Pablo Escobar may have been the most notorious drug lord in history, but his true passion was always football.
Forget about whatever you may have seen on the Netflix series Narcos. This is how Escobar’s influence shaped football in Colombia for years to come.
Born into a poor family in 1949, Pablo Emilio Escobar Gaviria made a promise to himself that he wouldn’t grow up to struggle financially like his father.
Introduced from young into a life of petty crime, Escobar quickly saw the growing market in the cocaine drug trade and transformed himself into a multi-millionaire before he turned 30.
Escobar was the leader, chief and king of the Medellín cartel- one of the most dangerous, wealthy and powerful drug cartels the world has ever seen.
Controlling 80% of the worlds global cocaine market meant Pablo could do as he pleased. That power was used to create a legacy that would last for years even after death- his passion for Colombian football.
The 1980’s to early 90’s saw the beginning of a new era for Colombian football. For years they had little football influence outside of their country, failing to qualify for a World Cup since Chile in 1962.
Escobar seized the opportunity to revolutionize his city Medellín and the country into a footballing powerhouse, laundering as much cash as he could through football.
By 1990, Colombia had made their first World Cup in 27 years, and Atlético Nacional grew into a South American football giant virtually overnight. It was all thanks to Escobar who used his wealth to attract Colombia’s most elite players to the Medellín. Nacional famously signed Carlos Valderrama, Faustino Asprilla, René Higuita and Freddy Rincón.
In 1989, Nacional became the first Colombian club to win the Copa Libertadores- a South American tournament equivalent to the UEFA Champions League in Europe.
Nacional defeated Club Olimpia of Paraguay 5-4 on penalties, and Higuita became a club hero saving four penalties and converting one of his own.
The Colombian drug lord thought of himself more as a Robin Hood rather than a worldwide criminal. Escobar built many football fields in run down neighbourhoods and also contributed to funding Colombia’s youth system.
Many established Colombian footballers of today have benefited from Escobar’s legacy, regardless of the fact that it was built by the hands of his blood money. His fame had become so wide spread, people began to start asking questions.
Journalist and politician Luis Carlos Galán was murdered in 1989 by the Medellín Cartel for trying to take Escobar down, and Pablo paid the price for it.
In that same year, Escobar was responsible for a tidal wave of violence, which saw 5,045 homicides recorded in Medellín. Escobar was soon arrested for Galán’s murder. The King Pin agreed to plea guilty to a reduced sentence, and forced the government to accept terms to stay his own personal prison.
In that time, many famous football players visited Escobar, and even had a kick-about on his private football field. Pablo even invited players of Atlético to his prison to celebrate the famous Copa Libertadores victory.
The prison has since been turned into the main monastery of the Benedictine monks.
A friend of Pablo’s was Rene Higuita. You may remember him from when he pulled off that famous Scorpion Kick save when goalkeeping for Colombia against England in 1995.
Higuita paid visits to Pablos prison La Catedral, and his relationship didn’t just stop there. Higuita spent seven months behind bars for his involvement in Escobar’s kidnapping of rival cartel member Carlos Molina’s daughter. It ruined any chance he had of playing in the 1994 World Cup.
Pablo Escobar was shot and killed in 1993, and Colombian football began to die with it.
Money started to vanish and corruption and betting became the core of the problem. Constant threats from the Cartels underground betting ring caused fear among Colombia’s footballers.
Colombia’s captain Andrés Escobar was brutally murdered in 1994 after conceding the famous own goal that ultimately caused Colombia’s elimination from the World Cup against USA.
Many people wonder if this would have occured if Pablo Escobar was still alive.
Andrés was a religious man and used his footballing talents to change the face of Colombia to the world.
“We are all working for a common cause – to make our country proud,” “We’re trying to not focus on the violence. I find motivation in the good things to come. I try to read a bit of the Bible each day.
“We have to go on. No matter how difficult, we must stand back up. We’ll see each other again soon because life does not end here.”
– Andrés Escobar
Colombia had a World Cup winning team in 1994. Even Brazilian legend Pelé expected them to win it. Colombia thrashed Argentina 5-0 leading up to the tournament, making them favourites. Unfortunately, the influence from back home became to much for the manager Francisco Maturana, after a 3-1 loss to Romania in the first match.
In what is known as the ‘Dark Hand’, TV’s in the Colombian players hotel rooms were hacked and displayed threats, stating all players would be killed if Maturana played midfielder Gabriel Barrabas Gómez. Gómez was dropped and from that day forward, he decided to hang up the boots.
It was a sad day for Colombia and football, as many thousands of people came together to mourn the death of their captain.
Andrés Escobar’s death also marked the day of a new beginning.
After years of struggle, Colombia is starting to recover from its violent past. The crime rate in Medellín has dropped to 20 per 100,000 people, the lowest number in decades.
The 2014 World Cup in Brazil displayed that Colombia can be a force once again, and that they no longer need the dirty money that Pablo Escobar once used to create a football legacy.
Colombia play USA tomorrow in the 2016 COPA America Centenario.