Sheer dedication and perseverance are the qualities that have made Universidad Catolica one of Chile’s most prestigious footballing institutions. The third most successful club in the country’s history, Los Cruzados (The Crusaders) have made the second highest number of Copa Libertadores appearances by a Chilean team and, along with Santiago foes Universidad de Chile and Colo Colo, are an integral part of the nation’s most intense football rivalries.
Continuing its Classic Clubs series, FIFA.com tells the story of an increasingly popular outfit that is a long-standing member of Chile’s footballing elite.
Birth of an institution
The origins of the club go back to 1908, when the football team of the Pontificia Universidad Catolica de Chile changed its name to Universidad Catolica Football Club. Nineteen years later the student team merged with two other university sides to form Club Deportivo Universitario, which competed under that name until 1936.
Differences began to appear between the different student groups forming the club, with the faction from Universidad Catolica ultimately deciding to go it alone and establish their own team: Club Deportivo Universidad Catolica, which came into being on 21 April 1937. The new outfit adopted the university’s white shirt with blue stripe for its kit, as well as the red shirt for its change strip.
Nicknamed Los Franjeados (The Striped Ones) and Los Cruzados after the cross that appears on the club’s badge, similar to the one held aloft by the warriors of the Crusades, Universidad Catolica made their debut in the second division of the country’s professional league in June 1937. Their rivals were none other than Universidad de Chile, who were already their biggest foes. Despite the 2-1 defeat, La UC were up and running, ready to play a major part in the unfolding history of Chilean football.
The making of a legend
Arriving in the top flight in 1939, Universidad Catolica would have to wait ten more years before claiming their first league title. Two of the architects of that maiden championship triumph were their legendary goalkeeper Sergio Livingstone and Argentinian star Jose Manuel Charro Moreno, an erstwhile member of the fabled River Plate side known as La Máquina and who commanded the not-inconsiderable transfer fee of 1,500,000 pesos.
In 1950 La UC recorded a memorable 4-3 win over Bayern Munich and beat Chile’s national team 3-2, triumphs followed four years later by a second league crown, which was secured by a goalless draw in a title decider against Colo Colo.
Twelve months later the club dropped briefly into the second division, bouncing back stronger than ever to become a major force on the domestic and continental scene in the 1960s. In the first year of the new decade, Los Cruzados collected their third championship, eclipsing a Universidad de Chile side dubbed “The Blue Ballet” for the aesthetic appeal of their flowing football. La UC backed that achievement up by reaching the semi-finals of the 1962 Copa Libertadores, their first appearance in the competition, losing only 2-1 on aggregate to a Santos side spearheaded by the one and only Pele.
Two more Copa Libertadores semi-finals would be reached that decade, one that also witnessed five second-placed finishes in the league, the 1966 championship win proving the only hit in a string of near misses.
The 1970s would prove even more distressing for the club, which suffered its last relegation to date in 1973. Though Los Cruzados fought their way back to the top tier in 1975, they then endured a series of mediocre campaigns and a seemingly endless run of 13 years without victory against arch enemies Universidad de Chile.
Their rebirth would come in 1983, with the arrival of Ignacio Prieto in the dugout, a league champion with the club 17 years earlier. The following season Prieto steered Catolica to the title and their fourth Libertadores semi-final, the springboard for their championship success being a pulsating 3-2 defeat of La U. The victorious 1987 league campaign proved even more special, as Los Franjeados made sure of the trophy four games early with an equally notable 2-1 win over their classic derby rivals.
Prieto very nearly secured the ultimate prize in 1993, when he took the side to the final of the Libertadores only for Tele Santana’s Sao Paulo to deny them. Joined by the Argentinian duo and Oscar Acosta and Nestor Gorosito and with Manuel Pellegrini taking over as coach, the core of that squad then went on to win the Copa Interamericana a year later - La UC’s sole international trophy to date.
Always there or thereabouts on the domestic front in the 1990s, Universidad Catolica would lift just one league title, the 1997 Apertura, secured after a replay against Colo Colo. Six times runners-up in that decade, they have maintained their place in the Chilean elite since then, winning the 2002 Apertura and the 2005 Clausura, the second of those successes clinched after a penalty shoot-out defeat of Universidad de Chile in the final.
The club’s last league championship win, the 2010 Campeonato Nacional, was achieved in dramatic circumstances. Coached by the Argentinian Juan Pizzi, La UC found themselves seven points off the pace with seven games remaining after they were beaten 3-2 in a top-of-the-table clash with the then leaders Colo Colo. Embarking on a remarkable run, they won all their remaining games to pip El Cacique to the title by three points.
There would be double disappointment the following year, however. The first of those setbacks was an agonising defeat by Penarol in the quarter-finals of the Libertadores, and the second a 4-1 loss to Universidad de Chile in the return leg of the Apertura play-off final, which consigned them to a 4-3 aggregate loss and the runners-up slot for the 17th time in their history.
Built in the space of exactly 12 months, the Estadio San Carlos de Apoquindo was officially opened when La UC hosted River Plate of Argentina in a friendly on 4 September 1988. The stadium takes its name from Monsignor Carlos Casanueva, former Principle of the Catolica University at the time the club was founded and has a capacity of 20,000. Its stands were upgraded earlier this year, along with the electronic scoreboard and home dressing rooms. The stadium has witnessed three of the club’s trophy wins: the 1994 Copa Interamericana, the 2002 Apertura and the 2010 Campeonato Nacional.