Photo of my friends and I celebrating the win? Check. Photo of a kid waving a Nacional flag to show his pride? Check. Video of the diehard Nacional fans cheering? Check (although the poor quality from being bumped around prevents me from posting it here).
It really happened: Nacional 2, Millonarios 1.
I’m still glowing that my favorite team won because, as I sat Tuesday night in Estadio Atanasio Girardot, I didn’t think it would.
I thought about the night before as I ate breakfast Wednesday morning, how I was watching the clock in the second half, how at the 80-minute mark I said to myself, “Ok, guys, just hold them off for about 10 more minutes and you’ve got a 1-0 victory.”
At the same time, I was chatting with my good friend Laura, a Bogotá native and Millonarios fan who lives in Los Angeles. We had talked about the game the other day so she had sent me an email to tell me I must be excited about the result.
I was still in disbelief, and for good reason. My skepticism spans almost a year.
The first time I ever attended a game was the end of April 2012, when Nacional lost to Huila, a team from southern Colombia that typically is not one of the top teams in Liga Postobón. The 2-1 defeat led to the firing of then-coach Santiago Escobar.
At that point I had been a Nacional fan for almost 8 months. Paisas who became friends after I moved to their city convinced me to support their team.
I always liked soccer, uh, fútbol when I lived in the states, because my cousin played, and a good friend played.
Moving to Medellín made me love fútbol, and I began to learn about the leagues, the players and the teams.
I quickly found out Nacional is one of the best teams in Colombia, the result of a strong financial backing, thanks to owner Carlos Ardila Lülle, the founder of Postobón, the country’s largest soft drink producer.
Maybe that makes me a bandwagon fan, but I really didn’t know anything about them. I didn’t so much jump on board, as much as I was pulled onto the caravan.
Fast forward to April 2013.
During my time as a fan, I have watched Nacional fail time and time again, not because of a lack of talent, but mainly because of an inability to focus and play as a team. But when they get in the zone, they can be unstoppable.
They weren’t on April 12, five days before the Millonarios game. I sat at a pub, watching with friends, as Tolima ran up a 3-0 lead in the first half and thumped Nacional 4-0. Maybe Nacional was looking ahead?
As we prepared to head to the stadium for the Millonarios game, the Tolima game was fresh in my mind, as well as the fact that Millonarios lost to its hometown rival Santa Fe over the weekend and would probably be fired up heading into this game.
I predicted Nacional would lose.
Forward Jhon Pajoy’s goal at the 52-minute mark gave me hope. There’s a chance, I thought.
I got a little nervous when Nacional star midfielder Macnelly Torres went down with what appeared to be a hamstring injury. Then at the 83-minute mark, when I was counting down the clock, Hárrison Otálvaro approached from the right-wing and sailed a kick from more than 20 yards out over goalie Cristian Bonilla’s head.
Now I started to think back to the Huila game, how Nacional let a 1-0 lead in the second half become a 2-1 loss.
But most of my emotion revolved around what a lot of the people in my section seemed to be thinking: “F*#k! We’ve outplayed Millonarios the whole game and it’s going to end in a tie? That’s like a win for them and a loss for us.”
Nacional had controlled the ball for most of the night, spent most of the game in the attacking zone. There’s more to it than that, though.
Bogotá and Medellín, the capital and the country’s second-biggest city, have a rivalry that apparently spans generations.
Paisas say Bogotanos are rude. Bogotanos say paisas tell you what you want to hear instead of what you need to hear. There’s some truth to both theories although not nearly as much as each side claims. (Personally, I think the overwhelming majority of both bogotanos and paisas are good people.)
Frivolous or not, this cultural rivalry lent a social significance to the game.
Still tied after 90 minutes, four more were added, to see if someone could score again. Nacional got close with about 40 seconds left, a header that misfired, and many local fans left, a stream of green headed toward the exits.
My friends and I stayed, to get our 32,000 pesos worth. It turned out to be the best $17 I ever spent on a professional sporting event.
The ball made its way to the left side and Sherman Cárdenas zig-zagged toward the goal, his long hair flying in the breeze as he unleashed a furious kick that rocketed past Millonarios goalie Robinson Zapata.
The stadium erupted with paisa pride. Friends hugging each other, strangers hugging each other, people chanting, jumping up and down, smiling.
Moments later, when the referees called the game, the place exploded again.
Nacional 2, Millonarios 1. Final.
With the win, Nacional jumped from No. 8 to No. 3 in the Liga Postobón rankings, and Millonarios fell from No. 4 to No. 6. The top 8 teams qualify for the playoffs.
We waited for most of the fans to leave, to enjoy the view of the mountains and take a few pictures, then we headed across the street for some celebratory beer and food.
Other fans did too. I sat down, looked around, and wondered which ones missed the final goal.