You could have been forgiven for thinking that the jubilant scenes on the pitch were part of a trophy celebration. There were hugs and tears – and lots of them.
But Colo-Colo, Chile’s biggest and most successful club, hadn’t won anything at all. In fact, they had just managed to stay in the country’s top division after a nerve-shredding playoff.
On Wednesday, the team found itself in an unprecedented position and was one game away from being relegated to Chile’s second tier – the ‘Primera B’ – for the first time in its 96-year history.
Though the parallels are by no means exact, it would be something similar to seeing Manchester United relegated from the Premier League or Real Madrid from La Liga.
In Wedneday’s relegation playoff against Universidad de Concepcion, Colo-Colo eked out a 1-0 win thanks to teenager Pablo Solari, on loan from Argentine side Talleres de Cordoba, and maintained its place in the top tier by the skin of its teeth.
‘Win or we kill you’
While the overwhelming majority of fans have stuck by the players during the lowest moments in the club’s history, one sinister sign put up outside of the club’s stadium ahead of the game read: “Win or we kill you.”
It should be emphasized that the actions of only a handful of fans shouldn’t overshadow the unconditional support shown by the majority; indeed, forward Javier Parraguez posted a video to his Instagram account marveling at the thousands of supporters who had gathered to send the team off as it departed for the stadium in Talca, around 250 kilometers south of Santiago.
Many more gathered at points along the highway.
Colo-Colo is the only Chilean team to have won the Copa Libertadores, South America’s equivalent to the Champions League, and this unprecedented downfall was unthinkable at the start of the season.
The team is onto its third different manager since then and results had certainly improved in recent weeks under Gustavo Quinteros.
After spending most of the season firmly in the bottom two, Colo-Colo looked to have avoided the relegation playoff on the final day – until a 96th-minute penalty from O’Higgins on Sunday condemned the club to its fate.
Colo-Colo, which boasted names such as Alexis Sanchez, Arturo Vidal and Claudio Bravo earlier in their careers, won the Chilean first division as recently as 2017, taking its record tally to 32 league titles.
‘Ghost of the B’
As is the often the case with a country’s biggest and most successful team, Colo-Colo is widely resented by supporters of other Chilean clubs and the vast majority will likely have been cheering on Concepcion on Wednesday.
Fans of Colo-Colo’s bitter rival Universidad de Chile would have enjoyed the downfall more than most. ‘La U’ suffered its own shock relegation back in 1988 and Colo-Colo fans have never let them forget it – it is customary in South America for gloating supporters to dress up as ‘the Ghost of the B’ whenever a rival team is relegated.
In the past, some of South America’s biggest clubs have also suffered the same fate, including Argentine giant River Plate in 2011, Brazilian club Cruzeiro in 2019 and Peru’s Alianza Lima in 2020.
While Colo-Colo may have exorcised its own ghost, the road back to the top could be a long one. Avoiding relegation, however, was the first and most important step.