Colombia Finally Looking Forward on 20th Anniversary of Andres Escobar's Death

Alex Dimond@alexdimondUK Lead WriterJuly 2, 2014

James Rodriguez was just one day old the last time Colombia beat Brazil in a competitive fixture, and he was still a few weeks short of his third birthday the last time a Colombia side arrived at a World Cup with realistic hopes of success.

Yet now, 20 years on and still 10 days from his 23rd birthday, Rodriguez is suddenly at the forefront of a group of players expected to write the next chapter in those two stories he can barely have any memories of: to mastermind his nation's first victory over Brazil since 1991 and to finally lay to rest the memories of Colombia's ill-fated, and ultimately tragic, run at the 1994 World Cup.

It was a World Cup that ended in disappointment, recriminations and, ultimately their captain, Andres Escobar, being gunned down outside a Medellin bar in the early hours of July 2.


A potent mix

Colombia's national football team take their nickname, Los Cafeteros (literally "The Coffeers"), from their country's most famous export. In the post-millennium world, with a Starbucks on the corner of every Western city, it is perhaps an apt nickname, one that asserts both the country's importance, and significance, in a global context.

In the 1980s and early 1990s, however, there was another national product that the country became even more famous for.

Cocaine was the country's export of prominence, bringing huge wealth to the various cartels that controlled its production and distribution. Unfortunately, its pervasion into wider Colombian society was rarely so beneficial.

The most prominent cartel, in both size and power, was led by Pablo Escobar, a driven young man who grew up in poverty and channelled that hunger into a criminal career that eventually would see him rated as one of the wealthiest men in the world.

Some of that money would find its way into football, which in Colombia, as in most South American countries, was akin to an obsession for the working classes from which most cartel leaders emerged.

It was certainly Escobar's passion, as he poured vast sums into building football pitches in the areas under his intangible control.

There was another reason for the involvement in football, however. As an all-cash business, its infrastructure made it a perfect environment for legalising the millions of dollars made in drug trades.

"The mafia runs an illegal business," as Escobar’s head of security, Jhon Jairo Velasquez Vasquez (known as "Popeye"), noted in the comprehensive 2010 ESPN documentary The Two Escobars.

"The only way to legalise their earnings is through money laundering. And football moves millions of dollars."

Escobar had chosen to get involved with Atletico Nacional, the biggest club in Medellin, the city where his operation was based. He used Nacional as a front to launder money, but he also put some of his vast wealth into the club, improving the facilities and enabling it to build and retain a squad far stronger than it had previously been.

According to Velasquez Vasquez, even in later years, when Escobar was on the run from the authorities, he would have a pocket radio on him so he could listen to games involving Colombia or Nacional.

"Football was his joy, his escape, his cloud nine," the bodyguard said.

Another Escobar, Andres (no relation), was one of the standout players of that burgeoning Nacional side. Born and raised in Medellin, he was a tall, calm central defender who had emerged into the first team as a preternaturally mature 19-year-old in 1986.

He would quickly become the lynchpin of a side of burgeoning talents, both from Colombia and abroad, that would go toe-to-toe with the similar cartel-backed teams of Cali, Deportivo and America.

They were rivalries, both sporting and professional, that would push Colombian football on to greater and greater heights—competition often being the catalyst for greatness. But it would cause issues, too, with the season cancelled for one year following the death of a league official, while associates of Pablo Escobar also assassinated a referee in 1989.

That same year, Escobar would take the first penalty in the final of the Copa Libertadores, the South American equivalent of the Champions League. He would score, flamboyant Nacional goalkeeper Rene Higuita would make his saves and the team would become the first Colombian side ever to win the competition (Once Caldas would become the second 15 years later).

Off the pitch, however, matters had become far more violent and unpredictable. The 1984 Escobar-approved assassination of Colombia's Justice Minister, Rodrigo Lara Bonilla, was in retaliation for the government's 1982 approval of an extradition treaty with the United States, an agreement that the drug barons feared above all.

Escobar had a motto—"I would rather have a grave in Colombia than a jail cell in the U.S."—and it was one that motivated his actions as authorities began focusing more intently on his activities.

The 1986 death of basketball prodigy Len Bias from a cocaine overdose further raised awareness about the pernicious effects of the drug in the United States, where it had previously been viewed as something recreational and relatively harmless.

Now, however, the U.S. perception of the drug had changed—leading to a war on drugs that would spark violence across Colombia.

Escobar and his associates began a campaign of intimidation and terrorism, bombing government sites and other strategic targets in a bid to weaken Colombian-American links and, ideally, force the cancellation of the existing extradition treaty.

Instead both sides would harden their resolve, with U.S. president George Bush committing troops to help the Colombian government with their attempts to fight the cartel.

Eventually, after extradition was removed as a possibility in 1990, Escobar would hand himself in to authorities in 1991, giving himself up for imprisonment under a number of guidelines he had insisted upon.

These regulations allowed him to both continue his love of football (he demanded a pitch be built within his compound) and, more importantly, continue running many of his cartel operations. When authorities discovered this, Escobar was forced to go on the run, fearful of a renewed threat of extradition.

He would eventually be killed in 1993, following a protracted cat-and-mouse chase with drug enforcement agents. But his death, and the subsequent power vacuum it would create, only served to heighten the violence in the country.


Pressure from all sides

The situation left the national team, for whom Andres Escobar was now the captain, in an awkward spot. They were affected by the ongoing troubles yet, as a collection of players of rare ability, were expected to present a different side of the country to a national audience at the 1994 World Cup.

"Suddenly, everyone wanted to know about us," one of the stars of that side, Freddy Rincon, told the Sabotage Times in 2011. "Many people told us we could win the tournament, and we started to believe them."

But with the drug trade slowly proving less profitable for those involved with it, football suddenly became an alternative revenue stream as much as a recreational escape.

This golden generation of players were suddenly hugely valuable assets, ones whose values could escalate with a good World Cup. That added to the pressure. Rincon continued:

Instead of working hard, some of the players decided to party. That's when many of the club owners and directors got angry. Because Colombia's league is such a small one, we are dependent on selling players to European clubs in order to survive.

And believe me, some of those owners were not guys you wanted to annoy.

The 1994 team had quality in all positions. In midfield, they had the brawn of Leonel Alvarez and the guile of the fleet-footed Carlos Valderrama. In attack, Rincon was an admired talent and Faustino Asprilla was arguably one of the most dangerous—if not also one of the most erratic—forwards in the world. Their defence was orchestrated by Escobar, only 27 but already the captain of his side.

They arrived at the tournament having lost just one of their last 26 games, including a remarkable 5-0 victory over Argentina. That—along with memories of the 1991 victory over Brazil in the Copa America—inspired the great Pele to predict Maturana's side could reach the semi-finals of the competition.

The hope was that if they could reach the knockout stages—as they had done for the first time in the country's history four years previously in Italy—and face one of their more illustrious South American rivals, they might be able to cause an upset.

But the troubles at home left a dark cloud over preparations.

"We are all working for a common cause—to make our country proud," Escobar told reporters as the Colombian team landed. "We're trying to not focus on the violence. I find motivation in the good things to come."

Still, there were enough bad things to linger over.

Standout goalkeeper Higuita—who would make his name a year later with his famous scorpion-kick clearance against England at Wembley Stadium—was not fit to represent the team after spending seven months in jail for associating with Pablo Escobar (the exact offence committed is disputed: Higuita, who was eventually released without charge, believes it was due to government embarrassment at him publicly visiting the drug lord in "prison").

Players were routinely intimidated or threatened, while coach Maturana received death threats over his proposed team selections as club owners sought to ensure their players received maximum playing time.

As a result, a team expected to thrive fell apart in their opening game, losing 3-1 to a Romania side that had received nowhere near the same billing in the build-up. That meant Los Cafeteros' second game, against the host United States, would be pivotal.

What happened next would become one of the most famous moments in World Cup history. Colombia started well, if slightly tentatively, but were exposed at the back when U.S. winger John Harkes took the ball out on the left.

His driven cross into the box was dangerous and Andres Escobar, not certain of what was behind him, lunged to try and intercept it.

Instead he got a toe on the ball, turning it past his goalkeeper and into the net. Colombia would go on to lose 2-1 and, despite winning against Switzerland in their final game, were out of the tournament.

It was the first goal of Escobar’s entire professional career. It would also be his last.

"In that moment, my nine-year-old son turned to me and said, 'Mommy, they’re going to kill Andres'," Escobar’s sister, María, told the ESPN documentary. "I replied, 'No sweetheart, people are not killed for mistakes.’ Everyone in Colombia loves Andres."

The Colombian team returned to the country amid recriminations about their performance. Escobar, the focus of ire in some quarters, was advised by his coach to keep a low profile in Medellin but instead believed it best to show his face around his hometown.

For this he was initially lauded by journalists, although his friends' fears would come to be well-founded.

On July 2, Escobar visited El Indio bar with some friends. Late in the night the Gallon brothers, well-known Medellin criminals, verbally abused him about his own goal. Escobar responded, attempting to explain it was an unfortunate mistake, but the situation escalated.

As he tried to leave, Escobar was shot six times and died. Although reports differ, it has been claimed that each shot was accompanied by the taunt "Own goal!" from the gunman, who would later serve 11 years of a 43-year prison sentence.

Twenty-five thousand people, many from Medellin, had turned out to mourn Pablo Escobar's death nearly a year earlier. Approximately 125,000 lined the streets when Andres Escobar was murdered that July.

The cause for the murder has long been disputed. Initially it was characterised as a retaliatory crime, Escobar assassinated for costing the mafia vast sums of money in bets placed on Colombia's World Cup performance.

As time has passed, however, that verdict has changed, citing Escobar instead as another victim of the national conditions the other Escobar had helped create: a lawless, volatile society where violence dominated and nobody was safe.

There were 40 other murders that night in Medellin. At the time, Colombia had the highest murder rate in the world.

In death, however, Escobar offered a final wake-up call to a country that was beginning to get its problems under control.

"Life cannot end here," Andres Escobar had written in the Bogota newspaper El Tiempe following Colombia's exit. "We have to go on. No matter how difficult, we must stand back up."


A country tries to forget 

Unfortunately for many, that proved easier said than done. Emotionally exhausted after what they had experienced, a number of key players decided they no longer wished to represent the side.

Another squad—a pale imitation of the one that came before it—reached the 1998 World Cup but again exited the tournament at the group stage. Yet the mere fact that the team had been able to play without external intimidation, that fans could simply enjoy the game once more, was taken as a positive step in the right direction.

Still, with football intrinsically linked to the drug trade and violence that had marred the country for so long, fans started to drift away from the game. With the drug trade slowly being tackled, club owners no longer had the money to maintain the standard of the Colombian league.

Over time, parents began diverting their children in other directions. After his death, a charity was set up in Escobar's name that focused on the importance of education, rather than sporting excellence.

"We are not trying to produce great soccer players—rather, great human beings," Dario Escobar, Andres' father, told the Los Angeles Times in 1998. "The school's main objective is to teach children values so that they say no to drugs and to theft."

From a purely footballing perspective, however, the much-needed injection of new talent never emerged as hoped, and as Valderrama and other veteran players began retiring, Los Cafeteros faded as a threat and failed to qualify for the next three World Cups.

But then, slowly, fans began to return. Youth football once again became a big deal in the country, with the Liga Pony—a competition for 12-year-olds—becoming an annual, nationally televised event.

Similarly to the Jamaican Boys & Girls Athletics Championships (known simply as "The Champs"), it has proved to be a great route for talented young players to show their talents. Radamel Falcao first made his name in the Liga Pony; two years later James Rodriguez did the same.

Falcao missed the World Cup through injury, but in Rodriguez, Juan Cuadrado and many others, a new generation, without the baggage of their predecessors but with the same prodigious talent, has emerged for Colombia.

Their attacking talents enabled them to romp through the group stages, scoring nine goals as they breezed past Greece, Ivory Coast and Japan. It may be a trite, convenient observation, but perhaps the only thing Jose Pekerman's side lacks is a defender with the presence and composure of Andres Escobar.

In Rodriguez, however, they have a true star who speaks to everything optimistic and ambitious about the Colombia that has emerged in the post-cocaine era.

His goal against Uruguay, a remarkable volley that sent his country to the quarter-finals of the World Cup for the first time in their history, was evidence of the player expressing himself, playing with freedom—something Colombian football has sorely missed for too long.

Oscar Tabarez, the Uruguay coach, told reporters after the game:

I've seen him play for a while. Those who do things which have nothing to do with life experience, Maradona, Messi, Suarez, they do things because they have certain gifts that make them special.

He's the best player in the World Cup. I don't think I'm exaggerating.


20 years in the making

Now, 20 years later, it is Rodriguez who carries the expectations, hopes and fears of others on his slender shoulders.

He may be the first of a new generation not to be encumbered by memories of Escobar or that dark, difficult period in Colombian history, but he is also among a group who are the first to realistically have the talent to go on and achieve what Escobar's cohort once threatened to.

Rodriguez's story, like the country he grew up in, remains one touched by the cartels of yore but not in a way that has affected his development.

His first club, Envigado, was founded by Gustavo Upegui, a known associate of Pablo Escobar. The club is still run by his children, while there remain suspicions, per The Times, that the club is still in some way linked with what lingers of the old cartels.

When Rodriguez left there to join Argentinean side Banfield, choosing them over the more illustrious Boca Juniors, part of the reason for his decision was that Banfield played in green and white—the colours of his and the Escobars' favourite team, Atletico Nacional.

If he can mastermind a victory over Brazil in Fortaleza on Friday then, on the one hand, he will achieve something that Andres Escobar's team were the last to achieve—and on the other hand achieve something they never had the opportunity to do at all.

Beating Brazil would emulate Escobar's generation and also offer a measure of closure for a team—and a player—robbed of the chance to show its full potential.

"There's no pressure," Rodriguez told reporters over the weekend. "They have very good players and they play good football, but they'll have to watch us closely as well. We have good players and we can be dangerous. I think it's going to be a beautiful match."


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