Pablo Escobar and the Deadly Rise of Colombian Soccer

The Colombian drug lord had a life-long passion for soccer, but his impact on the game led to devastating consequences.

Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar was one of the richest people in the world in the early 1990s, boasting a net worth of USD $30 billion, all thanks to his cartel’s dominance of the cocaine industry. Even though the drug trade transformed Escobar from rags to riches, it was not his greatest passion in life. His greatest passion, and favourite thing in the whole world apart from his family, was soccer. And Colombian soccer in particular.

Born in 1949, Pablo Escobar had a poor upbringing growing up in Medellin, Colombia, and witnessed his parents struggle to provide for their seven children. This motivated Pablo to make something of himself, and he promised his family at a young age that he would grow up to be wealthy and successful, and give them the best life possible.

Controlling 80% of the world’s cocaine market, His deadly obsession to stay at the top of the drug world would ultimately lead to his demise, as he was shot and killed by local Police and Military in December 1993, just one day after his 44th birthday.

While his cartel was responsible for over 4,000 deaths and the deadly Colombian drug war, Pablo was a major reason for Colombian soccer’s rise to prominence, and left behind a significant legacy in the local game.

The recent popular Netflix series Narcos centred on Pablo Escobar’s rise from rags to riches, and the devastating impact that his Medellin Cartel created in Colombia. But throughout the series, it seemed that only two things could make Pablo really happy; family, and soccer.

As the Medellin Cartel was generating astonishing amounts of money - believed to be around $60 million per day at the height of its power - Pablo was finding new ways to spend his cash. This included giving back to his local community in numerous, which involved building soccer grounds for the youth in the poorest areas of Medellin. Some of those youth would grow up to become professional soccer players, with a few even representing the Colombian national team at the World Cup.

While earning so much money in the 1980s, Pablo and brother Roberto decided to use their financial power to get further involved in the game they love, and became ‘unofficial’ owners of their beloved Atletico Nacional - Medellin’s biggest professional club.

Owning a team provided Pablo with the the perfect method of laundering his drug money - investing in the club and spending millions on player transfers and wages. This involved buying Colombia's best players, which would eventually turn Atletico Nacional into the most powerful soccer club in South America.

After years of constantly investing in his hometown club, Pablo was somewhat rewarded in 1989 when Atletico became the first Colombian club to win the Copa Libertadores - the South American version of the Champions League, officially crowning them the best team in the continent. After the match, the whole club would end up at the Escobar ranch for a wild celebration.

Following this, soccer stars appearing at the ranch became quite a regular occurrence, as Pablo often invited the country’s best professional players to come visit. Remarkably, the drug lord would often host his own version of fantasy soccer - where he personally asked his favourite players from all over Colombia (including many national team stars) to play in a star studded exhibition match, and would even put the boots on and join in. Pablo and his fellow narco friends would select their own fantasy teams, and place wagers on the outcome.

While the deadly drug war was continuously escalating, Colombian soccer was at an all time high, with other drug kingpins such as the Cali Cartel also investing in the game. With so much financial power, Colombian clubs had the resources to produce and retain amazing talent, which resulted in a golden generation for the national team. They would emphatically qualify for the 1990 World Cup - their first since 1962, and bring an amazing amount of pride to the people of Colombia.

Despite the feel-good factor that the drug money was bringing to Colombian soccer, the influence of cashed up crimelords was not always sanitary, and referees were often bribed and threatened. One of the country’s leading referees was shot dead shortly after making a controversial call which cost Atletico a win, highlighting just one of the dangers of the narcos soccer era.

In 1991 the “King of Cocaine” was finally sentenced to prison, after agreeing to a deal with the government who were desperate to win the war on drugs and put an end to the daily murders caused by the Medellin Cartel. However, this was no ordinary prison.

Pablo Escobar’s power knew no boundaries, and he was able to convince the government to allow him to serve his in prison as a house arrest, promising to build his own prison at his spacious property. Unsurprisingly, the building resembled a luxury resort, and featured a glamorous bar, waterfalls, jacuzzis, an entertainment room and of course, a soccer pitch.

Despite being in prison, the visits from soccer stars continued, and many feared for their lives if they did not accept the invitation to go have a kick with Pablo.

Argentine legend Diego Maradona, arguably the greatest player in history, was also on the list of those playing soccer on Pablo’s property; "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.”

While most of the well known players managed to go about their daily lives after visiting Pablo, famous Colombian goalkeeper Rene Higuita became very close to the Medellin Cartel leader, and was arrested in 1993 for his reluctant involvement in a kidnapping of a rival drug lord’s daughter.

Escobar and Higuita had built up a close relationship, as the flamboyant keeper nicknamed ‘El Loco’ grew up in the Medellin slums that benefited from Pablo’s donations, and was Atletico’s goalkeeper throughout the club’s successful era. Unfortunately, it was this friendship, and loyalty to the Medellin Cartel which landed Higuita behind bars and cost him a spot at the 1994 World Cup. The nation was outraged as the arrest revealed the vast amount of high profile players regularly visiting the ranch.

Rene Higuita’s famous/outrageous save vs England:

 

Later that year, the people of Colombia no longer had to worry about their beloved national team’s friendship with Pablo Escobar, because after a relentless manhunt, the infamous drug lord was shot dead. His death was celebrated by the government who had fought so hard to win the war on drugs, and while many citizens were relieved, some were heartbroken, as they saw Pablo as a “Robin Hood” figure who donated so much to the poverty filled slums of Medellin.

Once the dust settled, the nation resumed focusing on theirs and Pablo’s biggest passion, soccer, with their national team in amazing form and one of the favourites to win the 1994 World Cup. Brazilian legend Pele even tipped them to win the whole tournament.

As it turned out, Colombia performed poorly, and did not even qualify for the knockout stage from a group they were expected to win. Andres Escobar (no relation to Pablo) from Medellin and a key member of Atletico Nacional, was the national team’s best defender, but scoring an own goal against the United States ultimately ended his country’s World Cup campaign. This would tragically cost him his life.

The talented defender was one of the main scapegoats for Colombia’s World Cup failure, and decided to catch up with friends after returning home. After leaving a local nightclub, he was spotted alone in the car park, where he was ambushed and shot dead. He was shot six times, with the murderer yelling “Goal” after ending the 27 year old’s life.

It was later revealed that the man responsible for Andres Escobar’s death was connected to another local drug cartel, and his death was “punishment” for the own goal. As betting on soccer increased, members of the drug trade were known to gamble thousands of dollars on the Colombian national team, and many lost heavily on the game where Escobar scored an own goal.

Andres Escobar’s own goal

 

While Pablo Escobar’s death was met with mixed emotions, Andres Escobar’s death broke Colombia’s heart. Their anger at World Cup failure immediately turned to shock and devastation after losing one of their most popular soccer players.

After riding the dangerous wave of the narcos era, Colombian soccer paid the ultimate price, and although it took some time, the drug money and danger that comes with it eventually disappeared from the game.

Although it is much safer now, Colombian soccer has never returned the glory days of the late 80s and early 90s, when it was funded by Pablo Escobar and the enormous amount of money generated from the cocaine trade. Atletico Nacional took decades to return to the top of South America, winning the Copa Libertadores in 2016, sparking wild celebrations throughout Medellin.

The Colombian national team is yet to advance past the quarter final stage of a World Cup, and few pundits have picked them to do so in Russia later this year.

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