Fútbol Loco! | Keepers, Corners and Cartels

(Posted on 05/09/17)

Football has a rich history of some weird and wonderful clubs and countries, making a name for themselves with silky skills, beautiful goals and eccentric nutcases.

The game in the 1990's wasn't short of any of the above, with the English being entertained by Paul Gascoigne who falls under all three of those categories, the Italian's had Baggio, the Brazilians had Ronaldo and in Colombia, the crazy world of soccer would show it's most brilliant and darkest side.

On this day in 1993 one of Colombia's greatest matches was played out in a World Cup Qualifier for USA 94, an all-conquering match-up between the Colombian side doing so well in the group, and the greats that are Argentina, who reached the final in 1990. 

But it was the beginning of a hugely turbulent 12-months for the national team, sandwiched between the constant struggle with so much controversy and alleged corruption in football. One figure who has come to great providence once again is that of Pablo Escobar, a multi-billionaire famous for running perhaps the biggest organised crime organisation in modern history. He ruled the city of Medellin for 15 years with various cartels and some of the most violent crime in the world. The city experiences around 80 murders a week with the cartels affecting all aspects of the 'city of eternal spring', including football.

Escobar is believed to have hugely influenced the nation's top side Atletico Nacional, which he was free to do after the assassination of justice minister Rodrigo Lara who had condemned narco's becoming involved with football clubs. Following his death, the government began a war on organised crime leading to an army of 3,000 soldiers under Escobar, who had offered children of the slums 200 dollars for every police officer murdered in what became an all-out bloody warfare.

But in terms of football, even before the assassination, Escobar could easily please the people by building new football pitches, floodlights and upgraded facilities which in return saw communities and football fans worship him. He was a modern day Robin Hood in the eyes of the people, ranked 7th in the Forbes rich list he had to wipe off 10% of his profit each year due to the money being damaged, eaten by rodents or simply misplaced. He built schools, hospitals, parks, churches and housing for the people of his country.

The country was in a terrible state, with the narcos having influence on football clubs with money launderers under the umbrella of Escobar being appointed president of Atletico, something the club has tried to deny but photo's show the narcos waving wads of cash at referee's to try and influence the games.

And influenced they were, in 1989 the Colombian league was abandoned following the assassination of an official, and in 1995 death threats were sent to another. In the same year the head of the Colombian Football Association was convicted for Nacro related business.

In 1993, famous goalkeeper Rene Higuita, known for his scorpion kick clearance against England at Wembley in 1995, was convicted for kidnapping whilst playing for Atletico. He acted as a go-between for Pablo Escobar and Carlos Melina for the sum of $64,000. He was sentenced to serve prison time and as a result missed the USA World Cup and a decade later was charged with cocaine offenses, being good friends with Diego Maradona, even playing in his testimonial in 2001, you can make of that what you will.

The famous victory over Argentina in September 1993 summed up just how much amazing talent was in the Colombia squad at the time. Two goals each for Freddy Rincon and Tino Asprilla and a strike from Adolfo Valencia stunned the Argentine side who were just a goal down at half-time a the Monumental Stadium, Beuenos Aries. But a master class in the second half destroyed the likes of Diego Simeone and Gabriel Batistuta

The world became completely aware to the corruption and disgrace of the game in Colombia soon after that famous win, one of the best in the national teams history, as USA 94 began. Their opening game of the tournamant came against Romania, but rumours of heavy partying before the game made sense following a 1-3 loss.

But it was the next match that made all the headlines were made as they took on the host side the USA. The moment of the game, and the tournamant as a whole came as Andres Escobar, no relation to Pablo, scored an own-goal to give America the lead. The game ended 2-1 and a few short days later, with Colombia the first side out of the competition in which they were confident of winning, Escobar was shot dead.

One man was sentenced to 43 years in prison with his two accomplices walking free, but many believe with 97% of Colombia's murders going unsolved, that there is more to the story that meets the eye such as gang leaders who put millions of dollars on the team to win. 

Before the USA match, the Colombian manager Francesco Maturana recived death threats, telling him not to start Gabriel Gomez in the match, threats were also sent to Gomez and his family whilst Asprilla told his family back home to hide incase anything happened. In the game they looked unfocusd and shook up. Even three years later, live on television the national teams winning goal scorer in a qualifier match against Ecuador dedicated his winning goal to the Rodriguez brothers, a duo in prison who had attempted to take over Pablo Escobar's business in the country and had pulled the strings at America Cali. 

It appears the game in that particular corner of South America has shown signs of improvement, narcotics and violence are still rife in Colombian society and in turn will still be rife in football, but on a global scale the game over there appears to only give out the stars now playing in Europe. Football's hope will be that the game overcomes the violence.

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