20 YEARS AGO, had Andres Escobar not scored a fateful own goal in their World Cup group game against the United States, Colombia would have been the opponents of eventual champions Brazil in the Round Of 16. As it happened, Brazil took on the United States and won 1-0. But that paled in comparison to the tragic fallout of that match and that own goal – Escobar was gunned down* outside a nightclub in the city of Medellin allegedly by drug traffickers who had bet heavy money on Colombia who were pre tournament favourites.
Escobar paid the ultimate price and that incident crystallized into a symbolic moment that brought forth what the confluence of drug money and the heady rush of winning at football hath wrought on the country. It was something that country would take more than a decade and a half to recover from as its soccer team stuttered through World Cups in between. It would haunt every discussion about Colombian football until the 2014 World Cup, where the players’ free spirit and beautiful football headlined by star James Rodriguez would banish those references or at least send them to the background.
Brazil met Colombia in a World Cup after their paths almost crossed in 1994, this time in the 2014 quarterfinal. A shaky and even panicked Brazil prevailed 2-1 by the skin of their teeth but it was probably the day hope was reborn for Colombian football. It is a loss they go out of, not having to fear for their lives like those in the 1994 squad did. It is a loss they bow out with their heads held high; and who knows a refereeing call here or there and they could have been taking on Germany at Belo Horizonte in the semi.
In the late 80s and early 90s, football and football clubs were avenues of choice for drug lords to launder their drug money from the cocaine business and the ring leader of them all was Colombia most wanted man – Pablo Escobar (no relation to Andres). While the football was the opium of the masses in a sense, it was being fuelled by drug money with national players being invited on whim to play for and with Pablo Escobar, and you just didn’t say ‘no’ to him. As the government stepped up its crackdown, their grip on Colombian football only seemed to strengthen including death and kidnapping threats to the 1994 squad if they did not select or selected certain players in the team. Millions of dollars were riding on gambles as the cartels laid out the cash; they virtually owned local Colombian soccer, and used that influence in national team selection too.
The games had turned into charades; far removed from what you want the beautiful game to be. Andres Escobar’s death, the subsequent escalation of government efforts to bust Pablo Escobar and his consequent capture began a purge the results of which you see today on the pitch in the form of a team that plays free flowing football and celebrates like they are really enjoying their game. Clubs severed their ties to cartels, the cartels themselves dwindled and became weaker and it was a new generation of footballers that took center stage. They are not all gone (in fact, some are in the ascendancy) but it is a remarkable story of what aspects of lives a sport can define – for both good and for bad.
Andres Escobar, an amazingly bright player, was a victim of the dark side, but ironically his death was the wake up call that led to the clean up. Today the Colombia you saw against Brazil was not one that has completely healed from those scars of 20 years ago, but definitely one that chose the light over the path of darkness. It is perhaps symbolic that their most famous player James Rodriguez was barely 2 when the nation woke up to the dark news of Andres’ death while their least famous player, backup goalie Faryd Mondragon was a part of the roster in 1994.
This is a new generation composing their redemption song on their own rhythm. Colombia is leaving its past behind. And the future looks bright. Never mind that loss to Brazil.
*There is an exceptionally good ESPN documentary about the Escobar saga and its background. Titled ‘The Two Escobars’. You can find it here.