With the talented Edwin Cardona joining Boca Juniors and potentially being one of the stars of the Primera División this coming season, Jack Tilghman looks over ten of the best Colombians to ply their trade in Argentina…
Making any top 10 list is particularly hard, and surprisingly, doing one with the top 10 Colombians to have played in Argentina is just that. In the late 40s, many Argentines including the great Alfredo Di Stéfano went to Colombia during the player’s strike, but it wasn’t until the 1990s that we saw a big influx of Colombians come the other way.
There are various players who were tough to leave out such as Giovanni Hernández, a rare bright spot for Colón, or Carlos Carbonero, who helped lowly Arsenal to its only title and then was key when River won it a year later, but lacked consistency. Éder Álvarez Balanta started off brilliantly, but faded hard, and misses out, as does el Pajaro Albeiro Usuriaga, a key man for Independiente in the mid 90s.
The list is primarily based off the player’s performance in the Argentine league, not what they did in Europe or for the Colombian national team, so Iván Córdoba, well known as Colombia’s captain and a stalwart at Inter in Italy, misses out as his time in San Lorenzo, while good, lacked titles. Also missing out who may be well known to European audiences is Fredy Guarín, who played just a handful of games for Boca.
10 Mario Yepes
River Plate & San Lorenzo
Although best remembered by Boca fans for being nutmegged by Juan Román Riquelme, Yepes enjoyed a very successful spell with River in the late 90s and early 2000s helping the club win two local titles, even if Libertadores glory slipped away.
Signed from Deportivo Cali, Yepes quickly settled into a River team stacked with the likes of Javier Saviola, Pablo Aimar, and his compatriot Juan Pablo Angel. Later in his career, after a long spell in Europe, the former Colombia captain was brought back to Argentina, this time for San Lorenzo to add experience for the team’s run in the Club World Cup. The ex-Milan man’s experience came in handy in the semifinal as a nervy San Lorenzo just saw off tiny Aukland City 2-1 in extra time. Although clearly outmatched in the Final, Yepes and his teammates’ hard tackling approach kept los Galácticos to just two goals, but lifting the cup was just a step too far.
9 Giovanni Moreno
Had you told Racing Club fans seven years ago that Giovanni Moreno would spend the rest of his career in China they’d have thought you mad. Virtually unknown in Argentina when he arrived from Atlético Nacional in 2010, Moreno, a lanky playmaker with a fierce left foot, introduced himself when he helped Racing to a come from behind win against Argentinos Juniors in El Cilindro with two goals, one a majestic free kick, the other a fierce left footed shot.
His career at Racing was a highlight reel of goals, free kicks, assists, and lujos as they are known in Argentina, better known in English as back heels, nutmegs, and other tricks. Just when Racing signed compatriot Teófilo Gutiérrez and the club looked set to make a title challenge, Gio suffered a cruciate knee injury and spent the season on the sidelines. When he did return, Racing again saw themselves as title favorites with club legend Alfio Basile returning as manager, but again, despite some individual highlights from both Gio and Teo, the club finished well off the pace.
Although many would have liked to have seen more from him, injuries clearly took their toll and led to his move to China rather than to a big European league as so many had predicted in 2010. Yet despite his lack of trophies, Gio certainly gave all fans a bit of joy with his wonderful playing style.
8 James Rodríguez
Long before he won the Golden Ball at the 2014 World Cup or Florentino Pérez made him a galáctico at Real Madrid, James Rodríguez made a name for himself in Argentina playing for Banfield, a modest club in the south of Greater Buenos Aires.
Although he spent just over two years with El Taladro, he wrote his name down in the club’s history by helping them to their one and only Primera División title in the 2009 Apertura under the tutelage of Julio Cesar Falcioni, an Argentine who played many year in Colombia with America de Cali.
Along with Uruguayans Santiago Silva and Papelito Fernández, James helped form one of the best front trios in South America, however briefly it may have lasted. James will forever be remember not just for the title, but for a wonderful solo goal against arch rivals Lanús and four goals in the 2010 Copa Libertadores, causing Argentina’s sports daily Olé to already speculate if the young James would move to Real Madrid, four years before the transfer became a reality.
7 Faryd Mondragón
Argentinos Juniors & Independiente
The oldest man to ever feature in a World Cup match will forever be known in Argentine circles as a great goalkeeper for El Rey De Copas, Independiente.
With Mondragón in goal, El Rojo ended an 11-year international trophy drought by winning the 1995 Supercopa, a now discontinued tournament where only former winners of the Libertadores were invited. After getting past local rivals River Plate on penalties, with Mondragón saving from Gabriel Amato, in the Final, Independiente defeated Flamengo in front of 90,000 in El Maracana. In the Recopa Sudamerica, the South American version of the UEFA Super Cup, los Diablos knocked off Vélez Sarsfield in Tokyo.
The hard tackling Serna arrived at Boca in 1997 from Atlético Nacional and quickly became a fan favorite for his never say die attitude that epitomizes the ethos of the club. With Óscar Córdoba in goal, Jorge Bermúdez in defense, and Serna in defensive midfield, the Boca side that won the Libertadores in 2000 and 2001 and Intercontinental Cup in 2000 had a Colombian spine.
Serna also helped Los Xeneizes win three local titles before moving to Puebla. He later returned to Argentina to have brief spells with Chacarita Juniors and Talleres de Córdoba. Never the flashiest player, Serna was often the unsung hero of the side, drawing comparisons to former Boca great Blas Armando Giunta.
Since retiring, Serna has repeatedly stated that he now suffers with Boca as a fan, even trying to get into club politics, supporting presidential candidate José Beraldi in the 2015 elections, eventually won by the incumbent Daniel Angelici.
5 Teófilo Gutiérrez
Racing Club, Lanús, River Plate & Rosario Central
Although not number one on our list, no Colombian, or perhaps no foreigner ever, found himself in the headlines as much as Teo. After his first match with Racing, which came against Boca, Teo admitted in an interview that he was especially motivated to score because he was a River Plate supporter. Not the best way to endear yourself to your new fans.
Yet, despite his red and white heart, Teo did in fact win over the sky-blue and white faithful of Racing by finishing as top scorer in the league in his first championship, including one against archival Independiente, helping Racing knock off their neighbors.
His time at Racing would however come to a sudden halt in another match against el Rojo when, after scoring the opener, he saw himself sent off. What followed, will long live in the folklore of Argentine football. Teo allegedly pulled a fire arm from his bag after being physically confronted by teammates, including captain Sebastián Saja. While other rumors suggest it was merely it was merely a paintball gun, the bottom line is Teo was forced to leave the stadium in a taxi, never to return to Racing again.
Strangely, Teo moved to Lanús on a free transfer, scoring once in two matches as the Granate were knocked out of the Libertadores by Vasco da Gama. His contract was then terminated by Lanús after he not only left for Colombia without permission, but a fan posted a photo on social media of Teo watching his hometown team Junior de Barranquilla while wearing a River Plate 1986 retro jersey, hardly acceptable conduct for a professional player especially in Argentina.
In 2013, after a trouble spell with Cruz Azul, Teo finally made his dream come true by signing for River. He helped the club win the 2014 Clausura and 2014 Copa Sudamericana becoming a fan favorite. His greatest night in a River shirt undoubtedly came in the quarterfinals of the 2015 Copa Libertadores quarterfinal against Cruzeiro in Bello Horizonte where he laid on the first goal for Carlos Sánchez before capping off the brilliant team performance with a spectacular golazo.
With River riding high Teo suddenly declared that his cycle at the club had come to an end, just before River was to play the semifinal. At his insistence (and that of his agent Efraín Pachon) River sold him to Sporting Clube de Portugal where, unsurprisingly, he fell out with coach Jorge Jesus and was back in Argentina a year later with Rosario Central.
His time in Rosario was fairly mediocre, especially compared to his great performances with Racing and River, but before leaving for his beloved Junior, he grabbed the headlines once more. Teo scored the equalizer in La Bombonera and immediately ran to the gloat in front of the Boca fans making the gesture of the diagonal stripe across River’s shirt. Well aware of his past and allegiance to River as a fan, the Boca fans and players were incensed. Teo was eventually sent off for inciting violence, yet he didn’t stop there. While make his way to the tunnel, he continuously made the same River gesture to the Boca supporters causing even more chaos in the stands and earning him a lengthy ban.
4 Radamel Falcao
Falcao is definitely a patriotic Colombian, as anyone who has seen him in his country’s yellow shirt can vouch, but Argentina has been almost if not equally important in El Tigre’s life. At the age of just 15, Falcao moved to Buenos Aires to River Plate where he would not only enjoy a successful spell with the Millonarios, but he would graduate from secondary school, university, and meet his future wife Lorelei Tarón, a native of the Entre Rios province north east of Buenos Aires.
At River Plate things were not always easy, yet Falcao persevered through various knee injuries to leave a fantastic impression with the River faithful. In 2007, Falcao’s thunderous volley into the top corner opened the scoring in River’s 2-0 Superclasico victory over Boca.
Later in the year, in his finest match for the club, he scored a hat-trick against Botafogo as River with 10 men came from behind to beat the Brazilians in the quarterfinals of the Copa Sudamerica. A year later, teaming with the likes of Sebastián “el Loco” Abreu, Alexis Sánchez, and Diego Buonanotte, el Tigre helped River win the 2008 Clausura championship under coach Diego Simeone.
His final season at the club was less than stellar as River’s downward spiral towards relegation began, but it was in late 2009 when he truly endeared himself to the River supporters. With his contract about to expire and the chance to move to Europe as a free agent Falcao signed an unnecessary contract with River allowing the club to sell him and make 5 million dollars from his transfer to Porto.
All told, Falcao managed 45 goals in 115 games, and since moving to Europe has made many social media posts of himself watching River still supporting them. In 2013, he attended a match against Colón in El Monumental and told the media his dream was to return to Nuñez to finish his career one day.
3 Juan Pablo Ángel
It may be shocking to see a man who spent the majority of his career in the MLS ahead of world renown superstar Falcao, but in Argentina, Ángel enjoyed the most successful time of his career before being sold to Aston Villa for a then club record 9.5 million pounds in 2001.
Moving from Atlético Nacional in 1997, Ángel first needed a period of adaptation to Argentine football, but a year later it would come as he began to build a frightening trio with two young Argentines: Pablo Aimar and Javier Saviola.
River went on to win the 1999 Apertura under Ramón Díaz, which included a 2-0 win against Boca in El Superclásico, the second goal scored by Ángel with a curling effort into the bottom corner and few can forget the Medellín native’s jubilance as ripped off his shirt, swung it round, kissed it, and raced over to the River fans behind the goal.
The 2000 Clausura brought another title, and Libertadores heartbreak against Boca, although Ángel managed to score again against los Xeneizes in the first leg. The following campaign saw River repatriate Argentina’s number 10: Ariel Ortega, who joined the line up to form what became known as the Cuarto Fantásticos.
The team failed to win any silverware, narrowly missing out to Boca, but to many River fans it was the most exhilarating football the team had produced since La Máquina in the 1940s. Angel finished as the top scorer in the division and the club decided to cash in. Although he later expressed his desire to return River president Daniel Passarella turned him down and Ángel finished his career with Chivas USA and his first club Atlético Nacional.
2 Jorge Bermúdez
Boca Juniors & Newell’s Old Boys
It is an immense honor to be named captain of Boca Juniors, even more so if you are from another country, as is the case of Jorge “el Patrón” Bermúdez, who lifted the Copa Libertadores as Boca’s skipper in 2000 and 2001, scoring in the penalty shoot out both times.
Though it was perhaps marshaling the back line against the Galácticos of Real Madrid in the 2000 Intercontinental Cup Final that was the highlight of Bermudez’ time at Boca, helping Boca win the match 2-1. Jorge played three Copa Américas and one World Cup for Colombia, yet his time at Boca was undoubtedly the most successful of his career.
He arrived in Buenos Aires from Benfica in 1997 and quickly gained a starting spot before helping the club win the 1998 Apertura and 1999 Clausura, a fantastic double under Carlos Bianchi.
After leaving Boca he spent two seasons in Greece with Olympiakos before returning to Argentina, this time with Newell’s Old Boys of Rosario. After a truly emotional match playing in La Bombonera for the first time as a visiting player Bermúdez told TyC Sports that it was “the first and last and in June I’m going to leave Argentine football, I can’t live like this, if I don’t return to Boca, I’ll leave.” If there had ever been any doubt that Jorge Bermúdez had been converted into a Boca fan, after that match, they were all erased.
1 Óscar Córdoba
Boca Juniors has had many brilliant goalkeepers in their history such as Antonio Roma, Hugo “El Loco” Gatti, and Roberto Abondonzieri, but perhaps none has been as decisive as Óscar Córdoba.
Córdoba, who was Colombia’s goalkeeper in two world cups, first became known to Argentine fans while playing for América de Cali in the 1996 Copa Libertadores Final against River Plate, racing out of his area in vain to allow Marcelo Escudero to cross for Hernán Crespo to score the opener with an open net.
Despite this error helping Boca’s arch rivals lift the Copa, President Mauricio Macri signed him up and would never regret it. His time at the club was trophy laden including three local titles, two Copa Libertadores, and an Intercontinental Cup against none other than Real Madrid. Yet it wasn’t just the titles, it was the manner of them.
In the 2000 Libertadores Final against Palmeiras in Sao Paulo, Córdoba pulled off two wonderful saves in the penalty shootout to see Boca lift the trophy again after a 22-year wait.
A year later Palmeiras was again the rival, this time in the semifinal, and again penalties were needed, and again Córdoba pulled off two brilliant saves, including one after the Xeneizes had fallen behind the Brazilians.
Then came the Final against Mexican City side Cruz Azul. Shockingly, Boca lost the second leg at home 1-0 and penalties and Córdoba were again needed to lift the Cup. Although he only saved one this time, the Mexicans were clearly influenced by the Cali native’s record and prowess in penalty shoot outs, hitting the bar once and missing the target altogether on another occasion. Twice during his time in Buenos Aires, Córdoba was named the top goalkeeper of the Americas by the prestigious El País newspaper in Montevideo.