Derby day in Medellín

Colombia’s classic derby echoes a notorious era

Expect fireworks whenever Atlético Nacional and Deportivo Independiente meet in El Clásico Paisa

Sunday saw the staging of Colombia’s classic derby between Atlético Nacional and Deportivo Independiente at the stadium they share. El Clásico Paisa involves the two biggest clubs in the country’s second city of Medellín – known for the shooting, 20 years ago, of unfortunate defender Andrés Escobar. Derby day veteran Will Fulford-Jones describes the scenes whenever the Estadio Atanasio Girardot fills to the brim.

To outsiders with a passing interest in football history, the Colombian city of Medellín is notorious. On 2 July 1994, ten days after scoring an own goal that contributed to his country’s exit from the World Cup, defender Andrés Escobar was shot dead in the barrio of El Poblado.

His assassin was a bodyguard for one of various drug cartels that effectively controlled parts of the city, and the shooting was widely seen as a revenge killing for the errant boot that set the USA on their way to a shock 2-1 win.

Los Del Sur/Will Fulford-Jones

Escobar’s murder threw the global spotlight on Colombia, then a deeply troubled country, and on Medellín, said at the time to be the world’s most violent city. Internationally, it continues to tarnish the nation’s reputation, going some way towards defining Colombia in the eyes of those who’ve never visited it.

However, 30 years later, things are now very different. Colombia in general and Medellín in particular are much safer places than they were in 1994, with many Colombians relieved that the lengthy negotiations between the government and rebel guerrillas have improved the situation. 

And before they were kicked off the pitch by a Brazil team whose subsequent annihilation was greeted locally with a mix of derisive laughter and outright glee, Colombia were everyone’s second favourite team at the 2014 World Cup, James Rodríguez its smiling poster boy.

Estadio Atanasio Girardot/Will Fulford-Jones

Less overwhelming than Bogotá and much more charming than Cali, Medellín is a lively place, shaped but not defined by its setting in between two mountain ranges. It’s also home to a storied football rivalry. What the Superclásico between Boca and River is to Argentine football, the regular dust-ups between Atlético Nacional and Deportivo Independiente Medellín are to soccer in Colombia – the biggest club game in the country, one that inspires fever in supporters around Colombia who may not even have a horse in the race to back.

These days, El Clásico Paisa is a match-up in which one team holds the whip hand. Winners of a 17th national championship in 2022 and the breeding ground for such notables as René Higuita, Faustino Asprilla and the aforementioned Escobar, Atlético Nacional are the country’s biggest club. Walking the streets of the city, you’re far more likely to spot their green-and-white shirts than the red-and-navy of Medellín, whose history suggests more disappointment than success.

Los Del Sur/Will Fulford-Jones

Nacional and Medellín count on outlandish levels of support within the city, the most vocal elements occupying permanent territories behind opposing goals at the stadium that both teams call home. The stand behind the northern goal at the 45,000-capacity Estadio Atanasio Girardot is where you’ll find Medellín’s hardcore support, collectively known as Rexixtenxia Norte. 

At the other end, Los Del Sur provide deafening backing for Nacional. Beneath a sky of blue, this sea of green generally spends the full 90 minutes singing in support of their heroes, a spine-tingling din for even the most meaningless of mid-season matches.

El Clásico Paisa is generally the only game guaranteed to sell out all season. For most other matches, tickets will be available on the day. In the boisterous stands behind the goals, Norte and Sur, the seats (though you won’t be doing much sitting) go for about C$25,000 (€5). Tickets for other sections run up to about C$100,000 (€20), though you don’t need to pay that much for a great view. If you’re in town for an afternoon game, don’t be surprised if the weather is blisteringly hot.

To get to Estadio Atanasio Girardot, take the efficient metro system to Estadio station. Alternatively, a cab from downtown should cost C$10,000-C$12,000, or about €2-€2.50. The stadium is part-ringed by simple sheds dispensing basic food and beer. However, whether before or after the game, you’ll find better fare and stronger drinks at the smarter, livelier spots on nearby Carrera 70, just the other side of the station.