With Colombia’s soccer league entering the final quarter of the regular season, and the national cup tournament almost at the semifinal stage, the debate over excessive scheduling is once again at the forefront of domestic soccer.
Unlike most of its big-name European counterparts, the Colombian league is divided into two separate 18-week regular seasons, each one followed by a maximum six-game playoff. That set-up, played in parallel with a grueling 36-team cup tournament and various international competitions, ensures that soccer is an almost year-round spectacle in Colombia.
For committed fans, there is certainly no lack of entertainment, but for the teams themselves, especially those teams in the top tier of the league, keeping up with the packed schedule can be a grueling prospect.
No team understands that challenge more intimately than Medellin’s Atletico Nacional, which has won the last three league championships and previous two league cups.
Aside from its two domestic competitions, Nacional has also had to contend with the additional demands of the Copa Sudamericana in the fall and Copa Libertadores in the spring, prestigious international tournaments in which Colombian teams on the whole have failed to advance with any consitency.
“We’re not competing under fair conditions. It seems to me that, in the interest of ‘fair play,’ it’s not right for them to submit us to these schedules,” said Nacional manager Juan Carlos Osorio, who has watched his team’s recent success work against it in recent weeks.
This season has seen a noted drop-off from Nacional, currently sitting at seventh place in the league, just above the cut-off line for playoffs. It’s hard to know how much of that can be attributed to general fatigue, but scheduling is almost certainly a strong factor.
On Thursday, with three competitions in full swing, Osorio’s side played an inferior Tolima to a 2-2 draw at home in the opening leg of the Copa Postobon quarterfinals, after having hosted Brazil’s Vitoria the previous night in the Copa Sudamericana. Sunday’s match against league-leading rivals Santa Fe in Bogota will be Nacional’s fourth game in the past week. Earlier this year, during the Copa Libertadores, Nacional went through a similar stretch of five games in 10 days.
“We want what’s best for everyone, and many situations present themselves because of international dates,” said Nacional President Jaun Carlos Cuesta, one of a number of team officials across the league advocating for a change in domestic scheduling.
“The number of games in the Copa Colombia [officially called the Copa Postobon because of a sponsorship with the beverage company of the same name] could be reduced, and I think that would be through direct elimination before the round of eight. Whatever the case, we’re going to bring a proposal and we’ll see what [the teams] decide among ourselves.”
Nacional is not the only team interested in adjusting the system, though there is still some disagreement as to what reforms to implement.
Julio Comesaña, head coach with Barranquilla’s Atletico Junior, last season’s league runner-up, suggested expanding the number of players teams are allowed to carry on their roster to 30 and 35 players, respectively, instead of the current 22, reported Bogota’s El Tiempo newspaper. Under Comesaña’s system, teams in international play would be allowed five more players than teams playing only in Colombia.
“It seems really tight to me, and what’s more, we can only register a few players. We have to make long trips, changes in climate. We need to revise that to improve the spectacle. At first, we’re all in it together, but later the only teams that are punished are those that are advancing and those playing in international tournaments as well.”
Tolima coach Alberto Gamero, meanwhile, agreed that expanding the rosters makes sense, but suggested adding games to the Copa Postobon instead of shortening it.
“We should deepen the roster to give more opportunities to other players,” said Gamero, whose team does not currently compete in international play. “I’d add more dates. We’re very comfortable playing on Sundays and Wednesdays. After the round-robin phase [of the Copa Postobon], it would be good to have group play or some system where they play more games.”
Hector Cardenas, the head coach of Deportivo Cali, another team that has had to contend with the international circuit, proposed a different set of solutions that would change the way the tournament is structured, rather than the number of games.
“[The Copa Colombia] should be adjusted keeping in mind the geographic distribution of the country, in order to avoid so many longe trips. We should also look at when it starts and ends so that it doesn’t brush against the league. I think the number of games is prudent and that these games could be used for players of different ages to play,” he said, coming out in favor of a rule change that would make the tournament into a sub-20 competition for teams to develop their youth talent.
It would be understandable to see opinion divided strictly between teams regularly at the top or bottom of the table. Despite its appeals to “fair play,” Nacional, for example, brings in significantly more money than, say, an Equidad, currently last in the league standings, and can therefore afford a more talented and roster and deeper bench. If those advantages in turn lead to various handicaps, well, you could understand how that could seem perfectly fair to some people.
It’s strange, then, to see Santa Fe President Cesar Pastrana come out against changes, too, despite his team’s recent string of top-performing seasons.
“This year has been weird because of the [World] Cup and it’s been crammed because of those two months that were lost. For that reason Dimayor [the league office] established that the teams were in agreement and that there was solidarity to reschedule games,” he said, referring to an at-times piecemeal schedule that has shuffled dates to account for some team’s concerns. “That’s what we established in assembly, so that teams in international tournaments wouldn’t be affected. I think the Copa [Postobon] is fine in its current system.”
As far as Nacional fans are concerned, though, whatever has been done to accomodate international play isn’t enough.
“Of course we’ve seen the fatigue, and even the players themselves have admitted it,” Andres Felipe Muñoz, one of the leaders of the “Los del Sur” Nacional fan section, told Colombia Reports. “You have to understand, that we’re not just talking about this season. It’s been years of the same thing.”
The league office, said Muñoz, should treat scheduling changes as an investment in the future of Colombian soccer, which has struggled to establish a place for itself in the regional game alongside the likes of powerhouses Brazil and Argentina. Despite fielding one of its best teams in decades, Nacional in particular has struggled to break through in international play.
“Dimayor needs to think about what’s good for the league as a whole, so that Colombian soccer can reach that level we all want,” said Muñoz.
Dimayor, for its part, has indicated that it would be willing to promote a shortened schedule in the next league assembly, and is working with the Copa Libertadores, South America’s most important club tournament, to ensure that there are no scheduling overlaps for 2015.
But Rafael Castañeda, the presidente of Once Caldas, thinks the league would actually be hurt by making things easier on its top teams, pointing out to El Tiempo that European clubs frequently face similarly challenging schedules. “The system seems fine to me. As long as there’s no World Cup, it progresses normally. European calendars are demanding. This will lead us to have a biotype of player that’s m0re advanced in the future.”
According to El Tiempo, teams are set to meet next Tuesday, and the 2o15 Copa Postobon schedule will likely be a topic of intense discussion.
For the time being, however, there will be no relief for teams like Nacional. As Los del Sur are fond of chanting, “Today we have to win,” whether that’s fair or not.
- Se abre el debate: debe cambiarse el formato de la Copa Colombia? (El Tiempo)
- Inteview with Andres Felipe Munoz