(Spoiler alert: This review contains commentary on the entire film. While the film lacks the twists of a fictional movie, if you want to experience the film without knowledge of the events please do not read.)
ESPN has raised the bar for sports documentaries with their 30 for 30 series. Rather than simply covering great athletes and well known sporting events, the series has detailed less popular stories or illuminated the story behind the biggest moments in sports over the past 30 years. Jeff and Michael Zimbalist's The Two Escobars may be the best 30 for 30 film to date.
The film tells the story of what is known as "narco-soccer." The term derives from a period in Colombia's history when the cocaine kingpins used soccer clubs to launder their money. Of all the drug lords, none was more influential than Pablo Escobar.
Pablo Escobar makes for a compelling character. Depending on who is being interviewed, he is portrayed as a ruthless murder or a Robin Hood-type hero to the poor. This dichotomy would easily justify him as being both Escobars, as referred to in the title.
However, the second Escobar is less controversial but just as compelling. Andrés Escobar (no relation to Pablo) was the star defensive player for Colombia's national team. He was raised as a devout Catholic and believed he could improve his nation by playing soccer. Andrés gained international recognition when he scored a goal on his own team in the 1994 World Cup against the United States.
The filmmakers do a wonderful job covering all sides of the story. After the picture ended, I cannot definitively say whether Pablo Escobar was good or evil. He certainly was no saint, but at the same time one could argue he was a product of the system. He did not invent cocaine. Under his rule, there was order. Granted, the price for disturbing the order was often times death.
Pablo also built soccer fields in poor neighborhoods. At one point he even built homes for people who were living in a garbage dump. It is understandable why many of the lower-class citizens loved him. Pablo used his popularity among the poor to win a seat in the Colombian House of Representatives. (Others in Colombia's government objected and he was refused his seat. Those who were most influential in ousting Pablo ended up dead.)
While the film at time presents an unseen look at Pablo Escobar, the fact remains that he was a brutal criminal. In addition to ruling a cocaine empire, he had no problem killing his enemies. While Colombia was more chaotic after his death, violence was still common during his time in control of the cocaine trade. During this period, Colombia had the highest murder rate in the world.
Throughout the film, soccer is viewed by Colombians as a way to change their image. Andrés Escobar and his teammates understood their importance. Their game was a way to bring the country together.
In order to for a nation to unite around a team, that team needs to have some measure of success. Colombia did not have the rich soccer heritage that other South American nations enjoyed. They lacked money to hire international trainers and keep their best players. When the drug lords used soccer clubs to launder money, all of that changed.
The team that gave Colombians so much pride was made possible by the cocaine trade. While Pablo Escobar's primary motivation to own a soccer club may very well have been to wash illegal income, he also loved the sport. A member of his organization tells a story of when he and Pablo were running from the authorities. Despite the fact that their lives were in danger, Pablo listened to a radio broadcast of one of Colombia's matches.
Led by Andrés Escobar, the Colombian nation team dominated in their World Cup qualifiers. In their most impressive victory, they destroyed Argentina 5-0 to advance directly to the World Cup. The team played so well that the legendary Pele declared them the favorite to win the Cup.
Colombia's impressive run to qualify for the World Cup helped unite the entire nation. The president would personally call players to congratulate them after wins. The team interacted with heads of state and brought pride to their nation. Andrés and his team knew that they were playing for something greater than themselves.
Watching The Two Escobars made me wonder if America could ever unite around a team as Colombia did in the early 1990's. I wasn't alive for the 1980 Winter Olympics when the U.S. hockey team famously upset the favored U.S.S.R. That may have been the most recent example of Americans uniting around a national team.
In today's sports landscape, I don't know if something like that could happen. There are so many opportunities to follow different sports. I think it would be safe to assume that most sports fans care more about their favorite team than any U.S. national team. There are so many sports and entertainment options that it would be difficult to get 300 million people to deeply care about one team.
International competition is second to the professional leagues in our most popular sports. There are no international football tournaments. Our best baseball players do not compete in the Olympics. Our national basketball team is only a lead story when they lose. Otherwise, winning international tournaments is viewed as business as usual.
Another reason why it is unlikely that America will unite around a national team is because of our high standard of living. We don't need a sports team to give us our identity. If you're reading this article you have internet access, something that many people in the world do not enjoy. Your life cannot be that bad compared to the rest of the world. Most of our problems are relatively minor compared to those of the less fortune in the world, who struggle to find food and lack access to clean water.
For Colombians in the early 1990's, soccer was a temporary escape from poverty and violence. There was a lot of weight on the shoulders of Andrés Escobar and the Colombian national team.
The Two Escobars does a magnificent job explaining the failure of Colombia in the 1994 World Cup. Before the Cup began, their star goalie was arrested on kidnapping charges. He claims that the real reason for his incarceration was a visit he paid to Pablo Escobar. Regardless of the real reason for his arrest, one cannot help but wonder if he would have been able to block Andrés Escobar's "shot."
Pablo Escobar was killed by his own men before he could watch his country's team compete on the biggest stage. Criminal activity spiraled out of control without Pablo's iron fist. After an upset loss to Romania, the players received death threats. Drug lords, who lost money gambling on the team, threatened to kidnap players' family members.
Entering a must-win game against the U.S., the players were tense. The amount of pressure on them was crippling. They should have easily defeated the United States.
Andrés Escobar's goal was a freak occurrence. He made the right move by sliding to deflect the ball. However, instead of kicking the ball sideways or forward, he deflected the ball into the back corner of the net. It was an honest mistake that destroyed the hopes of a nation. The heavily favored Colombians failed to make it out of the group stage.
Andrés Escobar was shot outside a club shortly after the team returned home. According to those interviewed, he was killed for trying to defend his mistake to a group of criminals who insulted him.
The interview with Andrés Escobar's fiancé is extremely emotional. Her reading of an article written by Andrés shortly before he died is touching. He was a talented writer and his last words in the article were beautiful: "...life doesn't end here." His death was one of the most tragic moments in the history of sports.
Jeff and Michael Zimbalist have created a masterpiece. Most of the interviews are in Spanish, so those who dislike subtitles may find it hard going. However, reading subtitles is a small price to pay. The Two Escobars is a brilliant film that illustrates how a simple game can be so meaningful to an entire nation.