Four years, four months and four days had passed when the clock ticked towards the 44th minute of the 15th league game of the Clausura on Sunday. Justo Villar rolled the ball out to Esteban Pavez who travelled forward before playing a pass into the feet of Felipe Flores. Colo Colo’s number 17 turned and slipped the ball out to the left where Juan Delgado cut inside and fired a venomous shot towards the Santiago Wanderers goal. Gabriel Castellón, as he had done so throughout the first half, repelled the shot but only as far as Flores, 10 yards out. One swipe of the left foot and the ball was in the back of the net.
Los Albos held onto their one goal lead in the second half to claim their 30th league title, becoming the 21st team in world football to reach 30 top-level league titles, having gone four and a half ears without a trophy of any note. An abnormally long wait for the most successful team in the country, with a storied history and fans the length and breadth of the Chilean peninsula.
In the aftermath of the win on Sunday afternoon, securing the title with two games to spare, a popular buzzword was sufrir – to suffer. Since their last title, the 2009 Clausura, under the management of Hugo Tocalli, the current technical director of Chile’s youth teams, El Cacique have witnessed their Santiago rivals Universidad Católica, Unión Espanola, Huachipato and O’Higgins all win titles. However, it has been the success of their arch-rvials Universidad de Chile which has acted as a blade between the shoulders blades. A severe pain which they have been unable to reach until now. La U won three league titles in a row as well as the Copa Sudamericana, becoming only the second Chilean team to win a continental title, after Colo Colo who won the 1991 Copa Libertadores.
It is true the club has suffered. But not in the way Universidad Católica have suffered. Colo Colo’s suffering has been largely self-inflicted. Without a clear strategy, like the well-run Unión Española and O’Higgins, a number of poor decisions have been made, both in head coach selection and player recruitment. However, the more you change your appearance, eventually you are going to find the look for you. And that is exactly what has transpired in Macul.
Following the disastrous reign of Paraguayan Gustavo Benítez in this season’s Apertura, an intelligent, youthful and bright coach stepped from amid the chaos and into the Santiago light. Former Colo Colo player Héctor Tapia was promoted from coaching the youth teams and assisting Benítez to oversee the remainder of the Apertura campaign, alongside fellow Colo Colo alumnus Miguel Riffo.
Any realist, who had witnessed the upheaval at the Estadio Monumental, would have expected the pairing to be a stop-gap before the next name was plucked from a hat of opportunistic coaches. Yet, what was to follow was the perfect job interview and probationary period, which may have just initiated the next period of Colo Colo dominance.
On December 9, 2009 when Colo Colo defeated Universidad Católica 4-2 at the Estadio San Carlos, with a team including Charles Aránguiz, José Manuel Rey, Macnelly Torres, Esteban Paredes, Rodrigo Millar and Ezequiel Mirrales, to win 6-4 on aggregate in the Clausura play-off final, few would have believed that it would take more than four years for El Popular to win their next trophy. After all Colo Colo had won five of the previous seven league titles to their 2009 triumph, as well making a Copa Sudamericana final appearance in 2006 under Claudio Borghi.
Once Tocalli departed in April 2010 the rot began. First up was Diego Cagna; he led the club to second place in the 2010 Primera Division before resigning in February 2011. Américo Gallego would take over but he only lasted until the middle of August when Luis Pérez filled in as caretaker for a matter of days. Ivo Basay then stepped into what was becoming a poisoned chalice. He reached the semi finals of the Clausura play-offs but a bad start in the 2012 Apertura saw him dismissed and Pérez once again took over until the end of the tournament. The most successful of the host of managers was Omar Labruna. Appointed in July 2012 he led the club to the top of the Clausura and qualification to the Copa Sudamericana but failure in the play-offs, a poor start to the 2013 Apertura plus controversy over a traffic incident in November 2012 meant he was replaced with academy team manager Hugo González for the final 10 games.
With Arturo Salah, a former league-winning manager with Colo Colo, installed as president of Blanco y Negro it was thought better footballing decisions would become a defining feature of what the club hoped was a turning point. Salah advocated for the appointment of Gustavo Benítez for his second spell in charge of the club having won a trio of league titles in the 1990s.
Appointed at the start of June, Benítez had less than two months to prepare before the opening game of the campaign. However, from the off the haphazard recruitment policy continued. Players had been signed before he was appointed while more came in on his request. He was then hit by the departure of top goal threat Carlos Muñoz who was sold to Emirati side Baniyas SC. All in all seven players came in and many of those were second, third and fourth choices. On looking back only one could be justified as a hit – Paraguayan international goalkeeper Justo Villar.
But the side which took to the field at La Florida against Audax Italiano on the opening day of the Apertura contained no one accustomed to the central striking role in Muñoz’s absence and with no replacement in place. Los Albos would be dispatched 4-0. It was an early sign of the disaster which was to unfold.
There would be one win from the first six league games – the worst start since 1988 – with the nadir of his time in charge coming in the aftermath of the 2-0 defeat at home to Unión Española. There were fans in the tunnel at the Estadio Monumental which prevented the players getting back to the changing rooms, while outside the ground protests were held against the way the club was being run. Youth goalkeeper Álvaro Salazar had his car stoned in the days after the match.
Within the camp there were also problems with cliques forming in the dressing room; arguments were common place as Sebastián Toro and Javier Toledo clashed after the aforementioned game. All the while Benítez seemed too timid to stand up and extenuate his authority. There was no impassioned speeches in front of the media and this passiveness fed onto the field.
By the time of the Española game, Colo Colo had been dumped out of the Copa Sudamericana by Colombia’s Deportivo Pasto, who won both legs of the second round clash. Benítez was put out out of his misery in the middle of October following a 6-3 aggregate lose to Primera B sideSan Luis in the Copa Chile.
Colo Colo languished in the Apertura with three wins, two draws and five defeats.
The final seven games would be overseen by Tapia and Riffo, a management duo forged from within. Riffo, still only 32, played the majority of his career at the Estadio Monumental before retiring at Santiago Morning, while Tapia, Riffo’s elder by four years, had experienced European football with Lille, Perugia and FC Thun, as well as a number of clubs in Chile. And from Flores’ 91st minute winner at home to Cobreloa in their debut match in front of under 12,000 fans the pair have continued to move, uninterrupted, in the right direction.
In the Apertura run-in there were to be blips, a 4-1 defeat to Universidad de Concepción and a loss to Universidad Católica,but overall it was a positive experience. There would be a 3-2 win over champions-elect O’Higgins and a fiery Superclásico win by the same scoreline, all but securing their continuation. Flores was again the key figure as he netted a 90th minute winner against La U. A result which had little bearing on the Apertura, but significant ramifications in terms of the transfer of power back to Macul.
Under Benítez it was difficult to predict how the team would line up from game-to-game and this uncertainty showed in the way they played. At times they took to the field with a back three, then a back four, there was fluctuation between a 4-3-3 and a 4-2-3-1.
Promising forward Luca Pontigo, who played under Tapia for the under-19s said: “He’s a coach who cares about the offensive football, to form good moves, but that is balanced. He plays with a 4-3-3. As he is young and recently retired is very close to the players.”
Tapia and Riffo quickly established a system, a strategy, a philosophy. All of which have been unaccounted for at the club for too long. There were to be three forwards, pressure from the front, while playing from the back. The team were expected to take risks and instead of sterile possession, players were instructed to act as a match by moving the ball through midfield with pace, igniting Emiliano Vecchio and the wide forwards.
There were growing pains but a base had been set for the Clausura.
The downtime between the end of the Apertura and start of the Clausura gave Tapia and Riffo the opportunity to assess the squad and quickly pinpoint the areas that needed strengthened. A deal was quickly secured for Julio Barroso from O’Higgins but it looked as if the club, as they have in the past, were going to miss out on their midfield and forward targets. However, perseverance and the lure of Colo Colo saw the final pieces to Tapia’s puzzle put in place as Esteban Paredes and Jaime Valdés arrived following the 2-1 opening day victory over Audax Italiano thanks to, you guessed it, a late Flores winner.
There was only one aim for the club. “From the first day I told the players they have the ability to be champions,” said Tapia.
Two wins and a draw from the opening three games were to be followed by 14 goals and three wins in the next three games as Tapia found his ideal starting XI, with his trio of new signings forming the spine of the team. Valdés, especially, showcased the talent which took him to Serie A as he dominated in the middle of the park, helping Vecchio thrive in his attacking midfield role.
The Paredes affect was felt both on and off the park. More than 34,000 turned out for his first game back at the Estadio Monumental against Antofagasta. In the previous game there were less than 19,000 fans in attendance. On the field he fitted the lone striker role perfectly – he is the league’s joint top goal scorer on 11 goals.
Fountain of youth
It is hoped by many at Colo Colo that Tapia will be their answer to Pep Guardiola. And with his career in its infancy there is more than a fleeting similarity to how the now Bayern Munich boss set out at Barcelona. The club are keen to produce their own talent, spending US$2m on their Futbol Joven programme each year. With his work in the youth teams of the club Tapia knows the players’ capabilities and he has not been reluctant to give integrate them into the first time squad.
Eighteen-year-old left-back Luis Pavez has been one of the stars of the Clausura, striking up a fine attacking partnership with Flores, earning himself a regular spot in the team with his fearless displays. Juan Delgado and Claudio Baeza have proved excellent squad players, offering Tapia reliability when called upon. Camilo Rodríguez, Dylan Zúñiga, Nicolás Orellana and Bryan Carvallo, ages ranging from 17 to 19, have all also been given game time.
Although older than all those mentioned, at 23 Esteban Pavez has supplied Colo Colo with a physical presence in midfield, providing a supporting base for Valdes and Vecchio. His season has been littered with mature displays having spent his time on loan at a number of clubs.
Tapia also breathed new life into Flores and Vecchio whose careers were in danger stagnating with Los Albos. Flores himself admitted that he was afraid to go out in Santiago with the fear of being confronted by fans. His transformation has been the microcosm of Tapia’stenure so far, with many important goals.
As for Vecchio, he told La Tercera: “I love him very much. He is very important. He has been key for us and my career, because thanks to him I have gained better performances for Colo Colo.”
As mentioned by Pontigo earlier, Tapia enjoys a close relationship with the players, forging a tight-knit squad who socialise together. But he as not allowed for this relationship to get in the way of reprimanding players. Mauro Olivi has been left out of the squad for indiscipline, while Vecchio has been criticised in public for his reaction to be subbed.
There is the feeling that Colo Colo have in their possession a coach who has all the makings of top-class manager with both himself and Riffo keen students of the game. They are methodical in their preparation, working hard to research games and making tactical tweaks where necessary.
Injuries and suspensions affecting the underrated duo of Gonzalo Fierro and Jose Pedro Fuenzalida on the right and Pavez at left-back, meant Los Albos lost a bit of their attacking threat and dynamism with the wide areas used to open up the pitch for Vecchio and Valdés, especially with teams sitting deeper against El Popular now and Paredes also serving suspensions.
But in the Superclásico Riffo suggested playing Baeza and moving Vecchio and Valdés higher up the park to add extra protection to the defence and solidify the middle of the park. Without playing well Colo Colo won at the Estadio Nacional for the first time since 2008, all but confirming the league title would return to Macul.
“One might think that Hector and Miguel (Riffo) work only in the morning,” said Barroso, “but do so up to six in the afternoon. This is the fruit of their work. You could not highlight anything other than their dedication, work and a willingness to help you play.”
As 40,000 Colo Colo fans exalted and paid homage to their new heroes on Sunday there may, deep down, have been a few regrets as glasses were clinked in the boardroom. As Colo Colo sought a replacement for Omar Labruna, Tapia was suggested as a caretaker manager instead of Hugo González.
With plans already being made ahead of the 2014/2015 Apertura, including the expected signing of experienced midfielder Claudio Maldonado and Universidad Católica and Universidad de Chile once again in a state of flux, Colo Colo may be about to embark on a period of dominance, accompanied by their third star.
Their time of suffering is now over. The time of Tapia is just beginning.