By Leo Linden
Deportivo Cali is one of Colombia’s oldest and most historically successful sides. But for the better part of 30 years, the Cali-based club has been off the pace. Despite boasting nine championships in their history, good enough for fourth-most all time in Colombia, Los Verdiblancos (the Green and Whites) haven’t been able to sustain success for quite some time. It looked like this season was going to bring another disappointment for Cali, but a late resurgence has led to a run in the Liga Aguila playoffs that has Cali on the brink of another title. The country’s best team — historically and currently — Atletico Nacional is standing in the way of Cali lifting another title, but there’s certainly a lot of positive momentum for the team at the moment.
Founded in 1912, the 104-year old club began in the amateur division of Colombian football. Not too much is known about the first few decades of the club’s lifespan, but they didn’t make too much of a headway into Colombian football in the early days. However, when the national league started to become a legitimate body in the middle of the 20th century, Cali came on strong. Cali finished eighth, two spots off the bottom, in the first season of the professional league.
It didn’t take long to start making some serious headway. In 1949, Los Verdiblancos made an incredible run up the table, finishing second and only missing out on the trophy to Millonarios on goal differential. After coming incredibly close to the title, however, Deportivo Cali fell off for a while and didn’t return to form until 1962, when they again were runners-up to Millonarios.
It was another tough pill to swallow, but Cali were on the verge of their golden generation, and when they finally reached the pinnacle in 1965, the floodgates opened. More titles followed in 1967, 1969, and 1970 before they put a cap on their greatest period with another win in 1974. In total, Cali took home five titles in a decade and were quickly becoming a Colombian powerhouse.
Despite this, the club found it difficult to translate their success onto the continent until the late 1970s. After a plethora of failed Copa Libertadores runs, which include a litany of first and second group-stage exits, Cali finally made a deep run in 1978. The club went all the way to the finals before being ousted by Argentine powerhouse Boca Juniors 4-0 over two legs. It wasn’t the end they had desired, and the loss put Cali into a small tail-spin as they found it hard to regain their status both domestically and in South America.
The 1980s saw a number of outstanding talents come through the club, most notably legendary Colombian midfielder Carlos Valderrama, but Cali couldn’t make good with any trophies, coming runners-up three times before slumping back towards the middle of the pack.
The promise of greater things was always there, and Cali vaulted themselves back to the top in the 1990s. Titles in 1996 and 1998 reaffirmed that Los Verdiblancos were alive and kicking, and again they were able to find success on the continent, but all too similarly fell just short of their final goal. Cali waded through the 1999 Copa Libertadores and made it to the final of South America’s premier competition for
As good clubs tend to do, Cali hung around and captured their eighth league title in 2005 by beating Real Cartagena in the final of the Campeonato Finalizacion (the competition that runs through the second half of the year). However, in similar fashion to the 90s, Los Verdiblancos couldn’t regain their majestic form from the golden years and found it tough to string together titles.
Now, however, Cali is on the verge of something special once again. After taking home their most recent title in 2015, Cali has a chance to win a second in three years and begin to fully regain their status as a Colombian powerhouse.
Getting to where they are now didn’t come easy, though. An average start to the season saw Cali replace their coach, Mario Yepes, an undoubtedly difficult decision given his status as one of the top defenders in the country's history. In stepped new boss Hector Cardenas in March, and the club has been trending up ever since.
After clawing up the table to finish the 20-game Apertura (the first half competition) in sixth place, Cali and the other top eight teams advanced to the playoffs. They defeated second-seeded Independiente Medellin in their first matchup before getting an even sweeter victory when they ousted their bitter rivals, America de Cali, in the semifinals.
That has set up the two-legged final against Atletico
Still, however, the league has parity, and Cali have the potential to pull an upset that could help the club start to reclaim its status as one of the year-in, year-out contenders in Colombian football. It’s unlikely that Cali are ever going to repeat their immense record of five titles in a decade, but the side is still one of the predominant forces in Colombian football, and they aren’t too far off from becoming a downright scary entity once again.