Narcoball: When The Drug Cartels Owned Football

So much of the recent history of Colombia
has been the history of the stranglehold of cocainetrafficking
drug cartels on its politics and on its culture. After a series of civil wars in the mid 20th
Century, and a politically unstable compromise between liberals and conservative to rotate
in and out of government, it was under the presidency
of Julio Turbay that the Colombian drug cartels began to
flourish in the late 1970s. By the 1980s, cocaine was a multi-billion
dollar enterprise, pulling over $4 billion into the Colombian
economy. Cocaine had become Colombia’s most marketable export, a development attributable
to two groups: the Cali cartel led by Miguel and
Gilberto Orejuela, and the Medellín cartel headed by Pablo
Escobar. 1973 saw the first investment by a drug cartel
into Colombian football, with marijuana trafficker Eduardo Enrique Dávila buying out recent
national champions Unión Magdalena in the city of Santa
Marta. But Cocaine money would soon change the face of Colombian football forever. The
Orejuela brothers poured millions into club América
de Cali at the end of the 1970s despite being fanatical
supporters of their local rivals Deportivo. America had been been relative unknowns up
until the end of the decade. Deportivo, meanwhile, had won
five Colombian titles between 1965 and 1974, and in
1978 became the first Colombian side to reach the Copa Libertadores final, losing to the
famous Boca Juniors.
With Deportivo turning down the Orejuela’s advances, the balance of power in Cali soon
shifted. Drug money assembled Colombia’s best club
side. A host of major players came through the door,
including Argentine forward Ricardo Gareca from River Plate, Paraguayan star Roberto
Cabañas and Peruvian midfielder Julio Uribe. The football
club was the perfect depository for laundered drug
money. Cartels could inflate transfer fees and gate receipts to legitimise their earnings.
Football clubs were given a taste of success for as long
as they allowed cartel cash to flow through the coffers. The
Cali cartel bought themselves five straight Colombian championships, as well as a place
in three consecutive Libertadores finals.
Rodrigo Lara, the Colombian justice minister who denounced cartel involvement in Colombian
football clubs in 1983, was gunned down the year after by hitmen working on behalf of
Pablo Escobar. The football-fanatical drug kingpin
and mass murderer took advantage of the positive PR
the sport could bring him. In the early 1980s the Medellín cartel invested in various football
clubs, including Atlético Nacional, and Bogotá’s
Millonarios. Football became the proxy by which cartels
played out their rivalry. The more successful the team,
the richer and more successful the cartel looked. Football gave them public legitimacy,
and pointed to the all-powerful reach of the cartel owners.
Escobar henchman José Rodríguez, better known as
Gacha, bankrolled Millonarios from 1986 and they stormed their way to two consecutive
titles in ’87 and ’88 thanks to a series of major signings
from Argentina. But it was the Escobar name which left the
indelible mark on Colombian football. Pablo Escobar saw
his local team Atlético Nacional as an important opportunity to sanitise his public profile.
At one point the seventh-richest man on the planet,
Escobar used his wealth to buy himself public favour.
Portraying himself as a modern-day Robin Hood, he invested the proceeds from his drug empire
into social housing, schools and even football
pitches in his native Medellín. With Escobar a key backer,
Atlético Nacional won only their fourth Colombian championship in 1981, but after the death
of manager Osvaldo Zubeldía a year later, América’s
rise to five consecutive championships saw Nacional fade. Cali had stolen a march on
Medellín. It was only through the signing of Colombian
team coach and former star player Francisco Maturana in 1987 that Nacional announced Colombian
football to the world. The international prestige of Colombian football
rose alongside the country’s reputation for drug
warfare. The two were inextricably connected. Nacional was an extension of Escobar’s all-powerful
influence on Colombian life, with his millions pushing Nacional all the way to the 1989 Libertadores
final, defeating Paraguayan outfit Olimpia 1-0 over two legs. Colombia finally had its
first South American champion.
Nacional didn’t rely on importing star players from abroad like América and Millonarios.
Instead, Nacional’s methods were more typical of
the man whose motto silver or lead, money or death, had
hung over Colombian life for almost two decades. In 1990 Uruguayan referee Daniel Cardellino
confessed to having been the subject of death threats in case he failed to favour Nacional
in their quarter final tie against Vasco da Gama. In
November 1989, after Deportivo Medellín failed to get the
better of rivals América de Cali in a must-win game, the referee Álvaro Ortega was found
murdered and the league championship discontinued.
Escobar henchman John Velásquez claimed the murder
on the part of the Medellín cartel. Four of the six teams in the title race at that
point were under cartel control.
A generation of players who had grown up in Escobar’s Colombia, and played on his pitches,
qualified for the 1994 World Cup among the favourites. A star-studded spine including
Tino Asprilla, Freddy Rincón and Carlos Valderrama, who
recorded a thumping 5-0 qualifying victory in Argentina,
had the cafeteros daring to dream. But fate was not on Colombia’s side. With Higuita
banned from the tournament for involvement in a cartel-ordered
kidnapping, and the spectre of drug warfare at
home looming, the Colombian bid soon fell apart. A 3-1 defeat to Hagi’s Romania in
their opening game sent them into a crunch tie with their
American hosts. With Colombia on the brink, the cartels made
their most direct interference into the national game,
delivering a message on national television that there would be fatal consequences if
Nacional midfielder Gabriel Gómez played in the next
game. Coach Francisco Maturana saw no choice but to
leave him out, and Colombia sank to a 2-1 defeat and an early exit. The face Colombia
showed to the world was blemished by the rivalry between
cartels back home. Colombia, the USA’s chief source of
cocaine, brought the drug war right back to America’s doorstep.
Star defender Andrés Escobar had been in the process of finalising a move to European
Champions AC Milan. Fate tragically intervened, as his
own goal helped condemn Colombia to the defeat that
would eliminate them from the tournament. Weeks later, he was confronted and killed
by a gunman outside a Medellín nightclub shouting ‘goal’
with each pull of the trigger. Bodyguard Humberto Muñoz was eventually sentenced to 45 years
in prison and was released after 11 for good behaviour. A
court ordered multi-million peso compensation for Escobar’s family was never paid.
Despite the cartels’ decreased power, their influence on Colombian football can still
be felt. Striker Antony de Ávila dedicated the goal that took
Colombia to the ’98 World Cup to the leaders of the Cali
cartel. Colombian attorney general Alfonso Valdivieso saw his presidential campaign in
tatters after publicly criticising the gesture.
Although the end of cartel ownership has returned Colombian club football to a more humble level,
it’s hard to know where the story ends. When Colombia were awarded the 2001 Copa América,
Argentina and invitees Canada withdrew citing death threats. The reconstruction of Colombian
football went alongside the reconstruction of Colombia itself. The presidencies of Antanas
Mockus and Álvaro Uribe have reinvigorated Colombia’s
public image and the nation’s football clubs are
starting to follow suit. In 2012, Millonarios offered to return the two titles they won
under cartel ownership. But a year later home fans unfurled
a banner in memory of Gacha’s contribution to their
success in a game against Atlético Junior. And five of the last ten Colombian championships
have been won by clubs who were once under the
control of the drug cartels. The shadow of the drug wars and the ‘narco
soccer’ age still hangs over the country’s favourite
pastime. This is not just the story of a small group of drug traffickers. This is the story
of how a lack of political control provided the perfect
soil for cartels to flourish and extend their power to all corners
of people’s lives. Echoes of the Colombian cartels can still be felt in its society,
and its football teams, to this day.