Sixty-three years is all it has taken for Club Atletico Nacional de Medellin to firmly establish themselves as one of the Colombia’s most popular and successful clubs. Also the nation’s staunchest purveyors of fútbol lírico (lyrical football), which prides itself on putting style first, takes a look back at the rich history of Colombia’s Rey de Copas (Cup Kings).

Birth of an institution
The roots of the club can be traced back to 1935, when Union FC were founded in a neighbourhood of Medellin. After victory in the second division of the 1942 Liga Antioquena, Union were promoted to the league’s top tier for the 1943 campaign, by which point they had merged with fellow amateur outfit Indulana to become Union Indulana.

And though Atletico would initially take Union Indulana’s red-and-green colours, as well as a number of its squad members, the new institution was founded as an independent entity. Indeed, Atletico were brought into being as part of a project led by Alberto Villegas Lopera, who created a commercial company aiming to try and further professional football and basketball in the area. Club Atletico Municipal de Medellin were therefore officially founded on 30 April 1947, with the name chosen because all of its players hailed from the Antioquia region, of which Medellin is the capital.

The making of a legend
It would be in 1950, two years after the professional game in Colombia first got underway, the fledgling outfit changed the ‘Municipal’ in its name to ‘Nacional’. This reflected a policy of only calling upon Colombian nationals and their motto of “promoting and defending domestic players above all others”. Thus the resulting nickname of El Paisa, short for paisano, which means ‘countryman’ or someone from the same area.

However, this decision arguably denied El Paisa the chance to compete for major honours in the early years of the Colombian professional game, which was marked by an influx of stellar foreign signings. It took until 1953 for Atletico to sign their first non-national in the shape of Argentinian Atilio Miotti, who one year later helped the club to their first title alongside two compatriots in coach Fernando Paternoster and striker Carlos Gambina. Also playing a key role in this success was the exquisitely talented Humberto Turron Alvarez, considered in some circles as among the finest Colombian players of all time.

That trophy triumph came in the same year as Atletico changed to an all-green shirt, though come 1957 the club switched again to its current green-and-white striped combination. By this point a fierce rivalry with Deportivo Independiente Medellin (DIM) was already in place, a tussle in which Atletico enjoy a clear historical edge. El Verde y Blanco have won 109 to DIM’s 74 in 266 meetings between the sides, while they also boast ten domestic and five international titles, compared to five and none respectively for their rivals.

After riding out a financial crisis that threatened their existence in the 1960s, Atletico Nacional claimed their second national championship in 1973, thanks to the talent of the likes of Francisco Maturana, Gerardo Moncada, Eduardo Retat and Argentinian magician Jorge Hugo Fernandez. Having managed to keep most of that squad together, Atletico again took championship honours in 1976, this time under Argentinian coach Osvaldo Juan Zubeldia. According to Los Paisas’ faithful, the latter success provided undeniable proof of the club’s popularity, with the team able to fill Manizales’ Estadio Palogrande when clinching the title before packing Medellin’s Estadio Atanasio Girardot 18 hours later for the celebrations.

Nacional are everything to me.

Victor Hugo Aristizabel

Another title followed in 1981, when the silky left foot of Peruvian Cesar Cueto was to the fore, though sadness engulfed the club and Colombian football as a whole the following year when Zubeldia passed away. “Osvaldo shaped a whole era,” said his former charge Maturana, who went on to become a respected coach himself. “He taught us professionalism and showed us that hard work was the key to success.”

Indeed, it was the coaching nous of El Pacho Maturana that was behind another huge landmark in the history of El Verdolaga, when they became the first Colombian team to lift the Copa Libertadores in 1989. Part of that legendary side, which narrowly lost that year’s Toyota Intercontinental Cup 1-0 after extra time to AC Milan, were such iconic figures as Rene Higuita, Andres Escobar, Luis Perea and Leonel Alvarez. What's more, all except Asprilla were part of Los Cafeteros’ squad that caught the eye, also under Maturana, at the 1990 FIFA World Cup Italy™.

Hernan Gomez, Maturana’s former assistant, carried on where El Pacho left off by winning the 1990 edition of the Copa Interamericana and the 1991 domestic championship – the club’s first with an all-Colombian squad. The likes of Mauricio Serna, Victor Hugo Aristizabal, Gabriel Gomez, Hernan Gaviria and Faustino Asprilla continued the legacy of Higuita and Co by putting Atletico’s stamp on the national team, which has historically drawn heavily on former and current Paisa stars.

The tragic murder of Atletico defender Escobar after his return from USA 1994, where he put through his own net in Los Cafeteros’ 2-1 crucial Group A defeat by the host nation, hit the club hard, though they held firm to win a sixth national title. “Andres was looking down at us from heaven,” said midfielder Alexis Garcia after that triumph, the club’s second with an all-Colombian squad, with the vital goal against rivals DIM coming from a young Juan Pablo Angel.

After enduring the pain of Libertadores final defeat against Gremio in 1995, victory in the 1997 Copa Interamericana and 1998 and 2000 Copa Merconorte cemented the club’s Rey de Copas nickname. Most recently, however, silverware has been restricted to the domestic arena, with Atletico’s tally of ten national titles to date making them the country’s third-most successful after Millonarios and America (13 apiece). "Nacional are everything to me,” said Aristizabal, an integral figure in the club’s last three title wins. “I feel more like a fan than a player.”

The present
Winners of both editions of the national championship in 2007 under Argentinian coach Oscar Quintabani, Atletico had struggled for consistency since, despite coming close to reaching the final of the Torneo Finalizacion in 2009. In this year’s Apertura they look to have turned a corner, however, with Santiago Escobar at the helm. In fact, El Verdolaga are clear at the top of the regular-season standings with five matches to go and appear to have one foot in the quarter-finals of the title-deciding play-offs.

The stadium
Named in honour of a Colombian national hero who fought for independence in Colombia and Venezuela, the Estadio Atanasio Girardot was unveiled on 19 March 1953 with room for 53,000 spectators, though subsequent work has reduced that capacity to 45,000. Atletico Nacional, who share the venue with rivals DIM, have played ten finals at the stadium, winning seven and losing three.

The arena also hosted the XIII Central American and Caribbean Games in 1978, matches at the 2001 Copa America, three qualifying games for South Africa 2010 and the opening ceremony of the IX South American Games. This is another big year for the stadium, as it will welcome matches at the forthcoming FIFA U-20 World Cup.