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Drugs and Violence: The Rise and Fall of Colombian Football

During the 1990s, a golden generation propelled Colombia unexpectedly up the FIFA World Rankings as far as 4th. Fuelled by an influx of money into the domestic game, Colombia found themselves with several top-class players and went into the 1994 World Cup as one of the tournament favourites. However, less than three weeks after the opening of the tournament, twelve gunshots marked the virtual death knoll of Colombian football.

The rise and fall of Colombian football can be seen through the lives of two Colombians, who shared a common surname, although not related: Andrés and Pablo Escobar. Andrés Escobar was a talented defender, who rose through the ranks of Colombian football to captain his country at the World Cup, but it was his own goal against the hosts that led to not only Colombia’s elimination from the tournament, but also his untimely death.

Pablo Escobar was arguably one of the most powerful people in Colombia as head of the Medellín drug cartel. The most feared drug lord in Colombia at the time, and the seventh richest man in the world according to Forbes magazine, played a crucial role in the rise of Colombian football during the 1980s and early 1990s.

During the 1980s, drug trafficking was becoming a huge industry in Colombia and the cartels had accumulated huge sums of money from their illicit activities. Football became an important method for these cartels to legalise their money due to the millions of pounds that can be moved through football. Falsely declaring ticket sales and transfer fees gave them the opportunity to overemphasis the movement of money, allowing them to legalise millions of drug money.

Pablo Escobar was the power behind the ownership of Atletico Nacional, one of Colombia’s major clubs at the time. Through his influence, he enabled the club to rise to become a major force in both domestic and continental competition. They had an exceptionally strong team, combined with the money to keep their best players and prevent them from moving away from Colombia.

However, Pablo Escobar was not the only drug trafficker that became deeply involved in Colombian football. He had links to both Atletico Nacional and Medellín, but Los Millonarios had close links with ‘El Mexicano’ José Gonzalo Rodríguez and America de Cali had close links with Miguel Rodriguez.

Corruption within Colombian football at the time was not uncommon. Indeed, Miguel Rodriguez’s son has admitted that they used to send one particularly referee money early in the week in exchange for a guarantee that America de Cali would win the following weekend.

After a key match between Rodriguez’s America and Escobar’s Nacional, it appeared that the referee, Alvaro Ortega, had fixed the match in America’s favour. After the match, Pablo reputedly ordered the referee to be found and executed. Only a few days later, the tournament was suspended due to the assassination of Alvaro Ortega.

Despite his role in drug trafficking, Pablo Escobar was revered by the poor in Colombia. He donated large amounts of money to the poorest sectors of society to build houses and he was also responsible for huge investment into providing lights and supplies for football fields throughout the region. 

He had a close relationship with many of the golden generation of Colombian football through these as many of them grew up playing on these pitches. Indeed, he would pay top Colombian players to come to his ranch and play in private games where millions of dollars would be bet and the players would be well-paid for their appearance.

However, in the years ahead of the 1994 World Cup, the violence in Colombia was escalating to extreme levels. The murder rate in Colombia was the highest in any country on the planet. Politicians and judges lived in fear for their lives. Indeed, in the 1990 Presidential elections, all four candidates were killed by the drug cartels and the replacement candidate, Cesar Gaviria, survived an attempted assassination attempt when his plane was bombed, although he was not on board.

It was against this background that the Colombian national side stood in contrast. Football was helping to play a vital role in restoring Colombia’s self-worth on the national stage. With each success, people began to associate Colombia with football, not only the drugs and violence that was dominating society at the time.

President Cesar Gaviria and his cabinet developed close links with the team, attending the majority of matches and remaining in close contact with the players both before and after the matches. However, many of the players had also retained close links with Pablo Escobar, who had surrendered following a successful attempt to abolish the extradition treaty with the United States.

A huge national scandal was caused when star goalkeeper, Rene Higuita, admitted that he often visited Pablo Escobar in prison, although it was later revealed that the whole national team had played a private match at the prison for Escobar. Soon after, Higuita was arrested for mediating a kidnap negotiation between two rival cartels and spent seven months in prison before being released without charge. However, many people felt that it was his visits to Escobar in prison that was the motive for his arrest.

Meanwhile, Andrés Escobar was rapidly proving himself to be one of the most talented defenders in South America. He had been named captain of both club and country and rumours were abound that major European teams were keeping a close eye on him.

In the four years ahead of the 1994 World Cup, Colombia had lost only one game, including victories over Brazil, Northern Ireland, Greece, USA and the Argentineans twice, including a stunning 5-0 victory in Buenos Aires that secured their qualification at the expense of the two-time world champions.

With the likes of Andrés Escobar, Faustino Asprilla, Carlos Valderrama, Chonto Herrera, Adolfo Valencia and Freddy Rincón, they had a truly world class team that would be a real threat to any side at the tournament. Indeed, Pele himself had tipped them as his pick for the eventual champions.

However, in December 1993, Pablo Escobar was killed by an alliance of rival cartels, causing the country to spiral further out of control. Kidnappings, murders and bombings became more and more common. Indeed, Andrés Escobar admitted that he had avoided being killed in a bombing in the centre of Medellín by a matter of minutes.

Despite all this, the team flew to the United States with high expectations. Andrés Escobar was considering a move to AC Milan after the tournament, but had emphasised that the team had to focus on the matches, and put the horrors that were happening back home behind them.

A shock 3-1 defeat in their opening games increased the pressure on the side. A Colombian journalist explained that ‘it marked the beginning of a psychological crisis for which the team wasn’t prepared. Many gamblers had lost big money and there appeared a sort of ‘dark hand’ that was very upset with the team’s performance.’

Many of the cartels had seen the opportunity to make money out of Colombia’s group stage matches through backing their side. However, the defeat against Romania had cost many powerful people significant amounts of money.

Ahead of the pre-match meeting for the game against the USA, the team received death threats. Somebody had hacked into the hotel’s television system and had displayed death threats on the televisions in the players’ hotel rooms. The message claimed that if Gabriel Gómez played in the match against the USA, all the players would be killed.

Despite the fact that Gómez was a key member of the team, coach Francisco Maturana eventually decided to pull him from the team for the safety of the other players. Gomez revealed, ‘after I was pulled from the team, I decided to retire from football. I knew it was about regional rivalries back home. Club team owners wanted their players to be seen so that their values would increase. Since Maturana wasn’t starting their players, they sabotaged their own national team.’

Faustino Asprilla admitted that ‘we all called our families. The police had arrived to all our homes. Our minds filled with worries that one shouldn’t have before a game.’

It was against this backdrop that Colombia took to the field against the United States in a must-win match.

In the 35th minute, a cross from American, John Harkes, came across the Colombian area. Stretching to intercept the ball, Andrés Escobar inadvertently deflected the ball past Oscar Cordoba into his own net.
An interview with Escobar’s sister provided a chilling premonition of the future. She claims that her daughter, Escobar’s niece, said, ‘Mommy, they’re going to kill Andrés.’ She replied, ‘No sweetheart, people aren’t killed for their mistakes. Everyone in Colombia loves Andrés.’

Colombia lost the match 2-1 and the highly-fancied side were on their way home. They returned to Colombia after their final group match on June 26th. It was the beginning of the end for Colombian football.
At 3am on 3rd July, reports of a shooting outside a Medellín nightclub emerged.

The victim was Andrés Escobar. He had been shot twelve times at close range. Witnesses reportedly claimed that the killer shouted "¡Gracias por el auto gol en la propia puerta!" for each of the twelve bullets fired. The killing was widely believed to be a punishment for the own goal and is rumoured to have been connected to one of the gambling syndicates, although recent testimonies have suggesting this may not be the case.

In an interesting statement, his teammate, Chicho Serna, went as far as to claim that ‘people on the street said that if Pablo Escobar was still alive, Andrés Escobar would not have been killed.’ How much truth there is behind these beliefs is unclear, but it shows the feelings toward the former drug lord on the streets of Colombia.

While the rise of both Pablo and Andrés Escobar arguably played a key role in the rise of Colombian football, their deaths marked the end of the glory years and the beginning of the downfall.

‘Through football, we wanted to show that Colombia was not all violence. But Andrés’ murder proved that not even football could escape the violence. Fans were deeply disillusioned and started to leave the stadiums.’

Escobar’s murder also prompted a ruthless crackdown on criminals in football by the Colombian government. The Rodriguez brothers were sentenced to 30 years in an American prison, while their America de Cali team was added to the US Terrorist List. The former head of the Colombian FA, Juan Jose Bellini, was sentenced to six years for money laundering. He admitted:

‘One must attribute the rapid rise of Colombian football to the influx of drug money in the sport. We all allowed it. We all participated. And now, we all have something to hide.’

Less than four years later, Colombia had plummeted from 4th in the world to 34th. They scraped into the 1998 World Cup, but headed home after the group stages once again after defeats to Romania and England. They have not qualified for a World Cup since and dropped out of the top 50 earlier this year. The money that had driven the rise of Colombian football had dried up. Last year, a report suggested that 14 of Colombia’s 18 top teams were at serious risk of bankruptcy.

Andrés Escobar remains a hero in Colombia and the nation’s most popular footballer. A hugely promising career tragically cut short by the violence that permeated every level of society in the country at the time. Over 120,000 people attended his funeral and fans still bring photographs of him to games to honour his memory.

It only seems fitting to end on the final public words of Andrés Escobar in a newspaper article only days before his murder:

“Life must go on. No matter how difficult, we must stand back up. We have only two options: either allow anger to paralyse us and the violence continues, or we overcome and try our best to help others. It’s our choice. Let us please maintain respect. My warmest regards to everyone. It’s been a most amazing and rare experience. We’ll see each other again soon because life does not end here.”

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