal in both games changed the direction the title was heading. And to make it more manic both goals were scored in the 67th minute. UC were ahead at La Calera and now O’Higgins were behind at the Estadio Fiscal de Talca.

Eleven minutes later O’Higgins grabbed an equaliser but knew they had 12 minutes plus stoppage time to rescue their title hopes. They were helped by a red card. But they needed to summon every sinew of courage and energy in what had already been an emotionally and physically-draining year.

The clock ticked towards 90, los Cruzados were eager to party having not won a league title since 2010. But O’Higgins wait had of course been much longer. Then the whistle sounded. Patricio Polic had pointed to the spot. A red card brandished to Rangers goalkeeper Nicolás Perić and Calandria (below) picked up the ball and put it on the spot.

O'hig2Having struggled at Católica in 2011 this was his time to set up a winner-takes-all match in three days’ time. Mistake from 12 yards? There was none. O’Higgins and Universidad Católica would meet at the Estadio Nacional.

Eight times already in the Apertura hinchas de O’Higgins had made the journey to Santiago. Sometimes there were never more than 1,000. But this time, on December 10, nearly 18,000 travelled north.

There would be no manic finale to the league season. This would be two teams partaking in a nervy and tense final. As one of the three grandes of Chilean football, Católica were expected to put an end to their run without a league title, while those representing O’Higgins had the weight of 58 years on their shoulders. It was set up to be a one-goal-game. And so it would prove.

With 34 minutes on the clock Yerson Opazo stood over a free-kick midway in the Católica half on the left-hand side. His inswinging delivery curled towards the front post, Hernández had freed himself from his marker and cushioned a left-foot volley into Cristopher Toselli’s front post. The raucuous celebrations said it all. Now all they had to do was hold on. Until 90 minutes. Then through stoppage time . . .

O'Hig5In the changing rooms after the match there were tears shed. But for once it was tears of joy. Eduardo Berizzo had summoned the energy to ask for quiet. The players quietened. Abumohor settled from jumping and screaming to listen. The pain of the play-off final defeat was brought up once more.

He told the players as tears slipped from his eyes: “Real men are born in adverse situations. Last year you lost an incredible final against La U and today we are champions. This is for you.”

But it was for more than just the players.

Ricardo Abuhomor, one of seven generations of Abuhomors inolved in football, had to deal with the passing of his father in September. The man who persuaded Ricardo to invest in O’Higgins.

“It was one of the most difficult moments of my life. My father left school at 16 to help his family. It was my father who encouraged us to invest in O’Higgins and the truth is that it was very wise, because this is not a business, but the satisfactions it gives you.”

And then there were the fans. The fans who had followed the club for so long. The fans who had suffered in the last year. The 16 fans who had passed in that tragic accident in February 2013 brought inspiration as well as pain.

Hernández dedicated his goal those 16 fans, while Leal took to Twitter to express his feelings: “We had 16 angels who sent us a star.”

About 20,000 fans greeted the players at the appropriately named plaza Los Héroes de Rancagua – the players appearing from the balcony of City Hall.

The success does not look like ending any time soon as they continue the spirit they have built up with progress both on and off the park. Late last year the club opened its new training ground, el Monasterio Celeste, in the town of Requínoa – 19km outside Rancagua. At a cost of six million US Dollars the modern facility is spread over 14 acres and will host nations competing in the Copa America and Under-17 World Cup, both of which are being held in Chile in 2015. There are grass pitches and synthetic pitches for the first team squad and the youth teams as well as a state-of-the-art gym and tennis courts.

Despite admiring glances and offers from elsewhere Berizzo gave his word to the club to stay until at least June 2014, working under technical director, and former Newcastle United player, Clarence Acuña. In doing so he was the first manager since to lead the club into the Copa Libertadores since 1984. But they are not there to merely make up the numbers. After two rounds of South America’s premier competition they sit top of the group having defeated Deportivo Cali and drawn with current Copa Sudamericana champions Lanús.

On the domestic front, even with the loss of Julio Barroso to runaway leaders Colo Colo, the club remain competitive, sitting third in the Clausura, and have the renovated stadium to look forward to moving into in the coming months having last played in Rancagua in February 2013 – that 3-2 win over Palestino following the tragedy.

From tragedy to triumph, the players and management of O’Higgins provided the best memory for the 16 Estrellas, bringing joy to city and club.

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2 responses to “The story of O’Higgins: From tragedy to triumph

  1. Pingback: Católica given a helping hand to close the gap at the top | The Lone Star·

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