When Nicolasa Hernandez made the empanada pies she sold in the small town of Tierralta, on Colombia’s Caribbean coast, she had little idea that she was cooking up more than just sustenance for her family. Without even realising, with her kneading and crimping she was creating the fuel that would power a goalscorer. And not just any goalscorer, but a record-breaking one who has powered his new team all the way to the final of the 2016 Copa Libertadores.
“Do the empanadas give me strength? You bet they do,” said the striker in question, Nicolasa’s 23-year-old son Miguel Angel Borja, who has played such a big hand in Atletico Nacional’s stunning Copa campaign.
“Empanadas have a lot of maize in them, and maize has a lot of vitamins,” he told FIFA.com with a broad smile on his face. “Every time I go home, my mum makes them for me. I need them, and she prepares them for me whenever she can.”
Borja lit up the Verde attack in their semi-final against Sao Paulo in much the same way as he used to light the wood fire on which his mother baked her speciality. After scoring 19 goals for Cortulua in the first half of the year to break Jackson Martinez’s Colombian short-season scoring record, he struck all four goals in his new employer’s aggregate defeat of the Brazilians in the last four of the Libertadores.
Only two other players have racked up four goals in a semi-final in the competition: Pele for Santos in 1963, and Albeiro Usuriaga for Atletico Nacional in 1989, with both of them going on to lift the trophy on those occasions.
“As a player, you always want to go down in history,” added Borja, the attacking spearhead of a side that has set the tournament alight with its offensive style. “That’s what you work for and that’s why you want to show what you’ve got in every game. We hope there are a lot more records to come.
“We’re a team that likes to get the ball down on the ground and play it around in midfield,” he explained. “That’s what sets us apart: we play a lot of one-twos in the centre, and you have to know how to move in those short passing triangles to hurt the opposition.”
No sooner had he joined the Medellin club in the middle of June than coach Reinaldo Rueda warned him: “Keep your eyes out for the one-twos.” He certainly did that in the first leg against Sao Paulo, rounding off a ten-pass move to score one of the best goals of the competition. That kind of slick passing has made Nacional the leading scorers in this year’s Libertadores with 23 goals, and has convinced large sections of the media and the fans that they are the best side in the tournament.
“It’s the team that wins the final that’s the best,” he said. “There are no excuses and no ifs and buts when it comes to doing a good job. We want to win it, to go out and play and see who’s the best.” Regardless of what happens in the final against Independiente del Valle, Borja is adamant that in terms of performance levels and achievement, he is now with the best team he has ever played for.
A big occasion
Borja admitted to feeling nervous ahead of Wednesday’s first leg in Quito: “You dream about it, and now that the dream has come true, I spend every minute thinking about what the final’s going to be like. I want to win it. I want to raise the trophy.”
It is the crowning moment in the career of a young player who grew up in a deprived environment, with his family having to put buckets on top of beds to catch the water that leaked through the roof. Violence was also an everyday part of life, with the Tierralta area providing fertile recruiting territory for the AUC, an extreme right-wing paramilitary group. Borja was never tempted to join them, however, and chose football instead.
Nicknamed El Zorrita on account of the long hair he used to wear and which, as he explained, resembled that of a shaggy-haired animal that goes by the same name, he stood out an early age on account of his physique, power and finishing skills. When he was 17, he went round clubs with the coach Lorenzo Ramirez, trying to find a team that would take him on. “There were seven of us, but after three days I was on my own. It was tough,” he said of the first test of his resolve as a player.
A job in a hardware store helped to put things in perspective: “It was there that I understood that life isn’t easy, that you have to work hard. Obviously, it was easier to play football. I understood that you have to give everything in every training session, on every pitch.”
In one way or another, that tour he embarked on as a teenager lasted six whole years, during which time he tried his luck at seven clubs, from America de Cali to Independiente Santa Fe, Livorno and Olimpo de Bahia Blanca. “It was in Italy that I learned to be professional and how to make sure that weekends went well,” he recalled. “In Argentina I learned that you have to fight, get stuck in and run hard to improve every day.”
A South American U-20 champion with Colombia, Borja ran out at the FIFA U-20 World Cup Turkey 2013, and also won the 2015 Copa Sudamericana during his time with Independiente, though he played little part in the competition. It was only when he arrived at Cortulua in January that his maize-powered career began to take off: “I had a run of games. I improved as a player and started to make the most of the chances that came my way, and to create them too.”
Within a few games of signing for Nacional the fans were chanting his name, adulation that he believes is down to more than just his finishing: “You can’t do everything on your own, and I’ve given God the time to go and do all his work.”
Borja’s stellar year is set to include a trip to the Men’s Olympic Football Tournament Rio 2016, though before that will come the final that every South American player wants to be a part of. “I want to achieve something very important in Colombia, which is to win the Sudamericana and the Libertadores,” explained the in-form striker. “I’m very close, and I couldn’t be more motivated. I hope I’m blessed.”