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When Pablo Escobar did football – and changed the game in Colombia forever

Pablo Escobar, Narcos
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Continental kings

After all, on the pitch, Maturana’s Nacional were on the verge of something big: they were looking to become the first Colombian side to lift the Copa Libertadores

Now the big cheese at the Medellin clubs, Pablo took the concept of fantasy football to a whole new level. He’d regularly stage private matches at his home against an XI picked by El Mexicano. “The games were a friendly rivalry,” says Pablo’s cousin Jaime Gaviria. “Pablo would say: ‘Pick your dream team – we’ll fly them to the ranch and bet.’” Players were generously compensated, and the cartels would often wager a million or more on the outcome. Some players, such as Nacional’s Andres Escobar (no relation), were said to be uncomfortable about having to perform for the traffickers – and with the source of their wages. Most were happy not to think about it too deeply.

After all, on the pitch, Maturana’s Nacional were on the verge of something big: they were looking to become the first Colombian side to lift the Copa Libertadores. In 1989, they were drawn in the same group as Millonarios. El Mexicano’s Bogota outfit topped the group after a 2-0 victory at Nacional, but both sides progressed to the knockouts. Nacional then beat Argentina’s Racing Club and Millonarios overcame Bolivia’s Bolivar, only for the Colombians to be drawn against each other in the quarters. This time Nacional had the upper hand, and scraped through 2-1 on aggregate. A 6-0 thrashing of Uruguay’s Danubio set up a final with Olimpia of Paraguay. After a 2-0 defeat in Asuncion, Pablo took his place in the stands for a tense return leg – but in Bogota, with Nacional’s stadium deemed too small.

With Andres Escobar anchoring the defence and flying goalkeeper Rene Higuita performing heroics, an own goal and a strike from Albeiro Usuriaga levelled the tie on aggregate, taking the game to penalties. “This is a moment for the history books,” gushed the Colombian commentator, a nation hanging on his words.

Andres Escobar slotted home Nacional’s first, and Higuita made athletic stops and converted his own spot-kick to take the shootout into sudden death, but their team-mates wasted chances to seal the title. “I told them: stop short, because their keeper is diving early,” said Maturana. “But no one listened… except Leonel.” Following three missed opportunities for his side, Leonel Alvarez paused, read the dive, and pumped home the crucial penalty.

Nacional win the Libertadores

Growth of the game

Colombia suddenly had a true source of pride: football, which was thanks in no small part to the drug lords

It was a moment of euphoria. “Pablo jumped and screamed with every goal,” says Jhon Jairo Velasquez Vasquez, AKA Popeye, an Escobar henchman who committed more than 200 murders for the cartel. “I’d never seen him so euphoric. Normally he was a block of ice.”

Nacional’s players were summoned to Escobar’s ranch for a giant party. “They came for their bonuses; Pablo even raffled off a truck,” says Jaime Gaviria. “For Pablo, the players weren’t commodities, they were friends. It went beyond money. He wanted them to be happy.” As national team coach, Maturana started to steer a squad including several Nacional players toward USA 94.

Colombia suddenly had a true source of pride: football, which was thanks in no small part to the drug lords. But there was a sinister side already in evidence. At a November 1989 match between Escobar-backed DIM and Miguel Rodriguez’s hated America de Cali, rumours circulated that referee Alvaro Ortega had been bought off. “The ref blatantly robbed us,” says Popeye. “Pablo told us to find him and kill him.” Ortega was gunned down shortly afterwards.

Pablo Escobar

Jhon Jairo Velasquez Vasquez alleged that Escobar ordered the death of referee Ortega

Footballers in Colombia soon realised the downside of the narco millions. “When I was going back home after the game, I heard the referee was killed,” says Oscar Pareja, a midfielder for DIM. “We were numb. We knew there was a lot going on with the owners; that they were very shady. But when you’re a footballer, you don’t know too much.”