When discussing South American soccer, too often the conversation begins and ends with a handful of topics and generalisations. South America is a hugely diverse part of the world with distinct cultures, ways of life, and ways of playing and enjoying soccer, and this is something that bettors need to consider before betting on any of the leagues across these regions. Read on to inform your Colombian soccer betting.
In this series I hope to help you to begin to understand some of the different distinctions across the regions; the styles of play, the cultural differences, the heat, the cold, the altitude, the hostile environments, the easy away days, the pointless cup games, the must-win derbies, the club priorities, the baffling relegation systems, the aperturas and the clausuras (two tournaments in a split season format for Spanish-speaking sports leagues), the state championships, the expert time-wasters, the game managers, the hotheads, the thinkers, and which teams bettors should look out for to potentially gain an edge over the bookmaker.
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Colombian Soccer history
Colombia has the continent’s second-largest population and fourth-largest landmass. Each region of the country is hugely diverse and clubs understand that this ethnic and cultural diversity provides a great advantage.
Cauca is where Colombian soccer has found many of its towering, powerful central defenders. The Caribbean coast produces dozens of inventive, tricky forwards and attackers. Tumaco, down close to the Ecuadorian border, is the birthplace of some top-level pacey and athletic attacking wide players. Antioquia is known for technical, creative playmakers who can open up an opponent’s defence.
Finishing bottom of the league does not have the stigma or jeopardy as is the case in Europe
On top of remarkable and hugely valuable diversity, Colombia also has multiple big urban centres across the country. Cali, Bogota, and Medellin all have two giant clubs and at least two other small clubs, while Atletico Junior dominates the Caribbean coast. The coffee region has multiple medium-sized clubs and there are five or six other one-club cities. Top that off with a national soccer obsession and many excellent free publicly owned AstroTurf (artificial grass) pitches across the country and Colombia has everything to be a global soccer force.
Despite all of these advantages, historically Colombia has had two controversial periods of global soccer significance and many years of underwhelming mediocrity.
Colombian Soccer: The national team and club sides
The first period of significance was the five or six years known as El Dorado when an internal dispute between the professional and amateur associations left many of the country’s biggest clubs participating in a league that was not recognised by FIFA. This meant the clubs were not obliged to pay transfer fees for players or conform to the strict salary restrictions that were in place around the world at the time.
Big Colombian clubs could lure the best players on the planet to come and play in the league and they quickly recruited the best players in South America and dozens of global soccer superstars from Europe. Many clubs imported all of these players from a chosen country - Cucuta Deportivo went almost entirely Uruguayan, Deportivo Pereira opted for Paraguayans, Union Magdalena (Samarios) signed eight Hungarians, Santa Fe snapped up England internationals including Neil Franklin, while Millonarios, known as the Blue Ballet, signed a couple of players from the UK and a selection of Argentine superstars including the great Alfredo Di Stefano.
The second period of great Colombian soccer significance came in the 1980s and was linked to the sudden influx of money into the game. Colombian teams could now retain their biggest stars and attract top players from around the continent. In the 1980s, America de Cali played three consecutive Copa Libertadores finals and Atletico Nacional lifted the title in 1989.
The national team also benefited from this increased investment and prosperity in the league. Los Cafeteros really impressed at the 1990 FIFA World Cup in Italy and then demolished Argentina 5-0 away in their qualifying campaign for the 1994 FIFA World Cup. However, the 1994 World Cup was a disaster on the pitch, and the tragic murder of beloved defender Andres Escobar in the weeks following the tournament sunk the country into a period of reflection, depression, and shame. There were hopes that this great Colombian team could show the world what this wonderful country was really about but it had seemingly only confirmed and increased the negative views.
Colombia took a largely unchanged, aging side to the 1998 World Cup where they were eliminated in the group stage. They then won a fairly strange 2001 Copa America on home soil but were unable to return to the World Cup until 2014. Colombia were overjoyed to make it back to international soccer’s biggest stage and the tournament in Brazil was a huge turning point. Colombia played with confidence, swagger, and joy. The country was now in a more stable, secure place and the soccer team were able to truly express themselves and represent this vibrant, diverse country.
The national team is much more competitive and has a far, far greater strength in depth. Many players who cannot even make the squad now who would have been guaranteed starters just 10 or 15 years earlier. Colombia moves dozens of players to big European sides each year and the production of players is far better.
In 2016, an incredibly impressive Atletico Nacional side won the Copa Libertadores in style but that success was a real anomaly in terms of Colombian club soccer. As with Brazil, the quality of the young players produced is consistently world-class but Colombia has only a handful of coaches who could ever be considered for any sort of European job. The country is rich in talent but poor in soccer ideas.
Colombia, as with many other countries on the continent, looks to Argentina for inspiration and for a long time has had an obsession with a classy, creative number 10. 1980s superstar Carlos Valderrama fit the mould perfectly and El Pibe really set the tone for the great Colombia side of the late 80s and early 90s - ‘short pass and move’ style soccer with everything built around a charismatic playmaker.
Every kid wanted to be El Pibe and every club seemed to be built around a number 10 in the decades that followed. Superb players such as James Rodriguez and Juan Fernando Quintero can be seen as modern heirs of the great Valderrama but perhaps this obsession has limited development elsewhere and has stunted innovation. Colombia has increasingly produced top-quality, tireless defensive midfielders, which I suspect is a product of the minimal running and defensive contribution of every youth side’s pandered and pampered, classy but lazy playmaker.
As with Brazil, Colombian defences often sit deep and strikers stay high. There is an overly extreme distinction made between “creative midfielders” and “defensive midfielders” as if modern soccer players are not required to fulfill both roles, which holds the Colombian game back. While Brazil looks to spread the play and attack from wide areas, Colombian soccer at its best is all about sharp passing interchanges.
There is a wide range of factors beyond what happens on the pitch which all have an impact on results
Street soccer is hugely important in both countries but while it seems to inspire individual invention and magic in Brazilian players, for Colombian’s it teaches collective passing play and dominance. Brazilian street players aspire to nutmegs (kicking the ball through an opponent’s legs to get past them) while Colombians covet walking the ball into the net after fifteen sharp, creative, uninterrupted passes.
When it comes to game management, Colombian sides are usually lacking. There is a sense with Colombian teams that they have to be significantly better than their opponents to get the win and this really holds them back. Players are seen as often too easily provoked or distracted by their more canny rivals to the south. Colombian’s are more likely to be dismissed for a frustrated throw of an elbow than infuriate an opponent with a sly press of the studs down the Achilles behind the referee’s back – they also aren’t the best divers, are terribly ineffective time-wasters, and are prone to lose their heads with a bit of mild provocation.
However, despite the issues and underwhelming continental club performances, Colombian soccer is once again a real force and this time seemingly on a far more stable and sustainable foundation.
How is the Colombian soccer league structured?
Colombian soccer currently has two professional leagues. The second tier is known as Categoria Primera B formally or Torneo BetPlay Dimayor for sponsorship reasons while the top flight is Categoria Primera A or Liga BetPlay Dimayor. The top-flight has an opening (Apertura) and closing (Clausura) season each year with the top eight finishers moving on to the playoffs. The playoff format has changed many times over the years but is now usually a two-legged semi-final followed by a two-legged final.
This means that the Colombian league has two league champions each year. These sides meet in the Superliga Colombiana final at the start of the following year, although winning this two-legged competition is less prestigious and important than the league win needed to qualify (think of it as a slightly more important version of the Community Shield match in England but played over two legs).
There is also annual relegation and promotion between the divisions with two teams going up and two going down. The relegation system in Colombia is also unusual and is largely set up to protect big, established sides from going down. The rationale is that a popular, wealthy side may have a bad year if they lose a lot of key players but in the long run, they will almost certainly deserve a top-division spot. As a result, relegation is calculated over three seasons on a separate “descenso” or relegation table.
The relegation system means teams can start the year knowing they cannot be relegated while others begin the year knowing they will need to get close to winning the title to avoid going down. At present, there is an almost 100 point difference between the top and bottom-placed teams on the relegation table. Newly promoted teams take on the burden of the relegation-worthy points score of the team they replace which means teams that go up are immediate favourites to go back down. It is mathematically possible to win the league and get relegated in the same month in Colombia, something that has come close to happening on a number of occasions.
As well as a parallel relegation table, they also keep track of the total points across the two seasons in a year with the “reclasificación” table. This is less important but is used to decide which clubs qualify for international tournaments alongside the league and cup winners.
The cup competition runs throughout the year, with a group stage in the first half and a knockout stage in the second half. Teams from the top two divisions join in the group stage while clubs participating in international competitions get a bye straight into the first knockout round. Most teams do not care about the cup until they are in the knockout round and many will use it exclusively to give practice to young teenage prospects. Of course, this at times can pay off but expect the unexpected when it comes to cup results, and often second division sides are much more motivated. Players see it as a chance to earn a move or win a first-team spot.
Attendances in Colombia fluctuate hugely depending on how well the team is doing on the pitch. In 2016, Atletico Nacional were the best team on the continent and fans would wait in line for five or six hours to try to get a ticket or pay 20 times the official value. There have been games since then when Nacional have had fewer than 5,000 fans in their 45,000-seat stadium. The short season and playoff system is a way for organisers to keep things interesting but it also in some ways exacerbates the problem. Clubs and their fans realise when a season is a write-off, at which point both results and attendances go into further decline.
If a team is placed at the bottom of the league but in absolutely no danger of being relegated, then there will be great frustration, possible managerial changes, and plans for new signings but there is unlikely to be a great deal of incentive to turn things around before the end of the season. Teams in Colombia become big or successful over decades and with the titles they have won, finishing bottom of the league does not have the stigma or jeopardy as is the case in Europe.
Colombian soccer betting: factors to consider
There are a few factors beyond the ones usually considered that Colombian soccer bettors should take into account.
The Copa Libertadores is always the priority for Colombian teams and if there is a side sitting at the top of the league but with important Copa Libertadores commitments, then that is where their priority will be. There is minimal difference in terms of the key playoff round for a team that finishes first or eighth. This means once playoff qualification is looking likely teams will often rotate and this can affect results. If a team is very good, then they may stop trying. If a team is very bad but safe, then they may also stop trying.
Teams who are facing relegation at the start of the year are likely to spend money and make changes. This can often go one of two ways; they are surprisingly good and make the playoffs or they are an absolute disaster and relegation is confirmed months before the end of the year.
Colombia is also a country with a huge amount of natural diversity, which plays an important role in their soccer. The capital Bogota, home of Santa Fe, Millonarios, and La Equidad, sits at 2,640 metres above sea level, high up in the Andes. The weather is hugely unpredictable, with rain, sleet, and bright sunshine all possible (and often likely) in one day. Temperatures average at around 50°F. While the altitude isn’t as severe as La Paz in Bolivia, it does have an impact and high-intensity or aging players can struggle towards the end of the game.
Barranquilla is the home of Atletico Junior and the Colombian national team. The Caribbean coastal city has an average temperature of 80.7°F, which has a huge impact on games. The Colombian national team intentionally plays their home games in the afternoon to sap the energy of opponents and give a home advantage. Other hot and humid cities include Neiva (Huila FC), Montería (Jaguares), Cali (Deportivo Cali and America de Cali), and Barrancabermeja (Alianza Petrolera) where home advantage is very significant. Teams who visit Neiva have on occasion chosen to change outside in the car park given the overwhelming heat of the locker room.
The coffee region (Tolima, Once Caldas, and Pereira) and surrounding cities are fairly wet but also mild without severe altitude. The city of eternal spring Medellin and the Antioquia region (Atletico Nacional, Deportivo Independiente Medellín, Aguilas Doradas, and Envigado) has warm, comfortable weather with the occasional downpour and does not provide any particular additional challenges for visitors.
A lack of motivation plus uncomfortable, sapping temperatures or altitude can often lead to very predictable 0-0 draws in low-profile games. Some of the smaller teams in the league will save their best performances for the big away games in packed stadiums against traditional Colombian league giants. There is a clear additional motivation when facing big teams in front of packed crowds, live on TV with national attention.
Club tradition and focus
Envigado and Deportivo Cali have very famous and important academies with a preference for introducing young talent into their first team. This means they can often have one of the most talented squads in the league but a huge lack of experience. This often results in an impressive league performance but can mean a major collapse once the pressure is really on in the playoffs against more experienced sides in front of a packed stadium.
Smaller teams often qualify for the playoffs but very rarely win the title. If a smaller team finishes top of the league stage this does not make them, in any way, the favourite when it comes to the knockout round. Generally, it will be one of the big teams which ultimately triumphs.
America de Cali, Atletico Junior, and Atlético Nacional are usually the most likely champions. Millonarios have the resources to be champions but have often disappointed, while DIM, Deportivo Cali, and Santa Fe lead the chasing pack and Tolima are also very capable of winning a title with their efficient style of play. The likes of Pasto, La Equidad, Rionegro Aguilas, and Bucaramanga have the organisation, structure, and finances to breaking into the playoffs on occasion. Envigado will benefit from their elite youth generation every few years, where they will be incredibly impressive in the league stage but will collapse in the playoffs.
Derby games are unpredictable but hugely important. The most important “clasicos” are Atletico Nacional vs. DIM (Medellin), Santa Fe vs. Millonarios (Bogota), Deportivo Cali vs. America de Cali (Cali). There are also big rivalries between cities such as Nacional vs. America, Nacional vs. Millonarios, Deportivo Cali vs. DIM, and America vs. Millonarios. These games are played at a high intensity and fans often push for attacking, assertive football. Cards and/or goals are often plentiful.
Colombian soccer is filled with top young players and exciting football. There is a wide range of factors beyond what happens on the pitch which all have an impact on results. While this can make predicting outcomes tricky, I hope the insight above gives you some key trends which will provide a huge advantage when it comes to predicting outcomes.
There is usually a reason why the league leaders are often well beaten by a struggling mid-table side and hopefully, you can now spot it!
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