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How Pablo Escobar revolutionised Colombian football

When Pablo Escobar was murdered in 1993, it was calculated that, at his very peak, the drug-lord was worth $25 billion (inflation included). 

Having run the Medellín cartel for a rampant 20 years, the Colombian made his name as the most renowned trafficker of narcotics in the world.

Escobar boasted a violent streak as well as a fervent passion for his people and his country. He murdered, tortured, bribed and smuggled his way from small-time peddler to the most notorious drug-lord ever.

But the intrigue of Escobar’s story is that he is viewed in two ways: either a psychopathic murderer or a man who took Colombia’s political injustice into his own hands and gave hope to the ghetto. His moniker of ‘Robin Hood’ typified the country’s reaction to him during his early years.

Football was part of the ghetto; a sport for misfits. Football provided a genuine release of stress and depression for those facing social injustices, and they flocked to watch matches.

Escobar was no different to those impoverished football fans – but what was different was the fact that he had money to pump into his passion.

Affinity to football

When Pablo Escobar’s body was exhumed in 2006 – to clear up a DNA test for an alleged illegitimate child – one eye-catching detail was that the drug-lord had been buried with an Independiente de Medellín flag.

Escobar watches on as Independiente take on America de Cali
Escobar (left) watches on as Independiente clash with America de Cali

Independiente was his favourite team, but Escobar was not just a fan – he was also an investor, a motivator and quasi-manager.

At the beginning of Escobar’s drug trade, it was estimated that he was laundering over one million pesos through his community every month.

One of his outlets was his beloved Independiente who he had supported since he was a child. Amidst football, Escobar also ran bars, restaurants and garages to launder said money.

In the book Escobar, El Patrón del Mal – written by Alonso Salazar – it is revealed that whilst a victory would provoke wild celebrations, if Independiente lost, the king of narcotics would often spend days in isolation.

When his business was at its peak, the Colombian ran out of ventures to funnel his money through. Bars and restaurants could not intake the high amounts he required, so he decided to pair up with football club Atletico Nacional.

Lucrative and vibrant

Ironically, this team were the rivals of Independiente – but Escobar saw money overpowered affinity to one club. After all, Atletico Nacional also represented Medellín. That was enough of an excuse for the drug lord.

Before long, the Colombian league was one of the most lucrative and vibrant in the whole of South America – but at a cost. Before big games, Escobar would visit the Atletico Nacional team with his own unique words of ‘motivation’, along the lines of: “If you don’t win today, I will be paying your families a visit…”

While this was met with laughter by El Patrón, the players knew it to be somewhat honest.

This inspired them to excel, winning numerous domestic titles before their ultimate triumph, the 1989 Copa Libertadores – South America’s version of the Champions League. They trumped Olimpia de Paraguay 5-4 on penalties after a 2-2 draw over two legs.

Atletico’s success meant less interest in Escobar’s beloved Independiente, leading to an uncompetitive league dominated by one club.

Controversy

While Atletico Nacional were soaring – paying the highest wages and boasting the biggest names – they were also having suspiciously good luck.

“If the referee blows the whistle on a wrongly called foul, we will wipe him out” – Pablo Escobar

Referees often ignored offsides and in 1988, Nacional averaged one penalty per game throughout the season [Stat via Estadisticas del Fútbol Colombiano]. They also never received a red card in back-to-back seasons.

In that same year referee Armando Pérez was kidnapped for 24 hours over a “wrong decision” and threatened with murder over his future performances.

One official who paid the ultimate price was Alvaro Ortega, murdered in 1989 after “incorrectly” blowing his whistle during a draw between America de Cali and Independiente. He was shot dead outside his hotel, with the gunmen claiming his decisions had lost their boss a bet.

Nacional played in fear of Escobar, yet with the comfort that they would never lose. Escobar wanted a spectacle, not a struggle. Like the people of the ghetto, for him fútbol was a release, a safe haven to forget about attentions of the police and his criminal life.

Homegrown talent stays

nacional
The infamous Nacional side celebrate their first Copa Libertadores title

Escobar’s first public words regarding football were “homegrown talent stays,” and he made sure of that by laundering drug money through Nacional to ensure the best contracts for players and coaches alike.

He, in this regard, was no different to Roman Abramovich or Sheikh Mansour; he wanted to build a super team.

In 1989, all his efforts finally paid off with Nacional’s Copa Libertadores victory – a thrilling 5-4 penalty shoot-out win over Club Olimpia de Paraguay – with all five scorers hailing from Colombia.

This team of superstars was coached by Francisco Maturana – Colombia’s most revered and successful manager.

Among his starters was the flamboyant keeper Rene Higuita, made famous years later for his scorpion kick save, as well as Andres Escobar (no relation) and Leonel Alvarez. Higuita was the biggest hero, saving four penalties and scoring one of his own.

Party at Escobar’s

After that triumph, Escobar invited every single player to his ranch for a huge banquet, where they were also given cash bonuses, Higuita famously earning extra ones for each penalty saved.

All-star games, in which Colombia’s top stars were forced to play, soon became a regular feature at Escobar’s ranch – with the leaders of warring cartels invited to bet on the outcome. Escobar himself is once believed to have wagered in excess of $20 million.

A nation of dreamers 

Escobar made football more than just a sport appreciated by the ghetto; it became a source of Colombian national pride. Poor kids now dreamt of growing up and playing football – a positive outlet as opposed to becoming a drug-trafficker.

“The children of Colombia can now aspire to more if they wish. That is the one positive and legacy Escobar left behind”

On Escobar’s watch, football became a national past-time.  The critically-acclaimed ESPN documentary ‘The Two Escobars’, which chronicles the game’s rise and fall, even suggests that at this time, Colombian football was the most prestigious of all of the Americas.

As ironic as it is, the drug lord’s involvement in football actually diverted public attention from the drug world. There was a genuine, viable option of money: playing football. The wages were there, as was the success.

As dirty as the man’s money was, it is inarguable that his influence over football is one that revolutionised the sport while simultaneously rejuvenating the population.

The death of Escobar

Following Escobar’s death in 1993 – executed by the Colombian military backed by US Special Forces – it was feared that, without his omnipotence, Colombian football would lose its unity and power but going into the 1994 World Cup in the United States, the signs were looking good.

Colombia were fourth in the Fifa world rankings and headed into the tournament with Pele tipping their side, containing the likes of Carlos Valderrama and Freddy Rincon, as possible winners. But what followed was Colombia’s darkest period.

In the 35th minute of a must-win game against, of all people, the United States, a low cross entered the box and Andrés Escobar puts the ball into his own net. Colombia went on to lose – and their World Cup dream was over.

Back home, 10 days later, Andrés was murdered by a cartel, with witnesses saying they heard “thanks for the own-goal” shouted by the gunmen.

Colombia fans unveil a banner promoting peace after Andrés’ death

It is widely believed that, had Escobar the narco been alive, Escobar the footballer – one of his favourites from the Nacional side – would have avoided his fate.

The years that followed

In the subsequent years, Colombian football rapidly unravelled. Clubs no longer prospered on or off the pitch. But the talent was there and, as years passed by, the cartels’ involvement in football lessened.

This, in turn, loosened the fear that the players had following Andrés’ murder.

A generation later, Colombian superstars such as James Rodriguez, Radamel Falcao, Carlos Bacca and more play for some of the world’s top sides – although, significantly, not on home soil.

Had Escobar not created a nation of footballing dreamers would these players even exist?

Colombia has prospered

Debate over his saint or sinner status goes on until this day, but attributing Colombia’s success as a footballing nation to anyone other than Escobar seems unavoidable.

It is impossible to ignore the impact he had. He may not have played nor coached – and his methods were questionable to say the least – but he allowed a nation to dream.

Whilst Escobar grew up in Colombia’s most violent era, children growing up now can see bonafide legitimate sporting superstars from their own backgrounds.

They can spectate as their nation reach the quarter-finals of a major tournament, as in the 2014 World Cup. Escobar didn’t have an outlet as a child and some would argue that his foray into the narco-world was a product of his upbringing.

The children of Colombia can now aspire to more if they wish. That is the one positive and legacy Escobar left behind.