By Leo Linden
One of Colombia’s most controversial, yet most consistent, teams, Atletico Nacional has a history of unbelievable highs, shady dealings, and world-class players. Despite only being 68 years old, the club has been to the pinnacle of Colombian football more times than any other and has recently reasserted its dominance both domestically and in South America.
The Medellin-based club was founded in 1947, just in time for the debut season of the Campeonato Profesional, a Colombian football league created in 1948. Despite being matched up against multiple teams with rich histories, Atletico Nacional was able to stay afloat and win their first league title in 1954, just seven years after the club’s foundation.
The league title was a major success for Nacional at the time, but it took plenty of time for the club to get back to the top. After coming runners-up the following year, El Verde (The Green), as they are known, tumbled down the table, struggling to break out of the bottom of the pack while narrowly avoiding relegation.
The 1970s brought a mini resurgence, as Nacional captured a pair of championships in 1973 and 1976, followed by their fourth league title in 1981. It might have been the last untainted victory for Nacional in that period, however, as everything was about to change.
In the 1980s, Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar became enthralled with the side, pouring his loot into Nacional in the hopes of creating a Colombian dynasty, while also using the finances of the club to launder his money. It certainly wasn’t clean business, but Escobar was building an empire.
The club quickly began to attract some of the top talent in the country, and at one point, Nacional had a plethora of key national team players on the squad. However, despite the immense talent, Nacional could not break through, as America de Cali and Millonarios combined for seven straight titles.
During those years, Nacional was not quiet, often placing second or third in the league while building a squad capable of both a title and South American run. They got their chance in the 1989 season.
The Greens finally had the opportunity to win a continental double when, for the first time, they captured a major
Despite losing the away leg 2-0 to Olimpia of Paraguay, Nacional did not quiver. They came back home to a raucous Colombian environment and secured their own 2-0 victory, sending the tie to penalties, where Nacional edged the Paraguayans 5-4. To this day, it’s still the club’s only Copa Libertadores title, and one of only two captured by Colombian teams.
Though Nacional’s triumph was amazing for the country, the end of the season was one to forget for Colombian football. With the teams in the latter stages of the multi-rounded league process, referee Alvaro Ortega was murdered in Medellin following a goalless draw between Deportivo Medellin and America.
In the aftermath, the 1989 season was cancelled, ending any chance for Nacional to secure the first ever Colombian double.
Though Escobar’s Nacional squad wasn’t directly involved, the murder is indicative of how Colombian football was being handled at the time. Without question, Escobar had a hand in moving it forward after.
The homicide didn’t faze Escobar, as the tyrant continued to bring in top talent from his National side, the latest being Andres Escobar in 1990, who was a rock for Nacional in the center of defense in their title run the following season. They once again
In 1993, Pablo Escobar’s illustrious dealings finally caught up with him, and he was shot and killed attempting to escape from Colombian authorities. Then, in 1994, Andres Escobar was famously murdered following an own goal in the World Cup.
The deaths completely changed the club, as it had lost its financier and one of its best players and emotional leaders. Surprisingly, though, the Greens rebounded fantastically, winning the league title in 1994 and again in 1999. It was an unprecedented turn around, one that paved the way for Atletico to get where it is today.
In 2002, the Colombian FA split its competition into two, awarding a Champion in the first half of the year, the Apertura, and the second half, the Finalización. The split worked nicely for Nacional, who were victorious in the 2005 Apertura, as well as both tournaments in 2007. A small decline followed, but Nacional were back to their winning ways shortly thereafter, capturing the 2010 Apertura before winning the three Colombian leagues between the 2013 and 2014 Apertura, bringing their total to 14 titles, tied with Millonarios for most in the country.
Even more recently, the club made a deep run in last year’s Copa Sudamericana (South America’s Europa League) before losing to Argentine powerhouse River Plate in the final. Though they didn’t come away victorious, the long run in an international tournament is a positive sign moving forward for the club.
Nacional’s history certainly isn’t the cleanest, but the same can be said for many other Colombian teams (and others around the world) as well. What they do have is a legacy of consistency, and while Nacional might not have had an extreme period of dominance like some other clubs, they have notched championships in just about every decade since their founding. Furthermore, they were the first Colombian team to conquer the continent and recently been high quality in South America and appear to have enough quality to win more trophies in the near future. Colombian football isn’t the prettiest, but it’s sure one hell of a ride.