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Inside narco soccer: A complete history of Pablo Escobar and football

Colombia is synonymous with many things. Rich arabica coffee, grown in the Andes and brewed in the barrios. Undulating mountains kissing vast metropolises, twinkling and seething through the night. Ubiquitous salsa dancing, fashioned from the frenetic thrust of emphatic life. Oh, and Pablo Escobar. Yeah, you cannot forget the king of cocaine, whose conflicting image symbolised Colombian brutality and largesse for generations.

A lot has been said about El Patrón – in books, films, documentaries and podcasts. Few figures polarise opinion more than Escobar, whose exploits – heroic or barbaric, depending on whom you ask – fuel debate in saloons and coffeehouses from Bogotá to Birmingham, and from Medellín to Moscow. Some consider him a martyr who fought elites to free the poor, while others call him a terrorist who left a trail of domestic destruction.

Typically late to the party, I recently binged Narcos, the Netflix series that charts Escobar’s rise and demise in sensational detail. Fascinated by the story and moved by the stunning cinematography, I wanted to learn more about Don Pablo, who was shot dead by Colombian police in 1993, the year before I was born. I was particularly intrigued by his widespread involvement in football, one of my greatest passions, and the story pretty much wrote itself from there.

Who was Pablo Escobar, and why is he still so famous?

One of seven children born to a farmer and a schoolteacher, Pablo Emilio Escobar Gaviria transcended a humble upbringing to become the most revered and reviled drug lord of all-time. In the murky underworld of Medellín, Colombia’s second-largest city, Pablo graduated from petty theft and trifling misdemeanours to heinous killing and narcoterrorism, amassing exorbitant wealth in the process.

At the time of his death, aged 44, Escobar had an estimated net worth of US$30 billion. Some even pushed that figure to $50 billion, because collating the exact extent of Pablo’s assets was a thankless task. Escobar presided over the infamous Medellín cartel, which became a metonymy for his bustling empire. At its peak, the cartel supplied 80% of America’s cocaine, making Pablo the seventh richest person in the world – legally sourced or otherwise. 

Escobar had so much money, in fact, that burying it in fields became a viable alternative to formal banking. The Medellín mobsters cleared $7 billion in pure tax-free profit every year between 1981 and 1986, according to Forbes. By comparison, McDonalds reported a $6 billion annual profit in its most recent accounts, outlining the sheer magnitude of Escobar’s operation.

Founded in 1976, the Medellín cartel promulgated a silver or lead strategy that covered Pablo’s tracks and facilitated his omnipotence. Silver spoke of bribes, corruption and extortion, while lead referred to bullets, often used to eliminate nonconformists. In this fashion, Escobar monopolised the global cocaine trade, majoring in Miami, while also wielding control over various instruments of the Colombian state.

Naturally, this stoked a dichotomy of opinion around Pablo, whose near-mythic legacy is wildly schizophrenic. In one guise, he was a brutal terrorist who ordered killings, coordinated kidnappings and bullied his way to the top, overseeing an unscrupulous dynasty of rampant corruption. On the other hand, though, Escobar was also cast as a modern day Robin Hood, robbing from the rich and giving to the poor in a selfless crusade to redress the chronic inequities of Colombian life. Overwhelmingly, then, one’s view of Pablo Escobar is beholden to one’s class, outlook and socioeconomic profile. Angel or devil? Hero or villain? Saviour or tormentor? It has always been difficult to decide.

Undoubtedly, many state officials, law enforcement agents and high-ranking bureaucrats were on Escobar’s books, while those who opposed his ethos were routinely quelled or assassinated. Escobar committed terrorist attacks against his own country to further a complex agenda, and his killing of rival political candidates was despicable. Indeed, estimates suggest around 5,000 people were murdered by Escobar’s henchmen, highlighting the routine depravity of his regime. 

Yet Pablo also built housing developments in the poorest areas of Medellín, caring for those who were forgotten by a laissez-faire establishment. Pablo transformed rubbish dumps into acceptable accommodation for the neediest in society, providing schools, medical centres and much-needed greenery that enriched countless lives. Pablo donated to worthy causes and inspired a disenfranchised strata of Colombian society, bestriding the barrios with otherworldly aspiration. To what end, and for what purpose, is open to timeless debate, but Pablo did good, as well as bad, and that polarising magnetism lies at the heart of our endless fascination with his story.

Indeed, almost 30 years after his death, Pablo Escobar retains a beguiling grip on the human imagination. As a species, we are at once captivated and concerned by the depths of evil genius, and the strange allure of a benevolent narcoterrorist is a tantalising match for our thrill-crazed, biopic-hungry age. Just as Al Capone is showcased in museums, and just as Donald Trump became a populist icon, the extraordinary ballad of Pablo Escobar is readymade for the sepia lens of binge-worthy dramatisation. All these decades later, we still find his duplicitous charisma totally irresistible, and that is unlikely to change anytime soon.

Did Pablo Escobar play football? Inside the drug lord’s greatest passion

Of course, every figurehead needs an outlet – some way of letting off steam. Every boss needs a passion – something to soothe the worried mind. And every gangster needs a safe haven – somewhere to reconnect with the real world. For Pablo Escobar, football served all of those purposes, and more. The beautiful game was his opiate, providing the inane sustenance and inconsequential warmth we all need to keep going, keep smiling and keep believing. Pablo was loco for football, and it played a huge role in his personal and professional development.

Likewise, Colombia has long harboured a rudimentary zeal for soccer, even if genuine skill typically eluded its native exponents. For the longest time, Colombia struggled to corral and coordinate its footballing passion, unable to establish professional leagues, let alone have them flourish into a continental powerhouse. Still, administrative disorganisation never deterred the country’s authentic enthusiasm, and Colombian football became a sleeping behemoth, spreading like a patchwork quilt through amateur clubs and grassroots communities.

It was this form of football – pure and unspoiled by corporate greed – that first intoxicated Pablo Escobar. As a youngster, he often played soccer in the barrios, fancying his chances as a right-footed left winger, cutting in from the flank to create danger. By all accounts, Escobar was not especially skilled, but he enjoyed the physicality of football, which taught him the importance of optimism and resilience.

Later, following his rise to power, Pablo built football pitches in his eponymous communities, donating floodlights and equipment so locals could play whenever they felt like it. Joining teams and entering formal competitions was often expensive in Colombia, but Escobar democratised football in his homeland, financing the infrastructure it needed to blossom.

Pablo organised football tournaments in the barrios, attending as a spectator and delivering impassioned speeches. Large crowds gathered to watch these amateur showcases, with grateful locals swarming around Escobar, who signed autographs and shook hands. Through football, Pablo gifted escapism to those who felt shunned, and that became an effective technique in his campaign to alter perceptions.

In this regard, many notable talents got their first chance to play football because of Pablo Escobar. Future Colombian internationals such as Alexis García, Chico Serna and Pacho Maturana rose from the Medellín slums to carve out professional careers, honing their skills on Pablo’s pitches. The most notable Escobar alumnus of all, though, was René Higuita, the eccentric goalkeeper famed for his ‘scorpion kick’ save against England at Wembley years later. Higuita was friendly with Escobar, often visiting El Patrón, and that association eventually landed the goalie in hot water.

Which football club did Pablo Escobar support?

In addition to playing and bankrolling amateur football, Pablo Escobar was also a keen fan of the professional game, holding influential players in high regard. While Atlético Nacional is undoubtedly the most prominent club in Medellín, and even though Escobar later developed strong ties to El Verde, he was actually a childhood fan of Deportivo Independiente Medellín (DIM), their crosstown rivals.

Known as El Clásico Paisa, contests between Nacional and DIM are typically tempestuous. As with many showcase derbies, theirs is one that pits opulence against thrift, glory against guts and illustrious panache against everyman effort. Nacional is Colombia’s largest and most successful club, imbuing its huge fanbase with a sense of superiority. DIM, by contrast, has long been cast as the hard-luck sidekick, downtrodden in terms of success yet embodying the pride of a tough working class. Nacional is a polished jewel, in other words, while DIM is a battered family heirloom.

As such, it could be said that DIM was always more of a natural fit for Pablo Escobar, given his blue collar patronage. Indeed, as if to further illustrate the club’s pastoral warmth, María Victoria Henao, Pablo’s wife, was also a DIM fan, and the pair often listened to games together on the radio. First and foremost, though, Escobar was fiercely passionate about Medellín, and he frequently attended matches at the city’s Estadio Atanasio Girardot, shared by DIM and Nacional. If Medellín did well, Pablo was happy – in football, just as in business.

What is narco soccer? How infamous drug cartels infiltrated Colombian football

Speaking of business, the Medellín cartel was not unique in its lust for drug domination. In fact, as portrayed in countless retrospective dramatisations, Colombian society had been ravaged by the illegal narcotics trade long before Pablo Escobar dominated the field. Colombia had morphed into an epicentre for the production, manufacturing and movement of various drugs, most notably cannabis, decades before. However, Escobar took that infrastructure and catapulted it into a different stratosphere, focusing on cocaine as the hip new party drug captivating America.

Before long, of course, other Colombian cartels turned their attention to the mysterious white powder, eyeing a share of the immense profits coursing through Medellín. Helmed by two brothers, Gilberto and Miguel Orejuela, and their associate, Chepe Santacruz, the Cali cartel emerged as a serious rival to Escobar’s outfit, learning from Pablo’s successes and failures to streamline its own operation. The competition became fierce, resulting in death and destruction, and football became an unlikely pawn in the quest for perpetual one-upmanship.

To the cartel kingpins, football was useful on many levels. The game’s unregulated finances created abundant opportunity for deceitful scheming, while the ardour of loyal fans could be used in public relations, legitimising criminal businessmen as populist heroes who funded dreams and invested in communities. Many felt that, in Colombia, the drugs trade was so prevalent that it had to touch football. It was an economic inevitability. Thus, football became a proxy war among Colombian gangsters, who viewed the beautiful game as a microcosm of their territorial battles over narcotics.

During the 1970s and 1980s, Miguel Orejuela bankrolled América de Cali, a well-known club that grew in stature. Eduardo Enrique Davigia, a renowned marijuana kingpin, owned Unión Magdalena, a recent national champion. Meanwhile, in Bogotá, the stylish capital, José Gacha, an Escobar ally, bought Millonarios, perhaps the most famous of all Colombian football clubs. Accordingly, the Colombian football league became something of a private syndicate, used and abused by merciless drug dealers who treated illustrious clubs as meaningless playthings.

Indeed, at least six top Colombian teams were owned or funded by drug cartel powerbrokers at one point in the 1980s. Referees were attacked, hooligans dominated the terraces, and bribes became commonplace, ruining the sanctity of genuine competition. In Colombia, professional football became an old boys’ club for the rich and morally bankrupt, and such endemic corruption rendered the entire league a farce.

For instance, when Hernán Botero – the president of Atlético Nacional and yet another Escobar envoy – was extradited to the US in 1984 on money laundering charges, all professional football matches were postponed in Colombia, a display of rare unity among the unscrupulous executives. Botero was not released from US prison until 2002, and his controlling stake in Nacional was forcibly disbanded.

Likewise, justice minister Rodrigo Bonilla was a leading figure in the campaign to end cartel ownership of Colombian football clubs. When he was assassinated upon the orders of Escobar – who resented Bonilla’s perceived bias against the Medellín cartel – a vacuum emerged in the national government, which cowered into vague tolerance of the group’s sporting endeavours. Tampering with football was seen as the lesser of many evils, apparently, and the kingpins ran amok.

Which football club did Pablo Escobar own?

Although he never appointed himself owner, manager or director, Pablo Escobar ran Atlético Nacional as an open secret from the late-1970s, according to multiple reports, intensifying his involvement after Botero’s extradition. Nobody could actually prove El Patrón was involved, but he was the club’s ultimate decision-maker. More accurately, he was the shadowy figure pulling all the strings, and he yearned to make Medellín a latent football juggernaut.

According to legend, the idea of Pablo commandeering a football club was first floated by his brother, Roberto Escobar, who also looked after the cartel’s accounts. The siblings always needed outlets for their extraordinary wealth, and football seemed a viable option, suggested Roberto. In time, then, it is believed that proceeds from the drugs empire were funnelled into Nacional, allowing the club to purchase, develop and retain the best players from across Colombia.

Somewhat perplexingly, Pablo also reportedly bankrolled DIM occasionally, helping his boyhood club through times of distress. However, it was with Atlético that he put Medellín on the sporting map. Under Pablo’s aegis, the Nacional wage bill grew to millions of dollars per year, a sheer abnormality in Colombian society. Players also received huge bonuses for winning key matches, sometimes extending to $8,000, more than many Colombians made in an entire year. Naturally, top stars wanted to play for Escobar amid such gross generosity, and many were willing to ignore his macabre reputation to maximise their earnings during a relatively short playing career.

Higuita, the aforementioned goalkeeping circus act, was signed from Millonarios in 1986. Andrés Escobar – no relation to Pablo but inextricably linked to the mobster – graduated from the Nacional youth team around that time, too, adding steel to the defence. Leonel Álvarez, a combative midfielder, was bought from DIM – somewhat suspiciously – in 1987, while Faustino Asprilla, a promising forward, was plucked from Cúcuta Deportivo to complete a phenomenal spine. The squad was managed by Pacho Maturana, who also coached the national team simultaneously, often favouring Nacional players.

One of just three clubs never to be relegated from the Colombian top flight, Nacional was formed in 1947, two years before Pablo Escobar was born. The mountain-dwelling club won only three national championships before the 1980s, but it has since hoisted the crown on 13 occasions, a revealing synopsis of Escobar’s legacy.

“My father didn’t deal in football for one simple reason,” Pablo’s son, Sebastián Marroquín, once said indignantly. “He wasn’t interested in the legal side because it wasn’t profitable.” However, as we will soon see, profit had little to do with Escobar’s undeniable soccer exploits. For Pablo, owning Nacional was more about washing income from elsewhere, ultimately, and a little football silverware along the way was a pleasant addition to his folklore.

How did Pablo Escobar and Colombian narcos use football for money laundering purposes?

Money laundering is often misinterpreted and overcomplicated by the commentariat. In essence, it simply refers to the practice of making money obtained illegally – through drug dealing, for instance – seem legal by passing it through legitimate causes or obfuscated holding companies. In this regard, football has often tantalised money launderers due to the sport’s inherent chaos and myriad revenue streams. There are ample ways to fiddle the books of a football club, and such abundant opportunity piqued the interest of Colombian narcos in the 1980s and beyond.

Firstly, of course, there was the crowd. At clubs such as Nacional and Millonarios, all tickets were sold in cash at the turnstiles, allowing club bosses to embellish attendance figures and bake in some dirty money. Nacional’s stadium held around 40,000 fans, and sellout crowds were often reported despite wide open spaces peppering the terraces. Similar over-counting techniques were used to doctor merchandise sales figures and matchday concessions, making Colombian football clubs appear far more lucrative than they ever were.

A great deal of money was laundered through transfers, as well, with the drug lord football executives overly keen to swap players for exorbitant – and often fictional – sums. If clubs sold a player for $1 million, it was easy to report that officially as, say, $3 million, legitimising dark money in the cartel accounts. Such brazen collusion held narco soccer together, with dodgy deals a daily occurrence among the likeminded kingpins.

Finally, the widespread availability of football betting created another convenient outlet for money laundering. Respective club owners often backed their own teams in matches, wagering millions of dollars on disputed outcomes. Vast sums of money were ploughed into authorised bookmakers, while talk of match-fixing was predictably rife. Again, through ubiquitous betting, it was relatively easy to transform, say, $50,000 of filthy money into $250,000 of laundered money. And, hey, the adrenaline rush was pretty neat, too. 

In the days before fantasy football and FIFA Ultimate Team, Escobar even spawned his own brand of make-believe roster-building, picking and paying professional players from a range of top clubs to compete in matches at Hacienda Nápoles, his luxurious estate. Foreign players were even flown in for those games, which typically pitted Pablo against his associates, with bets on the outcome of such exhibitions often surpassing $2 million. It was all fun and games for the powerful drug lords – until the stakes got too high, that is.

When big gambles failed, for instance, or when fixtures did not follow an agreed script, retribution was often sought, and its tone grew increasingly gruesome. In 1989, for example, referee Alvaro Ortega was gunned down after disallowing an important goal in a game between DIM and América de Cali. The drug barons were said to be furious at the decision, which cost them a small fortune in botched bets, and Ortega paid with his life, a stark reminder of just how evil these tyrants could be.

Pablo Escobar, Atlético Nacional and the Copa Libertadores

Backed by Escobar, Nacional qualified regularly for the Copa Libertadores, South America’s top football competition, even if they were often outclassed in the latter stages. That changed in 1989, however, when Pablo’s men embarked on the most remarkable campaign yet authored by a Colombian football club. With each incredible win, Nacional became a vehicle for national pride – for Medellín pride, no less – and Escobar relished the glory.

That year, Atlético finished second in a preliminary group containing Millonarios, Deportivo Quito and Emelec – the latter two clubs hailing from Ecuador. A marquee tie with Racing of Argentina awaited in the last 16, and Nacional were scripted as underdogs. Nevertheless, El Verde carved out an unlikely 3-2 aggregate lead and hung on for dear life, booking their place in the quarter-finals.

There, they met Millonarios in an all-Colombia joust for the ages. An entire nation throbbed with excitement for the tie, which pitted Escobar against Gacha in an intriguing subplot. Nacional won the first leg, 1-0, at home, before scraping a 1-1 draw to advance on Millonarios’ territory. When Higuita clearly upended a Millonarios striker but no penalty was awarded, rumours of cartel involvement percolated anew, as a tense rivalry between the clubs found its genesis.

In the Libertadores semi-final, Nacional thrashed Danubio of Uruguay, 6-0, before a baying home crowd. Atlético played some phenomenal football, passing and moving beyond the kin of their humble counterparts. A steady stream of shots rained down on the Danubio goal, and Nacional swaggered through to a glittering rendezvous with Olimpia of Paraguay in the final.

Perhaps feeling the dense weight of potential history, Nacional lost the first leg, 2-0, in Asunción, much to the chagrin of Escobar and his associates. The return leg was moved to Bogotá, where a larger crowd of 60,000 could be accommodated. By many accounts, Pablo pulled out all the stops before the pivotal clash, even sending two of his henchmen to ‘visit’ the referee. They did not bribe the official, according to legend, but rather told him to do a ‘good job,’ with all the implied coercion that entailed.

Entering the final 45 minutes, however, Nacional were still down by two goals, as tension permeated the crowd. A dubious own goal by Fidel Miño, an Olimpia midfielder, reignited the tie, though, before an Albeiro Usuriaga equaliser sparked a mini pitch invasion. The sacred tournament was eventually settled by a penalty shootout, with Higuita even taking one and scoring as Nacional nudged in front. Andrés Escobar also scored for Atlético, who became the first Colombian team to win the Copa Libertadores when Álvarez slotted home the definitive spot-kick.

Pablo celebrated the apogee of his football involvement by throwing a lavish party for the victorious Nacional squad at his mammoth ranch. Weary of Pablo’s reputation, Andrés Escobar was nervous about attending such a banquet, but he went along to keep the peace. Moreover, Pablo gave each of the Nacional players a hefty bonus for lifting the sacrosanct grail of South American football, and few squad members could afford to forego such a bounty.

“Pablo jumped and screamed with every goal,” recounted Jhon Jairo Velásquez, Escobar’s chief lieutenant responsible for more than 200 cartel killings, in a subsequent interview with FourFourTwo magazine. “I had never seen him so euphoric. Normally, he was a block of ice.” 

Pablo Escobar, Arrigo Sacchi and the Nacional-Milan Intercontinental Cup of 1989

As winners of the Copa Libertadores, Nacional qualified for the Intercontinental Cup in 1989, earning a chance to be crowned de facto world club champions. Coached by Arrigo Sacchi, a true football visionary, AC Milan opposed Escobar’s men in the glorified spectacle. Tokyo staged the Intercontinental Cup, as per tradition, and Nacional hungered to beat their European counterparts in a rare moment of universal attention.

Of course, the Intercontinental Cup – later usurped by the FIFA Club World Cup – held particular importance for South American clubs, who saw it as the pinnacle of their season. Opportunities to play famous European clubs in competitive matches were few and far between, so what felt like an exhibition for Milan was regarded as a calling for Nacional. They were representing Colombia as a country, not just as an emerging football hotspot, and that was a significant task in the age of cartel-themed propaganda.

Nevertheless, Sacchi wanted to win the Intercontinental Cup, too. The suave Italian was a fierce competitor famed for meticulous preparation before matches, and the Nacional clash in Japan was no different. In a prescient move, Sacchi sent Natale Bianchedi, his most trusted scout, on fact-finding missions before each match, with tactical dossiers prepared on the opposition. Bianchedi encountered difficulty in Colombia, though, because when he went to check on Nacional, the league was still suspended due to the aforementioned murder of referee Alvaro Ortega. Sacchi was thus left to improvise, and a tough game was all but guaranteed.

Indeed, with a crowd of 60,228 in attendance, Nacional fought valiantly against a star-studded Milan featuring Franco Baresi, Paolo Maldini, Frank Rijkaard, Carlo Ancelotti and Marco van Basten. Neither side managed to score in regulation time, and the prospect of penalties loomed once again. However, in the 119th minute, Nacional succumbed to a bitter sucker-punch when Alberigo Evani flashed a sublime free-kick past Higuita and into the net. There was no time for Pablo’s team to recover, and their magic carpet ride came to a shuddering halt.

In 1990, while defending their Copa Libertadores crown, Nacional brushed with infamy once again. El Verde lost an exhilarating semi-final, but their earlier progress came under scrutiny, too. Before the second leg of their quarter-final clash with Vasco da Gama of Brazil, match officials were threatened with machine guns, tasked with ensuring a Nacional victory. Their eventual 2-0 triumph was annulled and the match was replayed in Santiago, Chile to avoid further criminal interference. Nacional won the replay, although CONMEBOL subsequently banned Colombian clubs from continental competition as punishment.

How La Catedral, Pablo Escobar’s self-designed prison, revolved around football

In poetic symmetry, by 1991, two years after Nacional’s greatest triumph, the authorities had finally caught up with Pablo Escobar, who entered a plea bargain with the Colombian government when the walls began to close in. President César Gaviria agreed not to extradite Escobar to the US, where reams of criminal charges awaited, so long as Pablo surrendered and served five years in Colombian prison. Somewhat implausibly, Escobar was even allowed to design the jail himself, while the appointment of guards and prison staff required his seal of approval, too. Such was the power of this man, and such was his mastery of persuasion. 

Officially named La Catedral, Pablo’s Medellín jail was more like an exotic country club than a hub of austere rehabilitation. Known colloquially as the Hotel Escobar, it featured a bar, jacuzzi, helipad, waterfall and pool tables. There was a giant telescope that allowed Pablo to locate his family home, while phones and other modern amenities were mere rudiments. Escobar continued to run his empire from La Catedral, meeting with acquaintances who were smuggled in by duplicitous guards. Key cartel functionaries ran the establishment, which throbbed with a party atmosphere fuelled by drugs, alcohol and prostitutes.

Above all else, though, La Catedral revolved around a hardcourt football pitch – complete with small five-a-side goals – that staged frequent matches, often involving Escobar himself. Just as he did at Hacienda Nápoles, Pablo arranged for professional footballers – including national team stars like Higuita – to visit the prison, where impromptu games made for thrilling entertainment. Alas, according to unconfirmed whispers, Escobar also executed rivals on the football court, which was often stained with blood, yet another reminder of his callousness.

Pablo Escobar, Diego Maradona and a legendary party at La Catedral prison

The most famous visitor to La Catedral was undoubtedly Diego Maradona, then the world’s best footballer. Escobar idolised Maradona, whose sporting genius became a passport out of poverty. Sure, Diego hauled Argentina – not Colombia – to World Cup glory, but Pablo appreciated supreme skill in all walks of life, especially with regard to football. There was a messianic quality to Maradona that captivated Escobar, and he hungered to meet the wee talisman.

In April 1991, Maradona was handed a 15-month doping ban for abusing cocaine while at Napoli, the Italian club he singlehandedly revitalised. Of course, Diego’s suspension meshed well with Escobar’s imprisonment, creating an opportunity for the dynamic duo to meet. Accordingly, Pablo invited Maradona to play a match at La Catedral for a large appearance fee, and Diego – ever the glutton for cash and cache – swiftly agreed. Maradona was duly ferried into the prison, where he and Escobar partied through the night in a legendary episode that almost defies belief.

“I was taken to a prison surrounded by thousands of guards,” said Maradona years later. “I said, ‘What the fuck is going on? Am I being arrested?’ The place was like luxury hotel. They said, ‘Diego, this is El Patrón.’ I didn’t read the newspapers or watch television, so I had no idea who he was!

“We met in an office and he said he loved my game and that he identified with me because, like him, I’d triumphed through poverty. We played the game and everyone enjoyed themselves. Later that evening, we had a party with the best girls I’ve ever seen in my life. And it was in a prison! I couldn’t believe it. The next morning, he paid me and said goodbye.”

In the annals of controversial pop culture, it is difficult to find historic equivalencies for this fascinating encounter. Imagine Lionel Messi playing FIFA on the Xbox with Osama Bin Laden in his Abbottabad compound. Imagine Babe Ruth drinking gin with Al Capone in a Chicago speakeasy. Imagine Bobby Moore rolling with the Kray twins in their East London lair. This stuff does not happen – unless you are Pablo Escobar or Diego Maradona, that is. Fate seemed to unite them, as football met the underworld in symbolic incredulity. 

Did Pablo Escobar die wearing football boots?

When, in 1992, the Colombian authorities swarmed La Catedral hoping to shepherd Escobar into a more conventional jail, the drug lord escaped and went into hiding. A nationwide manhunt ensued, with Pablo using intermediaries to negotiate with the government. The Medellín cartel began to splinter and shrink, as Escobar became increasingly isolated from his powerbase.

Interestingly, while researching for The Two Escobars, his brilliant ESPN documentary, director Michael Zimbalist was told that Pablo often wore football boots to run away from the authorities. Similarly, in the film, Jhon Jairo Velásquez recounts how, even with the army on his tail, Escobar stopped in obscure locales so he could listen to Colombia’s 1994 World Cup qualification matches on a portable radio. Even in the waning hours of his traumatic reign, then, Pablo Escobar found solace in the sweet escapism of football.

To that end, Luz Maria, Escobar’s sister, famously contends that Pablo died wearing football boots, although this theory seems to have been debunked as sentimental hyperbole. Indeed, after 498 days on the run, Escobar was eventually tracked and killed on a nondescript Medellín rooftop, looking overweight and dishevelled. However, infamous photos of the aftermath show a barefooted Pablo strewn across the terracotta rooftiles. Therefore, Luz Maria’s motif is likely apocryphal, but it works as a metaphor depicting Escobar’s unfettered love for the sport.

How narcos funded a revolution in Colombian football

It is often said that, for all his barbarity, Pablo Escobar actually contributed more to peace than to violence. After all, such was his dominance of the Colombian underworld, if El Patrón ordered something – détente, cessation, diplomacy – it usually happened. When he died, then, narcoterrorism lost the stabile hub around which the blind chaos orbited. Colombia was soon ravaged by domestic infighting and cartel warfare, torn between unruly factions in different cities, each trying to fill the almighty void left by Escobar and his dynasty.

Yet, where politics, drugs, money and greed divided Colombia, football united the country, bringing enemies together again under the national flag. Pro-democracy guerrillas watched the national team with authoritarian paramilitary figures, both sides hoping that Carlos Valderrama and his frizzy wig would became the avatar of Colombia, rather than Escobar and his white powder. Indeed, as the 1994 World Cup approached, people began to associate Colombia with its iconic yellow, blue and red soccer strip, not just with coffee and cocaine, and a gilded generation of Colombian footballers began to change perceptions of their homeland.

In this regard, the rise of Colombia’s national football team was an ironic legacy of mobster investment in the sport. Regardless of its origin, more money in the game meant better facilities, bigger wages, improved training techniques and greater retention of talent. More generous contracts prevented skilled players from leaving Colombia, improving the overall standard of play. Colombia even beat Argentina 5-0 away to qualify for USA '94, a watershed moment that prompted a standing ovation from the opposing fans. Los Cafeteros rose to fourth in the FIFA world rankings, reaching new heights with each passing game.

Coached by Maturana, and with a star-studded lineup featuring players from Bayern Munich, Parma, Palmeiras and the domestic giants of Nacional and América de Cali, Colombia played beautiful football with panache, verve, vision and vitality. They entered the World Cup as a popular dark horse bet to challenge, as neutrals fell in love with their luminous vibrancy. Even Pelé said Colombia would win the tournament, a prediction that raised eyebrows around the world.

Who killed Andres Escobar, the Colombian soccer player who scored a fatal own goal at the 1994 World Cup?

However, Colombia’s preparation for the World Cup was shrouded in controversy and fear. Higuita was imprisoned for acting as an accomplice to a kidnapping, supposedly linked to Escobar. Valderrama was past his best at 33. Meanwhile, players and coaches even received death threats from cartel bosses, who were keen to influence team selection having bet vast sums on certain results and goalscorers. Moreover, some club owners wanted to put their players in the shop window for potentially lucrative transfers, creating conflicts of interest that undermined the team’s ethos.

The vitriol increased when Colombia lost their opening match of the tournament to Romania, 2-1, before 91,856 at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, California. This was viewed as treason by many influential mobsters, who lost huge amounts of cash gambling on the unexpected outcome. That night, the brother of Luis Fernando Herrera, a defender who played poorly against Romania, was killed in Medellín, forcing the stalwart to leave America prematurely. Further death threats emerged, with narcos pressuring Maturana to drop underperforming players, most notably Barrabas Gómez, or face assassination. The joy had been duly extinguished from Colombian football.

In their second fixture, Colombia faced the USA in a tense grudge match, held once again at the Rose Bowl. The narcos had a vested interest in beating Los Gringos, of course, with soccer acting as a metaphor for their struggle to elude US suppression. America’s Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) played a pivotal role in snuffing out Escobar and the Medellín cartel, and the threat of extradition still haunted the Colombian underworld. Victory over the US, comparative football upstarts, was thus demanded, adding to the inferno that engulfed Maturana and his players.

Even more people attended the US game, with 93,869 packing the sun-kissed stadium to watch a match that lingers in football’s hall of shame. Tipped for a move to AC Milan following the tournament, Andrés Escobar scored an infamous own goal, lurching to clear the ball yet deflecting it beyond Óscar Córdoba and into the Colombia net. The US doubled their lead in the second half, and a late consolation goal from Adolfo Valencia came too late for Colombia, who were swiftly eliminated from a World Cup they were touted to win.

Upon returning home, Andrés Escobar, the Colombian captain, was wary of criticism, but he still chose to mingle in the community despite advice from security officials. One night, while partying in Medellín, he was shot and killed outside a nightclub. Grief and outrage spread throughout the country, which, for the second time in seven months, was forced to reckon with an Escobar death of seismic consequence. More than 120,000 people attended Andrés Escobar’s funeral, as a golden epoch of Colombian football met its sullen end.

A formal investigation into the footballer’s death was launched, and the commission – perhaps compromised by bribes – never found any direct link to Colombia’s cartels. However, Humberto Castro Muñoz, a bodyguard for Santiago and Pedro Gallón – criminal brothers tethered to the aforementioned paramilitary groups – admitted the murder, which saw Andrés Escobar shot six times. Muñoz was sentenced to 43 years in prison, of which he served eleven before being released. The Gallón brothers spent just over a year under house arrest for covering up the murder, despite Muñoz claiming to have acted on their instructions.

Some say Escobar’s own goal cost the Gallón brothers $3 million in a lost bet to Carlos Castaño, their cartel boss. Those rumours have never been proven, however, and they merely add to the hodgepodge of half-baked rumours and unfounded conspiracy theories related to the footballer’s death. Nevertheless, regardless of who killed him, and why, Andrés Escobar found himself in the wrong place at the wrong time, a defenceless scapegoat caught in the crosshairs of Colombia’s existential crisis. His demise remains one of the saddest tragedies in football history.

What is Pablo Escobar’s football legacy? From scorpion kicks to James Rodríguez

The deaths of Pablo and Andrés Escobar encouraged widespread reform of Colombian football, which finally challenged cartel interference. In 1995, for instance, US president Bill Clinton issued an executive order that banned American business from working with Colombian organisations suspected of laundering drugs money. América de Cali was on that list, as were many of the club’s individual shareholders, who were subsequently frozen out by sponsors and players.

Indeed, promising Colombian footballers began to leave the country, which had the worst murder rate in the world. Valderrama moved to the US, where he became a headline star of the embryonic Major League Soccer, turning out for Tampa Bay Mutiny, Miami Fusion and the Colorado Rapids before retiring. The next generation of Colombian talent – including Juan Pablo Ángel, Iván Córdoba, Mario Yepes, David Ospina and Radamel Falcao – sought opportunities abroad, too, preferring calmer lives of greater structure.

Moreover, following the assassination of a Millonarios vice president and the kidnap of a DIM shareholder, tighter regulations on club ownership and management suppressed cartel involvement in Colombian football. The Orejuela brothers, owners of América de Cali, were captured and imprisoned for 30 years, while rules around financial transparency aimed to clean up the game.

Violence, intimidation and corruption still emerged, however. For instance, when Asprilla fought with iconic Paraguay goalkeeper José Luis Chilavert during a World Cup qualifier in 1997, henchmen loyal to Pablo Escobar offered to assassinate Chilavert. Elsewhere, Higuita continued to find trouble, testing positive for cocaine while playing in Ecuador during the mid-2000s. Maradona, Pablo’s hero, also continued to struggle with addiction, failing further drugs tests in 1994 and 1997.

In time, then, the Colombian league shrank into a minuscule stepping stone, with stars such as Cristián Zapata, Juan Cuadrado, Carlos Bacca and Juan Fernando Quintero matriculating overseas, where their safety – both financial and physical – could be guaranteed. The attendant loss of quality and gravitas in the Colombian game was substantial.

After qualifying for three consecutive World Cups in the 1990s, Colombia did not return to the tournament until 2014. Los Cafeteros plummeted in the world rankings, bottoming out in the 40s, before James Rodríguez emerged as a supple genius befitting any team in the world. Incidentally, James was scouted and developed by Gustavo Upegui, a Pablo Escobar henchman who later bought top flight club Envigado, where Rodríguez turbocharged his career.

Thus, in football, just as in life, Pablo Escobar has a bipolar legacy that is difficult to define. In one guise, he can be seen as a compassionate philanthropist whose investment transformed the national game. On the other hand, though, he left a trail of corruption, terror and death from which Colombian football has never quite recovered.

Even less than a decade ago, more than 75% of professional Colombian football clubs faced bankruptcy. There are still whispers of cartel involvement in the sport today, but prestige is the main motivator in such instances, because the days of money laundering through football are long gone. Heavy regulation and sincere punishment saw to that.

Still, from the rabbit warren enclaves of Medellín to the bustling thoroughfares of Cali, football remains the lifeblood of Colombian ambition. The spectre of narcoterrorism is never quite expunged, however, because the neediest still rely on its proceeds to merely access the game they love.

Football matches are still played on the fields Pablo Escobar built, though they have been renovated and renamed. Stars are still honed there, as well, destined to show the new face of Colombia through the medium of sport. In the end, then, these disparate ingredients continue to simmer, forming a thick broth of rabid patriotism. Narcos and football. Football and narcos. Where one ends and the other begins, we are still yet to decipher.

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