Victories in the soccer world are celebrated, entered into the FIFA record books and memorialized – because what fans don’t enjoy success? We’ve never heard anyone say they’re sick of winning trophies.
Still, the folk memory of Latin American soccer fans skews a bit differently. We have a tendency to revere the teams just shy of victory, and treasure the brilliant failures and underdogs.
Here are some of our favorite soccer losers.
Atlas, 1999 [Mexico]
If any team embodies the Mexican love affair with the myth of thwarted victory, it’s Atlas. With a 63 + year streak of no national titles, the Rojinegros may be the most beautiful loser team of all. They were very close to glory in Verano 1999, but…then Toluca won in penalty kicks during the final. It was as painful as a ranchera song.
Rojinegro’s supporters remember the 1999 squad because they had a great generation of younger players like Juan Pablo “Chato” Rodríguez, Daniel Osorno, Miguel Zépeda and the best – Rafael Márquez.
They were coached by the divisive Argentino Ricardo La Volpe, who remains in our collective imagination for his intensity and passion. To this day, Atlas fans are very grateful for the great team he created, even though they didn’t win anything.
They played beautifully on the pitch, and that’s what matters.
Once Caldas, 1986 [Colombia]
Mythical coach Francisco “Pacho” Maturana once told El País: “perder es ganar un poco.” For him, defeat in soccer was also an opportunity to analyze, evaluate, and correct mistakes – guiding players toward a future win.
Maturana probably coined that phrase and outlook during his tenure as coach of the Once Caldas in the 1986 season.
Paisas still remember how this team was a laboratory in which Maturana experimented with his ideas of soccer. Though the team never won anything, he developed a pretty nice style of play, which he perfected years later with multi-champion Atletico Medellin and the Colombian National team from 1987 to 1994.
And though they lost, Once Caldas was the first team in 80 years to qualify for the ’86 playoffs in the national league, and moreover to do it with a young team of “puros criollos” – no foreigners.
Colombian football today owes much to the ideas of Maturana, and his creation of a “puroCriollo” style – and it all started at the Once Caldas.
Destroyers, 1989 [Bolivia]
Marco Antonio “El Diablo” Etcheverry began as a professional soccer player with the modest team Destroyers, who are maybe the greatest example of the defeated in Bolivia. (Currently, they’re in second division).
It’s no coincidence that this team, who represented the Santa Cruz de la Sierra in the Bolivian national league for several years, are from the same province where Che Guevara was captured and killed.
As a rebel, Etcheverry led the Destroyers to a magnificent season in 1988. The “canaries” reached the semifinals of the national championship, when they lost to the popular Strongest.
At this time El Diablo met two of his best partners on the pitch, legendary Bolivian players Erwin “Platini” Sanchez and Mauricio “Tapera” Ramos, who, alongside Etcheverry were known as the “golden trio.” It was delightful to see them play.
The rebel team led by El Diablo, was an ode to fleeting passage of Che Guevara in Santa Cruz de la Sierra, Bolivia.
It was nice while it lasted.
Danubio, 1989 [Uruguay]
In the Copa Libertadores, every now and then there comes a young team that captures the imagination and hearts of soccer fans. For a brief moment, they seem invincible – and then they falter, vanquished just as suddenly as they rose.
This was the case with Uruguay’s Danubio in 1989. They were invincible in the Uruguayan competition for first time champions in 1988, began the continental tournament one year on strong footing, and then were suddenly defeated in the semifinals.
Ildo Maneiro’s team started La Libertadores beating Peñarol, later they eliminated the defending champion Nacional, both of which were bitter rivals from Montevideo.
They also beat two Bolivian teams, stopped along the way at Cobreloa of Chile, (who had never lost in their stadium in Calama desert), and reached the semifinals with Atletico Nacional Medellin, who ultimately became tournament champions.
But the Danubio was a feel-good team not because of statistics or victories, but because of their style of play was spectacular to watch. They were an anomaly in Uruguayan soccer, known more for its “la garra charrúa” approach as opposed to its aesthetics.
Ruben Da Silva and Ruben Pereira broke the mold of Uruguayan style, and were a great duo in the offensive.
Huracán, 2009 [Argentina]
Cappa’s Angels is how Argentine hinchas will remember Huracán in the Clausura 2009. They were winning the title on the final day of the regular season but then lost the last game and the trophy. Velez Sarsfield won by just two points.
Angel Cappa, assistant to Jorge Valdano at Real Madrid in the 90s, built the team based on the old school of ball possession, influenced by the style of British Arsenal, creating options below without throwing a single center.
“The future of football is in the past,” Cappa once said in an interview with Spain’s El País. Under his supervision, players had the ball on their toes with two or three passing options, anywhere on the pitch, inspired by the old Argentine style. The ball was the protagonist of the match – touched a lot and dribbled less.
With Huracán, Cappa accomplished a remarkable statistic: everyone on the initial roster scored at least one goal in the season, each with no less than five touches before ball crossed goal line.
Deportivo Municipal, 1969 [Perú]
For Peruvian soccer fans, the holy trinity is formed by Teofilo Cubillas, Hector Chumpitaz and Hugo Sotil, the latter of whom arrived as a soccer star with the epochal team Deportivo Municipal in 1969.
Sotil is a hero to Municipal because he conducted the squad to first division in Perú; just a year before he joined, the team was playing in second division.
Sotil’s team captivated the audience in Peruvian stadiums. This caused Brazilian coach Didí, who at that time coached Peru’s national team, to add the young sensation to the selección.
It’s easy to see why people thronged the pitch to watch this team – you can still find Youtube videos paying homage to Sotil’s best dribblings. He made 10 goals in his first season, and was generous in assists with his fellow players Manuel Mellán and Jaime Mosquera.
But they didn’t really achieve anything as a team.
As individuals, years later, Sotil wore an FC Barcelona jersey with his number “10” on it, when he played with legend Johan Cruyff. But that only lasted one year.
People still remember his first beautiful loser team Deportivo Municipal, and the afternoons in ’69 at Lima’s San Martin de Porras stadium.
Club Deportivo O'Higgins, 2007 [Chile]
Coached by Argentine Jorge Sampaoli from 2007 to 2009, the O’Higgins squad treated the Chilean tournament to a marvelous display of great teamwork.
With no star players, the “Rancagüinos” team was a perfect living organism on the pitch, where they gave amazing performances when they were deployed to attack and retreated to defend.
For Chilean soccer fans in 2007, O´Higgins seemed to be on their way to winning the title – but in playoffs they lost against Universidad de Chile. Those were the best numbers for Don Sampa’s team, third place on the table and always defeated in the second round.
But despite being losers, Samapoli’s team won so much popularity and unanimous respect for his team’s performance, that he became the coach of the Chilean National Team after Marcelo Bielsa.
No small feat.