BY MARK GODFREY
Calama – Tierra de sol y cobre – land of sun and copper. Arid, remote.
The city lies to the west of the Andes Mountains in northern Chile in the heart of the driest non-polar desert on Earth. The unrelenting, unforgiving environment of its interior does not lend itself to large scale human populisation. For most of its history since Spanish colonisation – at first under Bolivian control and latterly Chilean from 1879 – the capital of El Loa province was a small but important frontier town that lay on trade and mail routes.
However, there is one particular feature that the harsh Atacama has continually given up over millennia – an abundant natural resource – one that has heavily influenced the town’s growth (population almost 150,000 and ranked in Chile’s 20 largest cities) and has helped to sustain its inhabitants through the ages; copper.
It may not be on the list of precious metals but its economic value to those whose lives have been shaped by society’s exploitation of its multitude of applications is considerable; and nowhere more so than in and around Calama where the vast Chuquicamata open pit mine carves giant depressions into the barren landscape.
For many years – 44 since the founding of the Chilean Primera División in 1933 – Calama, with all its copper-reliant prosperity, was without a major team competing against the successful, established clubs from further south such as the Santiago-based trio of Colo Colo, Universidad de Chile and Universidad Católica. However, that all changed in 1977 with the formation of Club de Deportes Cobreloa.
The name Cobreloa is an amalgamation; Cobre – the Spanish word for copper, and Loa – after the region of El Loa and Chile’s longest river which flows close to Calama. The entity behind the club’s creation is, as you would expect, inextricably linked to the copper business.
CODELCO is the former state-owned copper mining business that was originally founded in 1955, nationalised in 1971 by the government of Marxist president Salvador Allende and then reformed in 1976 by the regime of General Augusto Pinochet. Backed by significant amounts of CODELCO’s pesos, Cobreloa’s rise to the top of the Chilean game was swift and immediate.
After almost a year of campaigning under the slogan “Now or never”, Cobreloa’s application to join the professional ranks was unanimously approved by the league’s members. In a local radio announcement at 20.45 on January 7th 1977, police chief Francisco Nuñez Venegas – who would become the club’s first president soon after – took to the airwaves and declared success in the ballot, much to the delight of those in Calama and Chuquicamata who flooded the streets in great numbers to celebrate.
Just a month later, on February 6th, Cobreloa played their first ever game – a Copa Chile encounter with Regional Club Antofagasta at the Antofagasta Regional Stadium. With a hint of things to come, Cobreloa secured a famous maiden victory thanks to goals by Armando Alarcon – a former employee at the Chuquicamata mine – and Juan Rogelio Nunez.
Although they would ultimately fall at the group stage of the Copa Chile that year, their primary objective was promotion from the Segunda to the Primera División. After the 34-game regular season, the Zorros del desierto – the desert foxes – finished fourth in the table entitling them to a play-off spot for the right to join champions Coquimbo Unido in the top flight for 1978. The round-robin format with Santiago Morning, Santiago Wanderers and Malleco Kingdom finished with Cobreloa as runners-up. This meant that coach Andrés Prieto’s side had accomplished the unlikely; promotion at the first attempt.
The 46th renewal of the Chilean championship in 1978 was almost another fairytale for the fledgling Naranjas. However, they would fall just short in the final reckoning, finishing behind champions Palestino and then losing out in the qualification play-offs for the Copa Libertadores – South America’s equivalent of the European Cup. Despite these minor setbacks, Cobreloa were now well and truly on a par with the traditional Chilean football hierarchy after a mere two years in existence.
History repeated itself in 1979; second place in the league – this time behind Chile’s most successful club Colo Colo – and failure to make to the Libertadores through the play-off scramble again might have dented the hopes and ambitions of any club, let alone distant, provincial upstarts that had only been around for three years and dared to muscle in on the big time. But, for Cobreloa and their wealthy backers, the club’s upward trajectory had not come to a halt.
As the 1980’s dawned and the price of copper rocketed, Cobreloa’s ascent to the top of Chilean football was put in the hands of Argentine-born Vicente Cantatore – a man whose only previous experience was at lowly Lota Schwager. He would eventually go on to have a long coaching career in both Chile and Spain.
As debut seasons go, 1980 couldn’t have panned out much better for Cantatore and Cobreloa; just four league defeats befell the club from Calama en route to their first ever Chilean championship crown. Just three years after their admittance into the professional ranks, and with two tantalising near misses behind them in their previous tilts at the big prize, they had achieved the incredible.
With success at home in the bag, and not content with resting on their laurels, attention switched to continental matters and the Copa Libertadores. Having bombed out of the final Chilean play-off qualification in both 1978 and 1979, their title triumph guaranteed inclusion in the pot for South America’s premier club competition.
Group 5 consisted of two Chilean clubs – Cobreloa and Universidad de Chile – and the Peruvian pair Sporting Cristal and Atlético Torino, neither of whom provided the Atacama-based club with any great difficulties during the first group section; Cobreloa finished top, undefeated.
Their reward? The semi-final stage and another round robin group phase – this time with just two opponents; Uruguay’s two most popular clubs, Peñarol and Nacional – the Libertadores holders. Yet again though, Cobreloa impressed, cruising through to the final with the minimum of fuss. The trophy would still take a monumental amount of winning; a two-legged showdown with the superstars of Brazilian giants Flamengo – Zico and all – who stood ominously in the path to immortality.
On November 13th 1981, in the colossal Maracana Stadium in Rio de Janeiro, Cobreloa stepped into the lions’ den for the first leg. Almost 94,000 baying Flamengo fans were there to greet the Chilean champions. The home side got off to a flying start; Zico putting the Mengão two up before half time and seemingly in control of the whole tie. With the destiny of the Libertadores lying squarely with the Brazilians, playmaker Victor Merello stroked home a penalty to renew hope for Cantatore’s men in the return leg held in Chile’s national stadium in Santiago.
In front of another typically vociferous South American crowd the following week, nerves frayed as the clock ticked down to a Flamengo aggregate victory, but with less than five minutes remaining, Merello stepped forward to take a free kick 25-yards from goal. With the aid of a slight deflection, and to the delight of the majority of the 60,000 plus in the stands, the ball whistled into the top corner of the net past Flamengo keeper, Raul, to draw the men in orange level thus earning them a winner takes all decider – this time in neutral Montevideo, Uruguay just three days later.
Once again, Cobreloa’s tormentor-in-chief was Zico. The Rubro-Negro captain drilled home the first after some defensive indecision and then doubled the lead late on to take his tally for the competition to eleven. Between both goals, the encounter descended into a good old-fashioned kicking match before culminating in an all-out brawl – Flamengo’s Andrade and Anselmo (who was escorted from the field by Police just three minutes after coming on as a substitute) seeing red from referee Roque Cerullo along with Cobreloa’s Eduardo Jiménez, skipper Mario Soto and the man who scored in their first ever competitive game, Armando Alarcón. Defeated and disgraced, Cobreloa returned to Chile to lick their wounds and try again in 1982.
Having failed to defend the league title in 1981, objective number one was to regain their place at the head of the Primera Division – something they did with a four point margin to chief rivals Colo Colo. With a second league success secured, Cantatore set about laying to rest the ghosts of the previous Copa Libertadores disappointment.
The early stages progressed as serenely as they had 12 months previously; a second successive final and a crack at Peñarol loomed. Almost a year to the day after succumbing to their own tempers and Zico’s Flamengo, Cobreloa returned to the Estadio Centenario in the Uruguayan capital. A creditable 0-0 draw gave the Naranjas even greater hope for the second leg in Santiago.
Yet again, a full house witnessed a tight, sterile, goalless affair. The 90 minutes were practically up when the home favourites suffered another heartbreak on their quest for continental glory. A break down the visitors’ right wing by Ramos left the Zorros’ tired defence floundering, and his perfect, pinpoint cross was controlled and finished by Fernando Morena – to the dismay of the massed ranks of Cobreloa fans.
Although they had been narrowly vanquished by two of the giants of South American football in those Copa Libertadores finals of ’81 and ’82 (who both went on to become World Club Champions beating European Champions Liverpool and Aston Villa respectively), the mere appearance in the finals by these interlopers from the dry and dusty Chilean desert, just five years after their inception, was as close to a sporting miracle as you might ever see – regardless of the considerable investment of copper earnings by CODELCO.
Sadly, Cobreloa have never quite managed to emulate those feats in the intervening 30 years; a semi-final appearance in 1987 as close as they’ve come since. However, they continued to challenge for honours in Chile, winning three more championships and a Copa Chile in the subsequent decade. In more recent times the likes of current international Eduardo Vargas and superstar Alexis Sanchez have all cut their teeth at the elevated Estadio Municipal de Calama. Playing at altitude has served Cobreloa well – within five short years the club born out of underground wealth soared to the brink of football’s stratosphere.