It is the 29th of January 2016 and Ronaldinho is making his debut for SC Barcelona of Guayaquil, donning the famous yellow jersey in front of 41,000 spectators at the Estadio Monumental Banco Pichincha. All seems well in the world after an entertaining 4-3 win against San Martín in a pre-season friendly. However, this is just a one-off appearance as part of Ronaldinho’s world tour and a memorable, yet meaningless game for the fans of the yellow-shirted Barcelona.
Barcelona are broke and have been for some time. Twenty years of financial mismanagement have led this national icon to the status of an also-ran in the Ecuadorian Serie A league season. But it wasn't always this way. Founded in 1925 by an immigrant from the Spanish city of the same name, Barcelona Sporting Club (BSC) have never been relegated from the Ecuadorian top division, the only club to do so, and have won it more than any other team; currently standing at 14 league titles.
The Ecuadorian league is not the most famous or of the highest quality in South America, that much is undeniable, but the raw passion for the sport of football in the country borders on hysteria just as much as in anywhere else in the Southern Hemisphere (with the possible exception of Brazil). BSC started in regional tournaments, trading titles with local rivals Emelec for throughout the early years before the official Serie A was founded in 1957. They really gained more fame and popularity in Ecuador in the late 1940s though, playing and defeating the famed teams of Deportivo Cali and Millonarios in the ‘Golden Age’ of Colombian football.
Barcelona won their first Serie A title in 1960, winning again in 1963 and 1966, with the ‘Iron Curtain’ defence including Lecaro, Macias and Bustamente keeping teams out with such strength that they went down in club folklore. They even competed in a friendly with Eusebio’s Benfica; performing admirably in a 3-2 defeat to the then European Cup holders. However, it is the 1970s that really solidified Barcelona’s place in the national and continental consciousness. Following on from the 1969 triumph, they made their first real imprint on the Copa Libertadores. After falling at the first hurdle on all of their previous entries into South America’s main club tournament, they qualified for the semi-finals (realistically a second group stage) in 1971. Unfortunately, they were drawn in the same group as Unión Española of Chile and Estudiantes of Argentina. Estudiantes were particularly strong, having won the Copa Libertadores in 1968, 1969 and 1970. On a famous night on the 29th of April, Barcelona won 1-0 in La Plata with a goal set up by Alberto Spencer (ranked 20th in the ‘Best South American Players of the 20th Century’ by the International Federation of Football History and Statistics) and converted by Juan Manuel Bazurco on a night that went down in history as ‘La Hazaña de la Plata’ (the Feat of La Plata).
Barcelona failed to qualify for the final, but their achievement led to them gaining huge popularity in Ecuador. They became known as the ‘Idol of Ecuador’ (something they still take great pride in today) and being given an award of merit for their banner by the government of Ecuador. Their dream team which included club legends such as Spencer, Jorge Phoyú, Washington Muñoz and Jorge Bolaños retained the Serie A title and again reached the second group stage of the Libertadores, but were embarrassed this time, collecting zero points, scoring zero goals and conceding 11 against impressive Independiente and São Paolo sides.
Things were going so well, what could stop their momentum? As usual with a team punching above its weight: finances. They struggled to maintain their momentum for the following two years until in 1975, the financial situation became so perilous that the squad staged a strike due to wages owed by the club. The squad that had brought so much success in the 1967-1973 cycle broke up the era was over.
The lean years continued until 1980 when they reclaimed the title for the first time in 9 years, sending the people of Guayaquil into one of the largest parties the city has ever seen. The Brazilian forward Victor Ephanor scoring 20 goals to fire them to the trophy. Barcelona then completed their second ‘bicampeonato’ by retaining the title in 1981 with Ephanor being influential again, but his compatriot Alcides de Oliviera top-scored with 21 this time around. This happened despite a backdrop of calamity in the technical area, with managerial changes aplenty. Then came the ‘Golden Age’ for el Ídolo from 1985-1989 as they won titles in 1985, 1987 and 1989. The 1985 team is one of the most celebrated in their history, with club icons such as Alfredo de los Santos, Toninho Vieira, Galo Vasquez, Holguer Quinonez and the captain Flávio Perlaza shining brightly. Barcelona dominated the 1987 campeonato, winning all 3 stages, but the main development of that season was perhaps the opening of their huge stadium, the Estadio Monumental on the edge of the city. It had a capacity of 89,000 when it opened (now reduced to 57,267) and was opened on the 27th of December 1987 with a friendly against FC Barcelona, which BSC won 1-0.
The 1989 Serie A season was incredibly controversial. It came down to a final day decider, where all of Barcelona, Emelec and Deportivo Quito could have won the title. Emelec beat El Nacional 4-2, which meant that if Deportivo Quito had beaten Barcelona, there would have been a play-off between Emelec and Deportivo. Quito scored on the 76th minute through Carlos Alberto Mendoza, which understandably got the home fans very excited…too excited as it turned out. They invaded the pitch in the 83rd minute and the game had to be abandoned. The Ecuadorian Football Federation (FEF) originally stated that the final 7 minutes should be played, but Barcelona appealed and the whole game was replayed without spectators; resulting in a 0-0 draw which gifted the title to Barcelona. This is the most controversial season in Ecuadorian football and one that spawned many conspiracy theories among fans of Emelec especially about the power that a team nicknamed ‘the idol of all of Ecuador’ has within the corridors of the FEF.
This disputed league title qualified Barcelona for the 1990 Copa Libertadores, and what a campaign they had. The tournament was, by now, a knockout tournament from the 2nd round (last 16) onwards and reached the semi-final against River Plate. Trailing 1-0 from the 1st leg in Buenos Aires, a hotly-disputed penalty sent the tie to a shoot-out, which Barcelona won 4-3 to send the fans into raptures. Onto Asuncion in Paraguay then for the first leg of the final with Olimpia. The first leg resulted in a 2-0 win for the Paraguayans, but it is the 1-1 draw in Guayaquil for the return game which hurts fans of Barcelona the most, with a suspect refereeing performance (corruption has been suspected strongly) resulting in a 1-1 draw and a 3-1 aggregate win for Olimpia. They regained the Serie A title in 1991 with the Argentine Rubén Insúa scoring the goals to fire the canaries to the championship.
Statistically the best league season came in 1995 as Barcelona won the league with a total of 101 points over the course of the campaign and beating Espoli 3-0 on aggregate over the two-legged final. Manuel Uquillas wrote himself into club history by scoring 24 goals that season.
The team of the 1997 championship win includes more familiar names to international fans, such as Agustin Delgado and Bolivian legend Marco Etcheverry, but Nicolás Asencio scored 19 goals that season. It went down to the final day with Barcelona needing a win by three goals or more against Deportivo Quito, with Jimmy Montañero, Agustin Delgado and Etcheverry sealing their 13th title. This qualified them for the 1998 Copa Libertadores, where they reached the final once more, this time losing 4-1 on aggregate to a very strong Vasco da Gama side which included famous names such as Zé Maria and Juninho Pernambucano (they strengthened the following year before embarrassing Manchester United in the FIFA Club World Cup with the likes of Edmundo and Romario).
That was the start of a long period of decline for Barcelona. They didn't win single championship in the first decade of the 21st century, despite coming close in 2002, 2003 and losing the play-off final to hated rivals Liga de Quito (perhaps the only side that can rival Emelec in the level of vitriol when the teams play). The main problems were off the field though, with the financial issues resulting in a number of lawsuits from former players alleging non-payment of contracts and bonuses and the stadium ownership coming into dispute numerous times. A risk was taken in 2008 to invest $10 million US on players to build the most expensive team in the history of the country as part of a project called ‘Barcelona: The Renewal”. It is safe to say that it didn't work as they finished fifth that year and things were about to get worse.
The 2009 season was a disaster and the team was in serious danger of relegation, needing to win on the final day against Liga de Portoviejo to avoid relegation. A 2-0 win was secured in front of a packed stadium to save el Ídolo, with the goals coming from José Luis Perlaza and Juan Samudio.
2010 saw a marked improvement in performances on-field as they finished in second place, thereby qualifying for the Libertadores the following year, but the “fun” was all off the field. The president, Eduardo Maruri resigned for “family reasons”, but his successor, Juan Carlos Estrada quit after 24 hours in power himself, sending the club into a period of flux. An interim president was installed until the presidential elections of June 2011, where club legend Antonio Noboa was victorious and brought a sense of stability to the club.
This sense of stability was probably a factor in their comeback for their first league title in 15 years during the 2012 Serie A title. They stormed both sections to win their 14th and final (at the moment) title, with Narciso Mina scoring 30 goals to negate the need for a play-off. Performances since that date have been mostly poor, with hot streaks followed by a poor run of draws and disappointing defeats, usually to the lesser teams or in the altitude of Quito (Guayaquil is at sea level). The exception was the 2014 season, where a poor first stage was followed by a storming second. Inspired by the signing of Argentine journeyman Ismael Blanco, who scored 12 goals in 20 games, they qualified for the play-off against Emelec. Drawing the first game at home 1-1, their chance was ruined after 10 minutes by a stupid red card for two yellow cards, Alex Bolaños the culprit. He was vilified in the aftermath of a 3-0 defeat, 4-1 on aggregate.
The team will always have a chance on the field because of their passionate and sizable support, but the financial situation has been in steady decline over the past 20 years. Things got so bad in the 2015 season that Barcelona were deducted points by the FEF for a failure to pay their players for many months. The election of club legend José Cevallos in October 2015 brought about an improvement in the stability of the club and the players were paid the money owed from earlier in the year. However, the debt currently stands at around $15 million US, which is far greater than their annual turnover of around $10 million US. Cevallos has a plan to make the finances stable, but the current poor state of the Ecuadorian economy (the economy is highly dependent on oil and the price is at an all-time low at the moment) has reduced attendances and potential sponsorship income.
Barcelona are trying to keep things more low-key, focusing on value signings such as former players Damian Díaz and Cristhian Penilla before the 2016 season began, but the side has been inconsistent this year so far, the highlight being a 5-0 home win against Liga de Quito, which brought huge joy to the long-suffering supporters. With the right luck and the team gelling, the future could be bright, the future may be yellow.