David Mauro

By almost any measure, this year has been a resounding success for Colombian club Independiente Santa Fe.

It has been 35 years since the Bogota-based outfit won a domestic league title, but Los Cardenales are now in position to end a period of real hurt. If the club can maintain their slender one-point lead over Deportes Tolima, not only would they end a title drought spanning nearly four decades, but it would also mean a first qualification for South America’s blue ribbon continental competition the Copa Libertadores since 2006.

While Independiente Santa Fe and their fans should be enjoying the side’s best campaign since 1975, it has, surprisingly, been difficult to do so. And the club’s growing problems have nothing to do with what has transpired on the pitch.

Los Cardenales are reportedly under investigation, and that could lead to being placed under watch by Executive Order 12978, more commonly known as the ‘Clinton List’.

The Clinton List is a United States Treasury Department policy that began in 1995, when then-President Bill Clinton issued an executive order to prevent foreign companies who aid drug traffickers from doing business with American citizens and companies. If a company is placed on the list, they are unable to hold a bank account and have their assets frozen.

The consequences for a football club ending up the dreaded list are dire. The mere chance of Santa Fe falling onto the Clinton List has already scared off lucrative sponsorship deals with Bavaria, maker of the beer Cerveza Aguila, and Nike.

America de Cali, another Colombian club, was placed on the Clinton List in 1995. Los Diablos Rojos, a club that had once won five straight domestic titles in the 1980s, suddenly found themselves only able to afford to pay their players $3,000 a month.

Even as America de Cali proved remarkably resilient on the pitch, the club’s economic woes only worsened. After improbably winning the Copa Merconorte – a tournament involving teams from Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia at first, and from the United States, Costa Rica and Mexico too later – in 1999, the club never received $200,000 in prize money. Without any sponsors, America de Cali’s only means of generating income was meagre match ticket and merchandising sales.

It was not until earlier this year, while still mired in an estimated $2M of debt, that America de Cali were finally removed from the Clinton List. The club currently sit in eleventh place in the league.

The investigation into Independiente Santa Fe was launched due to widespread suspicion that the club was financially backed by drug trafficker Daniel “El Loco” Barrera. Colombian Attorney General Guillermo Mendoza, appointed by former President Alvaro Uribe in August 2009, has been reviewing Los Cardenales’ financial records.

US Ambassador to Colombia Michael McKinley has also been compelled to weigh in on the matter, asserting the investigation was being led by Colombia without American interference. “At this moment, the team has no problem with the United States,” said McKinley, speaking in Bogota last Wednesday. 

While Independiente Santa Fe’s inclusion in the Clinton List is not completely assured, the damage has already begun to be wreaked. They will be able to compete for the remainder of this season without too many problems, with the possible exception of constant media speculation, but the real danger the Clinton List poses to a club is long term.

America de Cali are considered to have weathered their nearly 15 years on the list better than most clubs would have been capable of, and yet they still find themselves mid-table. America also had far much more history to fall back on than Santa Fe will – the Cali-based club have won 13 titles during Los Cardenales’ 35-year title drought.
Even as Independiente Santa Fe failed to advance past to the Copa Sudamericana quarter-finals, losing 2-1 on aggregate to Brazilians Atletico MG, their fans should be anxiously anticipating the possibility of a continued continental campaign to come in the midst of a successful domestic season.

But they aren’t, and for good reason. The title for Los Cardenales this season remains a distinct possibility: they have lost only two matches at home since January and are just a few weeks removed from a 2-0 victory over rivals Millionarios in El Clásico Capitalino.

But it is what looms on the horizon after this season ends, when sponsors continue to flee along with top players, that has Independiente Santa Fe supporters worried about their club, their country and their sport.