The news shook a nation. Last 9 February, 16 Chilean fans lost their lives in a road accident on a journey back to Rancagua from Talcahuano after watching their beloved team, O’Higgins, play against Huachipato.
The tragedy hit the region hard and sent shockwaves down the corridors of this humble club. Among those who had passed away, the only one over the age of 38 was the driver of the bus, which fell 60 metres from a cliff before landing on a factory at the foot of the Cuesta del Caracol, some 430 kilometres from its destination.
In October, when around 400 fans travelled to the spot to mourn the victims, Argentinian midfielder Alejandro Lopez summed up their sentiments. “The memory of the fans makes you realise that you belong not only to a football club, but to something much greater, and that’s the fans’ hearts. We used to see several of these lads at the training sessions at La Gamboina and at the games. If we went to the end of the world, they would follow us…”
“This goal is for the 16 fans who died in Tome,” fellow Argentinian Pablo Hernandez said after his strike claimed the title for O’Higgins. “Without doubt, it is the most important goal of my career.
"It’s the first title for a team that I love, in which we all work together with the same commitment and the same objective. And even in the worst moments, we believed in the ideas instilled in us by the boss (Eduardo Berizzo),” explained the 27-year-old attacking midfielder, who was born in Argentina but dreams of wearing Chile's colours at Brazil 2014.
In sporting terms, the Celeste campaign is even more noteworthy because of the work on their stadium which meant the team was forced to play their home games in three different venues. For their title triumph, thousands of fans travelled the 80 kilometres which separate Rancagua from Santiago to see the team crowned champions.
O’Higgins – whose top scorer was another Argentinian, Pablo Calandria – will now participate in the Copa Libertadores for only the fourth time in their history – and the first since 1984.
Berizzo, who is 44 and a former assistant to Marcelo Bielsa, took charge of the team at the beginning of last year and almost led them to glory as O’Higgins finished as runners-up in the Apertura 2012. “This title is for the players and the fans, who willed us on in the last few minutes today,” he said. “It’s been a tough year and it has ended with the prize which the fans deserve.”
Also key in the team’s triumph were goalkeeper Paulo Garces and captain Braulio Leal, who posted a moving message on Twitter. “We had 16 angels up there who sent us a star,” he wrote.