Colón’s Unexpected Journey to the Copa Sudamericana Final

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This Saturday, Colón de Santa Fe will play Independiente del Valle from Ecuador in the final of the Copa Sudamericana. It is Colón’s first ever appearance in a final of an international competition. How did a team who as recently as 2014 was in Argentina’s second division, a team who is just above the current relegation zone, make it all the way to the final of South America’s second most prestigious tournament?

To get to the origin of this meteoric run, we need to go back to May 12-14, 2018.

It was the final weekend of the 2017/2018 Superliga season. Boca had already been crowned champions of the league and all four relegation spots had been locked up for weeks. All that was left to play for were the remaining Libertadores and Copa Sudamericana spots. Colón was on 38 points looking up at Belgrano and Argentinos Juniors, both of whom had 40 points. The three teams would be fighting for the last remaining spot in the Sudamericana.

Colón was given the unenviable task of playing Racing in El Cilindro. The club from Avellaneda was also desperate for a win to finish in the top five and qualify for the Libertadores.

Argentinos Juniors would be facing Vélez who also had hopes of a Sudamericana spot sitting on 37 points.

The clear and obvious pick to get the final Sudamericana position was Belgrano. They would be playing in Alberdi to already relegated Temperley and El Pirata had not lost a single match at home all season. This was the first of the three matches. And 23 minutes into the game, this happened:

El Gasolero would go on to win 3-2. But not only was this result damning for Belgrano, immediately after the match, their Manager Pablo Lavallen abruptly resigned and burnt all his bridges in Córdoba on the way out. (We will come back shortly to why Lavallen’s exit is so important).

The next day Argentinos played a 1-1 draw against Vélez giving them 41 points. As mentioned, Colón was on 38 points and three points on Monday would bring them level with El Bicho. Colón’s goal difference was superior to Argentinos – a victory would land them in the Sudamericana.

Just seconds into the match a header from Racing’s Miguel Barbieri was deflected off of Colón’s Guillermo Ortiz into the back of the net. Just like that, El Sabalero was trailing 1-0.

Just six minutes later Colón brought the match level on a superb goal from Marcelo Estigarriba. Nearing the end of the first half a breakaway goal scoring opportunity from Cristian Bernardi was saved by La Academia’s keeper Juan Musso right into the path of Marcelo Meli who returned the favor scoring an own goal and giving the visitors the advantage going into the break. A third and final goal was converted by Javier Correra in the final minutes to give Colón the 3-1 victory and the qualification to the Sudamericana.

That was May 2018, but the Sudamericana would not kick off for El Sabalero until April 2019. Between those dates Colón had to return to the Superliga for the 2018/2019 season – an absolute disaster of a season for the side from Santa Fe. The club would finish 24th in the table, just one point above last place.

After just 12 matches they fired Eduardo Domíngez, the manager that led them to the Sudamericana qualification earlier that year. Over the next couple of months the club would have an interim manager replaced by a full-time manager who was fired and replaced by another interim manager before hiring their current manager. And who did they select? Pablo Lavallen (I told you we would get back to him).

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Lavallen, a handsome, well dressed, young manager, is also a former player who came out of the River Plate youth academy. Most notably, he was a member of the 1996 River team that won the Libertadores title.

A quick tangent of who was on that ’96 River Squad:

German “El Mono” Burgos – The team’s Keeper who went on to play in Europe and for the Argentina national team and is currently Simone’s right hand man at Atlético Madrid.

Juan Pablo Sorín – Played throughout Europe and has 75 international caps.

Matías Almeyda – Spent a decade playing in Europe and is the current manager of the San Jose Earthquakes in MLS. He previously managed River, Banfield, and Guadalajara where he won the Liga MX title.

Hernan Crespo – One of the all-time great Argentine footballers who most recently managed Banfield.

Marcelo Gallardo – Not really sure what he’s done with his career, seems like he may have just disappeared.

(River defeated América de Cali in that final. The only Argentine on the squad for the Colombian side was Alfredo Berti. He too plays a role in this story as he was the Manager for Argentinos when they played Vélez to a 1-1 draw opening a spot for Colón to get into the final.)

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Lavallen learned from the best from a young age. He turned that experience into a 16-year playing career going back and forth between Argentina and Mexico. He retired at the age of 35 before returning as a manager in 2016. His first stop was with San Martin de San Juan, next Atlético Tucumán, and finally Belgrano, where he lost on the final day of the season giving the Sudamericana spot to Colón, where he would next take over as manager.

Lavallen was hired at Colón prior to their first Sudamericana match. El Sabalero got past Deportivo Municipal from Peru in the first round and then River Plate (not that River Plate, the one from Uruguay) in the second stage. Colón qualified for the final 16. Their march to the final went like this:

Round of 16 vs Argentinos Juniors: Finished 1-1 on aggregate, Colón advanced 4-3 on penalties.

Quarter-finals vs Zulia (Venezuela): Lost the first leg 1-0 before dominating in Santa Fe 4-0.

Semi-finals vs Atlético Mineiro (Brazil): A 2-1 victory for Colón in Santa Fe followed by a 1-2 defeat in Belo Horizonte led to penalties. Colón missed their first penalty and immediately started from behind. Both sides would convert their kicks in the second and third rounds. In the fourth, Colón made their attempt bringing the teams level at 3-3. Minieiro’s fourth attempt was blocked by Leonardo Burián. Colón’s fifth and final penalty was taken by Luis “El Pulga” Rodriguez.

Let’s stop here for one second and go back to how in the world Luis Rodriguez ended up on Colón.

El Pulga is a legend, but not for Colón, for Atlético Tucumán. He led El Decano from Argentina’s third division into the top flight and then into the 2018 Libertadores quarterfinal. As the 2018 calendar came to a close, Rodriguez was one of the Superliga’s top scorers and Atlético Tucumán was third in the table. He had scored 129 goals for the club, the second most by any player ever.

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Then the summer transfer window came and El Pulga was gone. But he didn’t leave for River or Boca or another title contender, he left for Colón, a team that as previously mentioned, was one of the worst in the Superliga in 2018/19. So why the sudden departure?

While nothing was ever made official, rumors pointed to a disagreement with local politicians, some of whom had direct ties to Atlético Tucumán. And so, all of a sudden, Luis Rodriguez left the club where he spent most of his career and was considered a legend and signed as a 34-year-old for Colón.

Ok, back to the Sudamericana semi-final. El Pulga is about to take the penalty. And this is what he does:

Colón took the 4-3 lead. Burián blocked Mineiro’s final penalty and Colón advanced to the Sudamericana final – their first ever international final.

Saturday November 9th, Colón will face Independiente del Valle in Asunción, Paraguay. Led by Pablo Lavallen and Luis Rodriguez, El Sabalero will look to add to the history they have already made. Even making it to the final would have been impossible to predict. To get there, several turns of luck needed to fall in El Sabalero’s favor. But now that they have arrived, they are just one victory away from cementing their immortal status into the Sudamericana trophy.

Jimmy lived in Córdoba, Argentina as a teenager and is still an active Socio for his beloved club, Belgrano. He currently lives in Seattle, WA and runs the Belgrano – English twitter account.