It was not so very long ago that Colombian coach Luis Fernando Montoya seemed to have it all. Back in 2004, the then 42-year-old pulled off one of the achievements of the year by defying the odds and guiding unfancied Once Caldas to Copa Libertadores glory.
What made the feat even more special was the fact that the Colombian underdogs faced off in the final against Carlos Bianchi’s mighty Boca Juniors, who had won the competition three times in the previous four seasons. The Argentinians’ record counted for nothing, however, as they went down on penalties.
In December that year, Montoya came within another penalty shootout of an even bigger prize: the Intercontinental Cup, which now goes by the name of the FIFA Club World Cup. On this occasion, though, luck deserted Montoya and his charges, who were edged out by Porto.
The coach returned to Colombia with his head held high, unaware that just ten days later he would be left facing the biggest challenge of his life.
On 22 December 2004, in courageously coming to his wife Adriana’s aid during a burglary at their house, Montoya was shot three times, with one of the bullets damaging his spinal cord. Though he survived the attack, the man they call El Profe lost all movement in his limbs and was unable to breathe unassisted. While many would have given up all hope, Montoya kept on fighting.
“It took me a while to stop asking myself why it had to be me or why it had to be then,” the man who regained his ability to breathe in 2009 told FIFA.com from his home in Caldas. “But then I just started to accept it all and I realised that I had to keep on moving forward."
His ultimate goal, he explained in a slow and deliberate voice, is to rise up from the chair to which he has been confined. And one of the biggest motivating factors in that ongoing battle is his love for football.
“I fight every day with the aim of getting back into coaching,” he said. “I know full well how difficult that is but I have to face that fight head on and try to fulfil that dream, just to see if I can do it. If I can, I’ll be very happy. If I can’t, then at least I’ll have the satisfaction of having fought for what I wanted.”
It took me a while to stop asking myself why it had to be me or why it had to be then.
Though an intensely emotional experience, Montoya has no qualms about looking back ten years to Once Caldas’ stunning Libertadores triumph.
“We’d won the league in 2003, but we didn’t expect to go on such a fantastic run,” he said. “Though we’d beaten champion teams like Velez Sarsfield (in the group phase) and Santos (in the quarter-finals), it wasn’t until we knocked out Sao Paulo in the semi-finals that we realised we could beat anyone. That’s why we weren’t overawed when we took on Boca.”
After playing out a goalless draw in the first leg in Buenos Aires, the two sides drew 1-1 in Manizales, leaving the trophy to be decided on penalties. Having won shootouts in the two previous rounds, the second of them against eternal rivals River Plate, Boca would have been confident of success. Against the Colombians, however, they failed to convert a single penalty.
“We were organised and grounded and we beat a team who’d won the lot,” recalled Montoya. “Only one other Colombian side had won the competition before us (Atletico Nacional in 1989) and we were the last, which makes that result all the more notable today.”
Reflecting on his side’s subsequent 8-7 shootout loss to Porto in the Intercontinental Cup in Japan, a phlegmatic Montoya said: “In football you have to know how to take the rough with the smooth. We’d beaten Boca on penalties and it was just our turn to lose. I was calm about it at the time and I feel the same way now.”
Colombian chances in Brazil
It was that selfsame philosophy that moved Montoya to write El Campeón de la Vida (The Champion of Life) in 2010. Explaining the reasons behind the book, he said: “My story can help people see that there are others who have exactly the same problems.”
As well as trying to get better and spending precious time with his family, he has been devoting his energies since then to a number of projects, giving classes at the Medellin Sports Institute, talks at the Antioquia National Learning Service (SENA) and working as an instructor. He also did some sports consultancy work for Colombian club Millonarios in 2013.
And like all Cafetero fans, he is eagerly awaiting the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™.
“There are a few people here who think it’s going to be easy, though I don’t see it that way,” said Montoya, who is expecting big things from Colombian front man Adrian Ramos. “In football as in life, you have to take small steps. First we need to get through the group phase and then we’ll see who we get.
"Reaching the semi-finals would be fantastic and we have the players to do that, despite [Radamel] Falcao’s injury. You can’t rule out teams like Brazil, Argentina, Spain, Germany and Italy though.”
When asked to ponder on what might have had he gone on to become Colombia coach, Montoya shows no sign of resentment at how his life has turned out.
“It’s hard not to be bitter,” said El Profe, wrapping things up. “But given the situation I’m in, I can’t think that way. All I can do is to focus on moving forward and getting better, because my role now is to set an example for society and all the youngsters in Colombia.”