Soccer

Colombian soccer teams set for exhibition matches at FIU Stadium

Jairo Palomino of Colombia’s Atletico Nacional celebrates his goal against Ecuador’s Barcelona at a Copa Libertadores soccer match in Medellin, Colombia, on Thursday, March 19, 2015.
Jairo Palomino of Colombia’s Atletico Nacional celebrates his goal against Ecuador’s Barcelona at a Copa Libertadores soccer match in Medellin, Colombia, on Thursday, March 19, 2015. AP

More than 1,300 miles separate Miami from the Colombian cities of Medellin and Cali, but for a few hours this week, Colombian soccer fans living in South Florida will feel right at home.

Four of the biggest clubs in Colombia — America, Cali, Nacional and Medellin — are playing a pair of doubleheader exhibition matches Wednesday and Saturday at FIU Stadium. On Saturday, for the first time in the 100-plus years of Colombian soccer history, the “Clasico” derby matches between cross-town rivals Medellin-Nacional and America-Cali will be played on the same day away from Colombian soil.

A near-sellout crowd of 18,000 to 20,000 is expected at “The Cage” for the Saturday doubleheader, which begins at 4 p.m. and includes a Colombian food and music festival for ticketholders. Although playing at FIU stadium won’t be quite the same for the Medellin rivals as playing at Atanasio Girabot, the stadium they share back home, the atmosphere should be electric.

A smaller, but still spirited, audience is expected for Wednesday’s matches — Cali vs. Medellin at 6 p.m., followed by Nacional vs. America.

South Florida is home to approximately 300,000 Colombians, with the biggest pockets in Doral, West Kendall, Hialeah, Weston, and Pompano. Those fans are well aware of the long history of the rivalries between the Colombian clubs.

They know the history of the teams. They know that Deportivo Cali is 103 years old, has won nine titles, and was once the team of legend Carlos “El Pibe” Valderrama. They know that Nacional is one of the strongest clubs in the country, with 15 league titles, one Superliga title and two Copa Colombias. They were the first Colombian team to win the prestigious Copa Libertadores in 1989.

And they have been following the news that Nacional coach Reynaldo Rueda, the former World Cup coach of Honduras, recently tried unsuccessfully to lure defender Maynor Figueroa to the team. Figueroa, a Honduran who played for Rueda, is a free agent after leaving the Colorado Rapids. Colombian reporters at the press conference Tuesday had many questions about possible roster acquisitions.

Event promoter John P. Reynal of OnSide Entertainment, said the four-team event is a way for South American clubs to spread their brand in the United States.

“A lot of the best South American players who go to Europe got their starts on these teams, so this will allow fans to see where future starts come from,” Reynal said. “Many European clubs play friendlies in the United States, and South American teams should take advantage of the same opportunities.”

All the coaches said Tuesday that their teams are not yet in peak shape, as they are still in the preseason. But they expect their players to put on a good show for their South Florida fans.

“This is a great opportunity for us to get in some good training and evaluate our players before the season,” said Deportivo Cali coach Fernando Castro. “We hope our fans realize we won’t be 100 percent, but it should be fun for Colombian fans here who don’t get to see Clasicos in person.”

Rueda agreed, saying the two matches will help him make roster decisions. His only regret is that the matches are being played on artificial turf.

“We’re not accustomed to artificial turf, and we’re early in the preseason, so there is danger of injuries and that’s a shame,” he said. “It’s a sacrifice the players are making. We have to overcome that obstacle and hopefully play great games. The games should be intense, even though they’re friendlies, because all the players are trying to earn starting jobs.”

Tickets for each of the doubleheaders are $42 and available at losclasicos.futbol and at the gate. The only entrance that will be open to traffic is the Coral Way entrance, so avoid campus entrances on S.W. 8th St.

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