Colombian Soccer & The Drug Lords
1980's and 90's Colombia was ravaged by an endless cycle of narco-violence, yet in the midst of this deadly scourge soccer thrived and enjoyed a golden era.
The unlikely catalyst? laundered drug money that built soccer fields and paid top dollars for players and coaches.
At least six professional clubs were known to be linked with drug cartels and their sordid affairs of killings, kidnappings and briberies.
Cocaine kingpin Pablo Escobar ran Medellin-based Atletico Nacional as an open secret, funneling his ill-gotten proceeds to develop, acquire and retain the best talent on the pitch.
Rival drug lord Miguel Rodriguez Orejuela oversaw the Cali cartel and pumped money into America de Cali with similar designs.
For the merchants of death, it was all part of a devil-turned-angel strategy to clean their image as much as their cash.
New fields in poor neighborhoods drew populace support while inflated gate receipts and player transfer fees washed dirty money.
In 1989, Escobar's squad went on to become the first Colombian team to win South America's most prestigious club competition, the Copa Libertadores.
The following years saw Colombia qualify for every World Cup- 1990, 1994, 1998. The '94 squad was the best the country ever assembled and their undefeated run for the 1994 World Cup included a 5-0 thrashing of powerhouse Argentina.
Legendary Pele even boldly predicted that Colombia would take the trophy.
But reality came crashing down on expectations, followed by tragedy. Colombia was eliminated in the first round and team captain Andres Escobar (#2 in photo above and no relation to Pablo) was gunned down a week later in apparent retaliation for scoring his own goal in a game against the U.S.
His murder marked the beginning of the end of the "narco-soccer" period as some players quit and officials stepped up their crackdown on the sport's bloody business.
An indirect outcome was that the national team's FIFA ranking plummeted from a high of #4 to a low of #34 for the decade.
But more recently, Colombian soccer has surged again with Atletico Nacional winning the 2016 Copa Libertadores for the first time since 1989.
As if Pablo Escobar was still trying to burnish his image from the grave, his old team graciously forfeited the Sudamericana Cup trophy to the ill-fated Cinderella team they were to face off for the title, Brazil's Chapecoense club whose members were wiped out in a plane crash outside Medellin on Nov'28'16.
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