Every time we hear the name of Colombia first thing coming to our mind is drugs. Deeply sad because the country has so much more to offer, yet true. That’s because the country has been producing, selling and exporting, some say, over 80% of all the drugs running around the world for the past 3 decades. Almost everything in this country has or had some affiliation with drugs, and so had football.
I’m writing this article in Santa Marta. It’s a sunny morning down here, in the Caribbean coast, in the town where football was born in Colombia. Colombia became an independent and autonomous nation back in 1831, and from there its people started to experience economic and political growth for the first time. In the beginning of the 19th century the British brought football to Colombia. In 1903 British workers of railroads introduced the game to local communities and they fell in love for the game right way. So much that in 1909 Barranquilla had its official team the Barranquilla FBC.
Football and violence would remain entwined through out Colombian history. The first World Cup qualification by Colombia occurred in 1962, when the La Violencia war was approaching its end. A period when more than 200,000 people were murdered. After that tumultuous period, Colombian football would pass through a hiatus of international competitions due to a period of terror, fear and civil wars, so football was happening only in second stage if so. The next qualification for a World Cup took only place in 1990. Coincidently, that’s the year drug cartels reached the height of their power.
It seems like drugs and football in Colombia have been holding hands all along and that’s probably like why one mirrors de other when it comes to success and financial growth.
During the 80’s and 90’s, Colombian drug lords were known has huge die-hard football fans. Many believed that the largest teams in Medellin, Bogota and Cali were owned by drug cartels who used their teams mostly to launder their money, but hey, if you could win a game or two along the way, why wouldn’t you? They were also known for being huge gamblers. Remember that Pablo Escobar was buried with an Atletico Nacional flag. It was way too obvious at the time that he was the main financier behind the Medellin team. To add more, in 1982, Gonzalo Gacha, another drug lord, openly bought Millionaires Club from Bogota and when Gacha was murdered 8 years after, Colombian policie founded hundreds of documents proving the money laundering.
In the 1990 Italy World Cup Colombia suffered a disappointing early exit but they were back in the top of the mountain. Football matter again. People could dream again. And with the drug money running deep altogether with a good generation of players, like Carlos Valderrama and Faustino Asprilla, Colombia had a chance and they were going into the 1994 World Cup Qualification with confidence. They even crushed Argentina during qualifications with an impressive 5-0 victory. An Argentinean team who was undefeated for 30 games. Even Pele was predicting Colombia to win the 1994 World Cup at the time.
Then the World Cup started and the dream to win big in an international event became a nightmare. They lost the opening match to Romania 3-1. After that, and with their backs against the wall they were up to face the United States. You couldn’t ask for a better script. Colombia vs USA and all the drug history between them. It sounded like piece of cake for the South American team because the United States hadn’t won a match in the World Cup since 1950. But then the game started and Colombian player Andres Escobar (no affiliation with Pablo) scored a dramatic own-goal. The Americans would score again and the match would finish 2-1. Colombia was dramatically out of the tournament.
But worst was yet to come when a week after that game Colombian people lived their worst soccer moment: Andres Escobar was murdered outside a club in Medellin. It was July 2nd. That day marks the day Colombians stopped loving the game they’ve always loved. The drug lords went too far this time. And the fact that this sad event was taking place during the most watched sporting event, made the world look at Colombia with mix feelings: sadness and fear of impunity for drug lords.
There’s few things worth dying for and a football mistake its surely not one of them.
A lot has changed from those dark days in Colombia and I came to that conclusion firstly on March 23rd and later on March 27th.
On March 23rd Colombia faced France, who finished 2nd in the last Euro Cup, losing in the finals against Portugal. Despite the fact the match was only a World Cup preparation, Colombia was facing it like an important match, and so they should.
France started the game strongly scoring twice and as I was watching the game in a cafe near the beach where the British first played football in Colombia, some doubt was starting to take place in the mind of some Colombians. “Maybe, we are not that good yet”, I’ve heard. But 2 minutes after suffering the second goal, Muriel scored himself a stunner. While trying to cross the ball ended up inside the French net, and suddenly there’s no doubts again. 1-2! Second half starts and Falcao equalizes the game with a right footed, assisted by James. With the game coming close the end and with the French imploring the game to finish Colombia scored again and the “remontada” was complete. Penalty converted by Quintero. Colombia won! They took the hardest way to achieved the victory, but they won. Against France!
On March 27th Colombia played Australia. Looked like an easier task on paper than the one before but the match finished tied, 0-0. However, Colombia had a chance to win at the 86th minute, when Quintero had the chance to convert a penalty. The same man that 4 days before scored the winning goal. He could be the hero again but he missed. Better said, Vukovic, Australia goalkeeper celebrating his 33rd birthday on that day, saved it.
I know, those were just two World Cup preparations games. There was nothing in dispute. But still, there was no fear, no hate, no threats, just the joy of two beautiful football games being played by three elite teams. That’s when I realised that Colombia is finally playing free football. With joy, with no money under the table. For the first time the Colombian players playing for the national team are a result of their own personal skills and a result of their performances in the previous two years and they are not there because some drug lord gave some dirty money in return to the federation in order for that to happen.
This is finally an organic national football team. They could even finish last in Russia World Cup this summer but they’ve won already. Colombia football and their fans won. They’re in love again. There was “fiesta” that night in Santa Marta despite the result.
Like Andres Escobar said when that fateful game finished: “A match is no more than a football match, life doesn’t end here.” At that time, this quote wasn’t true. And that’s ironic that the man who said such powerful words was murdered a week after. But nowadays this quote is finally true. And that’s what I’m realising: You win when a match is no more than a football match!