Historically Colo Colo have been one of the standard bearers of Chilean football in continental championships. And while there is no shortage of facts and figures to back up that assertion, none carry more weight that their 1991 achievement of becoming the country’s first club to win the Copa Libertadores.
Fast forward to November 2012 and, with one of the players from that 1991 triumph at the helm, Colo Colo once again did the club and Chile proud by winning their first Copa Libertadores Femenina. “It’s a very significant title as it underlines the club’s great impact in what is the national sport,” said coach Jose Letelier in an exclusive interview with FIFA.com.
“It’s also fundamentally a social achievement, as we’re talking about an institution that has given women their place in this sport,” added the former Cacique goalkeeper.
His assertion will come as no surprise to followers of this story. Indeed, in the immediate aftermath of his side’s historic triumph in Recife, where they saw off Foz Cataratas 4-2 on penalties after a 0-0 draw, Letelier made a point of putting the triumph in perspective.
“This is for all Chileans and everyone working in the women’s game, from the clubs to the national team. We’re all part of this success. We want to involve everyone in this and exclude no one,” said the coach on that unforgettable November night.
Key to success
A brief look back at the history of this competition illustrates the magnitude of El Cacique’s achievement. In the three previous editions of the tournament, the winners had come from Brazil, the leading exponent of the women’s game in South America.
Colo Colo did, however, signal their intent in 2011 when, to the surprise of many, they made it to the final of the continental showpiece. And while they only went down 1-0 to a strong Sao Jose EC side on that occasion, it raised the question of whether the team was ready to make the step up.
Part of the answer can be drawn from their results during the prestigious tournament itself. Colo Colo finished their Group C campaign unbeaten, though they were pipped to top spot by Brazil’s Vitoria on goal difference.
Boasting the best record of the three second-placed teams, El Cacique progressed to the semi-finals where, as fate would have it, they met Vitoria once more – given the latter had the best record of the three group winners. A thrilling 4-3 success sent the Chilean outfit through to the final, where they faced Foz Cataratas, winners of an all-Brazilian semi against reigning champions Sao Jose EC.
Filling in the rest of the gaps was coach Letelier, who gave his verdict on the keys to his team’s continental triumph. “On the one hand, we assembled a group of excellent people, who were committed to what we wanted to achieve,” said the 49-year-old supremo.
“On the other, the squad was mentally very strong. The players were ready to compete at such a demanding level and were determined not to let another opportunity slip by. Just think, we played the competition in Brazil, we met three Brazilian teams along the way, we didn’t lose to any of them and we took the title,” added the coach, whose team sealed the Copa when Gloria Villamayor converted the clinching penalty in the shoot-out.
When quizzed about the far-reaching effects of Colo Colo’s success on the Chilean women’s game, Letelier preferred to err on the side of caution: “It’s hard to predict right now, since there are a lot of factors involved.
"It shouldn’t depend on whether a title is won or not, it should be about creating institutional policies that put an emphasis on this sport and help it develop in Chile. That’s because as long as the resources aren’t there, it’ll be a struggle to take any successes to the next level.”
In addition to his team’s Libertadores win, there have been enough encouraging signs from the women’s scene in Chile, Colombia and Uruguay in recent years to suggest the gap between Brazil and the rest is narrowing.
“It’s all relative,” said Letelier, who has guided Colo Colo to five domestic championships. “The gap can narrow or widen in part due to the economic resources available, but it’ll be sustained hard work over time that decides whether teams can stay at the top.
“In order to make women’s football thrive more here, both FIFA, as a global body, and CONMEBOL, in South American terms, must keep showing vision,” added Letelier, as the conversation drew to a close. “They need to keep insisting that it’s worthwhile bringing more women into football, which is such an exciting sport.”