Colombia and the Weight of History: 20 Years After Escobar

Soccer Features Colombia
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On July 2, 1994, Andres Escobar gathered his friends and stepped into Medellin at night. He needed to get out, be with people, let loose—he needed the catharsis of a club with music and drinks and dancing and friends.

Because, just six days before, Escobar had watched from the grass as his attempted sliding clearance redirected John Harkes’ cross past Oscar Cordoba in the Colombian goal, the terrible understanding writ clear on Escobar’s face. Escobar’s own goal would not only cost the Cafeteros the game against host nation USA, it effectively ended Colombia’s anticipated challenge for the 1994 World Cup.

At 3 a.m., alone in the parking lot of El Indio nightclub, his friends dispersed for the night, and Andres Escobar was shot six times, each bullet fired along with a morbid slander—GOL! GOL! GOL! GOL! GOL! GOL! The optimism surrounding the Colombian national died along with Escobar that night.

Nearly 20 years later, Colombia are about to embark on another aspirational visit to the World Cup. After failing to qualify for the last three tournaments, a new golden generation has emerged, capturing the attention of the football media and the excitement of a nation desperate to break free from its own history. The team’s roster is a sort of rolling tapestry representing over two decades of the country’s football diary, with green talents like Luis Muriel and Juan Fernando Quintero preparing alongside 42-year-old Faryd Mondragon, a man who can remember playing alongside Andres Escobar.

“He was loved by everyone. He was like the baby of everyone. He was a very important part of who we were,” the then-Philadelphia Union keeper Mondragon told the Philadelphia Inquirer in 2011. “We’d stay up late in the hotels just talking and laughing and he told the best jokes. He knew how to get your mind off of the bad things that were going on.”

Many of the players will be asked to remember Andres Escobar, the benevolent spirit that stands over the growing story of these talented Cafeteros. The incident of his tragic and untimely murder is a seminal moment in World Cup history; for a game that so readily cyphers cultural and historical expression, football has rarely experienced a collective event that represented a place and time so keenly.

Colombia in the ’80s and ’90s was, by decree of global perception, the world’s violent drug dealer. With a government composed of bought-and-sold politicians and bureaucrats in a perpetual power flux and a low-intensity-high-frequency decades-long conflict between left-wing guerrilla groups and right-wing paramilitaries, a stratified society with many poor and indifferent rich, Colombia became the world’s sieve for cocaine and dollars.

At the forefront of Colombia’s drug trade was Pablo Escobar, a man whose operation at one time was responsible for distribution of 80 percent of the world’s cocaine, making an estimated $60 million dollars per day. At the height of his power, he would win legislative office, lose it, wage war on his government, repeal extradition laws through bribery, turn himself in, and serve time in a prison under his own control from which he would eventually walk out of when he saw fit. Escobar was also a devoted football fan; he purchased Atlético Nacional and funded them towards a Copa Libertadores title in 1989—a match that saw a young Andres Escobar score in the penultimate shootout.

Escobar and his kingpin contemporaries like Millonarios owner Gonzalo Gacha flooded the Colombian league with cash for both the practicalities of money laundering and the extravagant egoistic competition. It also suited Escobar’s image as the Robin Hood of Medellin. He came up from the barrios, poor but ambitious, and not at all averse to crime—arcing from boosting cars to stealing weight to head of cartel by his late-twenties. His passion for the game would go with him to the grave: after his run-and-gun death on Dec. 2, 1993 (just months before the U.S. World Cup), Pablo would be buried with a Nacional flag.

The death of Pablo Escobar only served to fracture the order of crime in Colombia, sending the country into a bloody tumult, where every competing interest from the government, to the cartels, to the militaristic factions would contest the vacuum left by El Patron’s demise. The unrestrained animus of brutal greed would infect Colombia’s performance at the 1994 World Cup. After a shock 3-1 opening loss to Bulgaria, players received death threats in their hotel rooms from programmed televisions, manager Francisco Maturana was warned of bomb attacks on his home, Chonto Hererra’s brother died in a car crash. The fear consumed them, and it was evident throughout their loss to the US, right through Escobar’s own goal.

But that was 1994, and this is now. In the past two decades, Colombia has wrestled its demons and appears to be winning. Once a cocaine economy, the world’s murder capital, and a failed state in the eyes of the global market, it has become Latin America’s fourth-largest economy. Under President Ålvaro Uribe’s leadership from 2002 to 2010, the government took a hard-line with the FARC and the ELN, scoring major victories that Uribe successor, Juan Manuel Santos has used as momentum for successful peace talks resulting in over 25,000 fighters demobilizing since 2002.

Colombia has doubled its oil production and positioned itself well to ride out the global financial downturn with its banking institutions using the crisis of the larger powers to expand their reach in the continent. The country’s middle class has more buying power than ever, and foreign investment is growing as investors see a more politically stabilized country working to build up its citizenry with ‘financial inclusion’ policies for the lower classes.

The rise of the nation’s fortunes have been reflected in its football. Throughout the fallow years away from the World Cup, Colombians endured an era of defensive strategies—it was as if the fear of ‘94 that robbed the team of its creative thrust had made a home in the squad. Constant changes in formations and a chronic lack of flourish in attack disqualified them for trips to Japan/South Korea, Germany and South Africa; but with the arrival of Jose Pekerman, who succeeded Leonel Alvarez’s 100-day reign, also came a new way of playing.

Pekerman prefers a high-pressing, possession-based, attacking game that he fashioned during a long and successful managerial career—three times he won the Under-20 world championships with Argentina, and he took the senior Argentina national side to the the 2006 World Cup quarter-finals. Pekerman has similarly freed the Cafeteros, allowing a young squad to express their creativity again, and fostering a new-found confidence in line with a nation on the rise.

“We can’t stop people talking about us, nor should we duck away from positive opinions,” said Jackson Martinez in an interview with FIFA. “This national squad, with a new generation of players, is making history. Nowadays nearly all of us are playing in Europe and I think we’ve got a wider variety of players and talent than we did at the 1994 World Cup.” A bold claim that suggests Pekerman has helped chase away the more baleful shadows that used to loom over the Colombian national team.

The 2014 Colombian squad qualified for the World Cup second in their group behind Argentina — a campaign that included a 5-0 demolition of Bolivia, recalling the ’94 generation’s historic rout of Argentina where a fluid and incisive Colombia battered La Albiceleste five goals to none.

Though star player Radamel Falcao will miss the tournament through injury, this was never a one man team. Jackson Martinez and Teó Gutiérrez won’t need Google Maps to find the back of the net in Falcai’s absence, while bright lights like Fredy Guarin, James Rodriguez and Juan Cuadrado will illuminate stadiums and TV screens. Cuadrado especially has had a standout season for Fiorentina, regularly baffling wide defenders and cutting inside for both creation and conversion. His performances have already garnered him weeks of unsubstantiated rumors linking him with Barcelona and any other club with the capacity to part with $30 million.

It would not be fair to saddle this Colombian side with as much expectation as was tied to the generation of ‘94, though. They are a supremely talented side who can claim to challenge almost any team at this summer’s tournament, but any hope of dispelling the ghosts of their nation’s past with a surprise win would be a disservice to the ambitions of Francisco Maturana’s team and the memory of Andres Escobar. It is not the result of the performance that matters for this team—or any other side in Brazil—but the character with which a performance is made. Escobar said it best in a newspaper column just before his death: “Please, let’s not let the defeat affect our respect for the sport and the team. See you later, because life goes on.”

Perhaps without all the kidnapping and threats, the fear and expectation and weight of an entire nation’s perception to carry on the field, this Colombian side can play free. Perhaps if the world allows them the chance, unencumbered by the terrible burden of history and the mission of its own exorcism, these Cafeteros will surprise us with the kind of glorious display that once brought a stadium of defeated Argentines to ovation. This is their chance, let it be sweet for them however it ends.