Narcos: When Pablo Escobar did football – and changed the game in Colombia forever
The reputation and legacy of Pablo Escobar, the Colombian drug trafficker who became the wealthiest criminal in history, is a messy knot to untangle.
As Netflix viewers worldwide gorge on his bloody journey via the superlative Narcos, passing the popcorn as he blows up planes, assassinates ministers and builds his own zoo, the people of Colombia who lived through his very real mayhem remain conflicted.
Escobar was many things: a murderer, briber, bomber and racketeer, according to his mile-long rap sheet. But to some, he remains an unlikely saint. A huge Escobar flag still marks the entrance of the barrio he built on the site of a former rubbish dump in order to house the poor. On the roadsides of his home city, Medellin, salesmen hawking car stickers – Jesus, Hello Kitty, The Simpsons – report that ‘Pablito’ remains their top seller. There’s even an Escobar children’s sticker album.
Pablo played, watched and discussed the game at every opportunity – but he also became the shadowy figure behind the incredible rise and fall of the Colombian game between the mid-’80s and USA 94
Others cannot hide their disgust. Rodrigo Lara Restrepo, son of assassinated Justice Minister Lara Bonilla, says that selling Escobar imagery is “an example of the triumph of the culture he embodied... profit is more important than anything”. For many, this man destroyed their land. But for all, their country’s recent history is inseparable from El Patron. His influence on the underworld, the government and the police is obvious. Less well-known is how far his tentacles extended into the world of football.
Pablo played, watched and discussed the game at every opportunity – but he also became the shadowy figure behind the incredible rise and fall of the Colombian game between the mid-’80s and USA 94. “Pablo always loved soccer,” says his sister, Luz Maria, in The Two Escobars, the superb ESPN documentary about his life and that of murdered player namesake Andres, whose story is intertwined with Pablo’s. “His first shoes were football boots. And he died in football boots.”
This is what happened in between.
Awash with cash
While wads were splashed on cars, ranches and other indulgences, many attested to Escobar having a genuine social conscience, determined to use his wealth to help those in need
Familiarity with Pablo’s story hasn’t dimmed its power to astonish. One of seven children born to a farmer and a schoolteacher, he had a far from deprived childhood, but his ruthlessness was evident early. While committing petty crimes with his brother, Roberto, he schemed about how they could make some real money.
Early involvement in a kidnapping – Pablo netted $100,000 from the ransom – showed that he had the stomach to do whatever was necessary. And in the mid-1970s, the brothers realised that smuggling was their best bet.
A simple eureka moment, in which Escobar recognised the growing popularity of cocaine and the relative ease of flying it into Florida, would lead to a fortune eventually estimated at $50bn. At his zenith, Escobar was supplying 80 per cent of America’s coke. His equally simple strategy for getting away with it – “silver or lead” – saw him bribe willing officials and murder those who couldn’t be bought.
But Pablo had a problem: too much cash. With the government and the USA monitoring his activities, tons of notes were buried in the countryside. And while wads were splashed on cars, ranches and other indulgences, many attested to Escobar having a genuine social conscience, determined to use his wealth to help those in need. As he built houses and schools in impoverished communities, he won a reputation as a latter-day Robin Hood. His favourite act of benevolence was creating football pitches in the slums. “He focused on generosity in the community,” says Luz Maria. “In our neighbourhood, Pablo donated floodlights and football supplies.”
With turnstiles taking cash, they could easily declare far higher earnings than were made, often by a million dollars or more, and immediately ‘clean’ the drug money
Pablo was always a keen player. Right-footed, he liked to operate on the left wing and cut inside (imagine Craig Bellamy with a dodgy ’tache). He wasn’t an athlete, but he loved to mix with genuine contenders. His pitch projects led to an early friendship with many players who went on to become professionals. “There were tournaments in the slums,” recalls Chonto Herrera, who later turned out 61 times for Colombia. “Whole communities forgot their worries. I was very poor, but on the field we were important, and lived in a perfect world.”
Alexis Garcia, Chicho Serna, Rene Higuita and Pacho Maturana were among the future internationals who developed on Pablo’s pitches, and often watched in admiration as he opened them, making speeches as if he was a benevolent mayor. “Everyone talked about who donated the field, and he was criticised for being a drug lord,” says Leonel Alvarez, who won 101 Cafeteros caps. “But we just felt lucky to be given pitches.”
Football also provided a darker benefit for Pablo. His brother Roberto – AKA The Accountant – wanted to legitimise their loot. A club was perfect. With turnstiles taking cash, they could easily declare far higher earnings than were made, often by a million dollars or more, and immediately ‘clean’ the drug money. A similar trick could be turned with player transfers. The sport was a laundering heaven.
"The introduction of drug money into soccer allowed us to bring in great foreign players,” says Maturana, Nacional manager from 1987 to 1990
It was also a chance for Escobar to play God at his hometown clubs. Just as he was starting his empire in 1973, Medellin’s Atletico Nacional were winning Colombia’s top flight for only the second time in their history. By the ’80s, with millions rolling in, it was decided: Pablo would fund the team further, and turn them into one of the best sides in South America.
He wasn’t brazen – or dumb – enough to appoint himself director or owner, but his involvement became an open secret. “The introduction of drug money into soccer allowed us to bring in great foreign players,” says Maturana, Nacional manager from 1987 to 1990, in The Two Escobars. “It also kept our best players from leaving. Our level of play took off. People saw our situation and said Pablo was involved. But they couldn’t prove it.”
Escobar also invested in Nacional’s city rivals, Deportivo Independiente Medellin (DIM), and was regularly in the stands for games at their shared Estadio Atanasio Girardot. The budget bonanzas were mirrored elsewhere, too, as fellow drug lords saw the value. Pablo’s associate Jose Gacha (‘El Mexicano’) ploughed funds into the Bogota-based Millonarios, while Escobar’s rival Miguel Rodriguez Orejuela, head of the Cali cartel, bankrolled America de Cali. ‘Narco-football’ had arrived.