Of all the indignities that can be inflicted on a football club, relocation may be the most controversial of all. Uprooting a club from its historical home and fanbase is seen as a cardinal sin of the sport. Even moving a few miles, from one part of a city to another, can provoke a fierce backlash. So what happens when a team moves 1,000km away?
Real Santander, a struggling second-tier Colombian side, found themselves facing this prospect at the end of the 2018 season. Based in Floridablanca in the country’s northeast, their existence was put in jeopardy when the local government, mired in financial crisis, slashed the team’s funding. Faced with little choice but to go elsewhere, they pursued an intriguing offer from the Caribbean island of San Andrés.
The largest island in an isolated archipelago, San Andrés is much closer to Nicaragua than Colombia. Settled at different times by British, Dutch and Spanish invaders, it has been blighted by slavery, piracy and long-running sovereignty disputes. Sport has played little part in this turbulent history – and the islands’ 75,000 inhabitants have historically favoured horse racing, and even cockfighting, over football.
The islands had never hosted a professional football team when they approached Real Santander as part of an ambitious scheme to change their sporting landscape. More than 2,500m pesos (£600,000) of government money has been made available, with a significant chunk going towards attracting a mainland football team. In a country where GDP per capita is around $6,000 (£4,500), it’s a significant sum.
The club’s decision to make the move, initially on a temporary basis for three seasons, has not exactly sent shockwaves through the league. Camilo Manrique, a Colombian journalist and Guardian contributor, explains that many lower-league teams have to lead a transient existence in Colombia. “Teams moving is unusual here, but it does happen in the second division. If a team runs out of money, they can just sell their league place to another team.” Santander themselves came into existence when they bought the place of Pumas de Canasare in 2006.
While the foundations of the club remain, the team have been rebranded to promote the islands’ new sporting ambitions. They have become Real San Andrés, an outline of the archipelago added to their crest, and the local coat of arms emblazoned on their shirt. They have kept their Argentina-esque blue and white shirts – helpfully, they match the island flag, the saltire of St Andrew.
A bigger club may have yet test the waters, but there appear to be few restrictions on teams moving and rebranding within the Colombian league. It says something for the second tier’s fluid nature that Popayán – San Andrés’s very first league opponents in February – have since agreed to move 70 miles to Cali, rebranded as a sister club to Boca Juniors.
Overshadowed by local rivals Atlético Bucaramanga and with only a surprise run to a promotion play-off in 2017 to show for 12 years in the league, Santander never really built up a fanbase to leave behind. “If this had happened with one of Colombia’s biggest teams – Millonarios, América de Cali or Atlético Nacional – there would have been much greater repercussions,” Manrique adds.
The club have routinely struggled for financial support in their namesake region, where even the area’s champion basketball team, Búcaros, have seen resources dry up. “We have only cloths and warm water for hundreds of athletes,” the Búcaros coach, Carlos Parra, has said. “Many feel frustrated by the lack of support”.
Instead, moving 700 miles – the distance from London to Barcelona – may offer new opportunities, and even stability. “The team will have more money and chances to earn sponsorship in San Andrés, and there is a big potential fanbase,” Henrique says. “They can put down roots that wouldn’t be possible in bigger cities”.
The club have romantically labelled the move “Un Sueño Real” – “a real dream” – on social media. The message also appears in Creole, an official island language alongside English and Spanish. Gustavo Nuñez, the club’s sporting director, has said the pride of representing the islands will give the team renewed purpose. The team’s manager, José Luis García, is targeting a place in the “ocho” – the eight-team promotion play-offs – in their first season in the Caribbean.
Inevitably, there have been teething problems. Weeks before the team’s first scheduled home game, and with the club still waiting on official league approval, the island’s 5,000-capacity Erwin O’Neill Stadium was still being scrubbed down by volunteers, while concerns persisted over the strength of the ground’s floodlights.
The club still has a base in Floridablanca – the youth teams and women’s side will remain there, with the men’s team flying out to the island for “home” games. In the new stadium, local youngsters have trained alongside their new heroes – but the potential path for islanders to represent their new team remains unclear. For now, local interest has been fired by the prospect of Colombia’s biggest clubs visiting this footballing outpost.
Results on the synthetic turf at the Erwin O’Neill might ultimately decide whether this audacious move can be a success. Santander finished rock-bottom of the second division last season – there is no third professional tier in Colombia – and have seen a number of first-team players move on. Fears that the team would be unable to compete have proved unfounded, however. Real San Andrés have won just one of their first 10 league games, but they have picked up five draws – including all four of their games on the island.
It was up to the Cup to provide the new team’s first real moment of magic. With the group stage tie against Cartagena heading for a goalless draw, forward Nestor Arenas brought down a long ball, turned smartly and drilled the ball inside the far post. The stadium erupted as players piled together in celebration. The precious first home win had arrived, and at that moment it felt like the team did, too.
San Andrés followed that up with a landmark 3-2 win over top-flight opponents Union Magdaleña this week – rallying from 2-1 down to move into a three-way tie at the top of their group. They have a very real chance of qualifying for the last 16 – and that will mean one of Colombia’s top eight teams flying out to the Caribbean.
Real San Andrés’s journey so far has been defined by hardship, by fighting to survive an unforgiving lower-league landscape that teams across the globe will recognise. Their latest, giant leap looked a desperate last resort, but the early signs are promising. The team has a new home, and the islands have unexpected new heroes. There’s a long way to go, but the dream could become reality.