Art is a fantastic concept. In our formative years, it exposes us to emotions and ideas we’re yet to fully understand. One of those is romance. When we’re young, cinema, literature and music are all instrumental in shaping the idea of romance. It is built on the idea of achieving what you love the most. For a select breed, so is competitive sport. There are very few words other than romance that can explain the goosebumps on a weary old man, when he walks up the steps of a stadium. As he adjusts his glasses, you can tell he imagines himself out there. On the grass. In the middle of it all. Making art.
For sheer magic and poetry, it is hard to beat the romance of Mexico 1970 or 1986. Latin America’s two most gifted sons from the last millennium were at their respective peaks and took their football to a level that was hard to explain in words.
Romance, however, is as tragic as it is euphoric. The very tragedy that gives romance the edge an all-rosy story never can. Colombia 1994 was probably the headiest mix of euphoria and tragedy football has ever known of.
A young footballing nation
Colombia took their time to step onto the map of world football. In the late 1930s, their federation formed a national team to participate in the Central American and Caribbean Championships, where most players were selected from Millonarios FC (then Club Juventud Bogotana).
The country got their first taste of tournament football in the 1945 South American Championships, where they finished fifth, quickly following it up with a gold at the 1946 Central American and Caribbean Games.
1948 saw the birth of a professional football league in Colombia, relatively late compared to some of their more illustrious neighbours. But within 14 years, they were playing at the World Cup in Chile. After losing their first match against Uruguay, they put four past the famed Lev Yashin’s Soviet. The match ended 4-4, and a loss against Yugoslavia in their next match ensured they were travelling back home from the group stages.
They’d have to wait 28 years for their next World Cup appearance: a period of three decades that would change the country, football and maybe even the world, forever.
The Millonarios ruled the roost over most domestic football in Colombia till about the ’70s, until the likes of Atletico Nacional (from Medellin), America Cali and Deportivo Cali would emerge as serious challengers.
The 1979 season saw America Cali win the league. They were backed by the Orejuela brothers from the Cali cartel. Little did the world realise that it was the birth of ‘narco-soccer’ as we know it. They would go on to win five consecutive championships between 1982 and 1986, including three runners-up efforts in the Copa Libertadores.
Football had been an integral part of the Colombian culture from way before the country itself started playing. There was this one fan, a little-known man from Medellin called Pablo Escobar, who happened to be a huge fan of the sport. With USA and Colombian military chasing him down, he might have had 99 problems, but money wasn’t one. One of Escobar’s partners in the Medellin cartel, Jose Gonzalo Gacha, also invested in Millonarios.
Suddenly, from relative obscurity, Colombian clubs became a force to reckon with. The influx of narco-money allowed them to hold on to their best players, and even better, hire incredible talent from across the continent. But the influence barely ended there. Once money is involved, and a parallel government is watching over you, football becomes a lot more than a sport. Teams were a subject of ego-battles between the drug lords. Referees were gifted or threatened, based on their inclinations, into awarding decisions.
Colombian club football saw its highest peak and lowest depth in 1989. After Atletico Nacional lost a match against America Cali, Escobar got the referee killed. This led to the Colombian soccer federation cancelling the season with immediate effect.
The high came that year in the Copa Libertadores. Playing the final against Olympia from Paraguay, and featuring a young Andres Escobar in their ranks, Atletico Nacional won on penalties. A Colombian team had won the continental championship: an achievement that was as good as it was bad for football in the country.
World Cup 1990 and the qualification for 1994
With club football reaching unprecedented heights, Colombia qualified for Italia 1990. They started really well, beating UAE 2-0. A drew against eventual champions West Germany in the final match, after having lost their second group game to Yugoslavia, rewarded them with a place in the Round of 16, even after finishing third in the group. They came up against Roger Milla’s Cameroon and lost 2-1 in extra time. For a country with their political status and history in world football, they had done really well.
By the time the qualification matches for World Cup 1994 started, Colombia’s national team boasted of several famous names, none more so than Carlos Valderrama. El Pibe was flashy, and not just in his choice of hairstyle.
Between 1991 and 1993, Colombia’s national team played 26 matches, including the World Cup qualifiers, and lost just once. As a football nation, they had captured the attention of the entire nation. There are stories of then president, Dr. Cesar Gaviria, attending lots of matches with his cabinet. They brought to life the old adage: inside a stadium, everyone is the same.
The most special of these was the tie against Argentina in Buenos Aires. Only one of them could qualify directly for the following year’s World Cup in the USA. Result: Argentina 0-5 Colombia. Under coach Francisco Maturana, the Colombian team had been playing with a flair and speed that led to Pele ear-marking them as favourites for the World Cup.
Narco-money’s influence was undeniable, but Colombian soccer had taken off. And how!
The tournament that defined Colombian football
In the December of 1993, Colombian military had finally tracked down and killed Pablo Escobar. A victory, sweet as it was, pretty much shook the entire nation with what it led to. Under Pablo’s rule, if you will, there were killings and murders aplenty. But it was all channeled through him and his cartel. Once he was gone, the nation was in a state of pseudo civil war. People were killing and robbing each other for fun. Weeks before the tournament, midfielder Chonto Herrera’s son was kidnapped. There weren’t too many worse mindsets to take to a World Cup where you were supposed to be one of the dark horses.
Out of the 22 players who went to the USA, 6 were from Atletico Nacional, 5 from America Cali, and one from Millonarios. More than half the side had narco-traffickers betting money on them and their contributions. When calls from the government pepping them up would be in order, they were dealing with death threats.
Colombia began their campaign against Romania, a team they were supposed to bulldoze. What transpired was anything but as shot after shot was either saved or went wide of the goal. Romania won the game 3-1, and one of the goals was a Gheorge Hagi pearler.
Next up, and you couldn’t make this up, were host nation USA, whose presence in Colombian territory had broken and supported the country in equal measure. Ronald Reagan and George Bush managed to convince the Colombian government to sanction extradition as a policy for those convicted of narco-trafficking. To call its immediate future a bloodbath would be putting it mildly.
Right after the Romania match, Chonto Herrera got a message from his family: his brother had been killed. He decided to soldier on in service of his nation. The narcos weren’t done. Prior to the match, coach Francisco Maturana had received “phone-calls” demanding Gabriel Gomez be dropped. Gabriel, or Barrabas as he was commonly known, was a key cog in the Colombian wheel which had rolled so smoothly over the last 36 months. Would you be a rebel or would you rather see your family dead?
Entering the match with tense faces, and a missing element, Colombia were a shadow of their lofty qualifiers selves. The defining moment of football in the early 1990s came when a cross from John Harkes was deflected in by the otherwise brilliant Andres Escobar into his own net. 1-0 USA. 17 minutes later, 2-0. Adolfo Valencia’s 90th minute goal could not prevent Colombia from facing exclusion.
For a history and a build-up that intense, this was an anti-climax of unreal proportions. Romania were not going to lose to USA, and they didn’t, and Colombia’s victory against Switzerland meant little. They were supposed to be playing in the quarters and semi-finals, but they were flying home before the Round of 16 began.
The aftermath: Plata o plomo
In an age of blood and bullets, Andres Escobar was the breeze and the water. He exuded calm on and off the pitch. His exploits for Atletico Nacional in the late 1980s through to the 1993-94 season had earned him a call from AC Milan. After the World Cup, he was going to join Franco Baresi and Paolo Maldini in their defence. Back home from the tournament, he was advised to stay indoors in the wake of an array of killings and bombings in Medellin. He chose to look the public in the eye and went out to have a drink on July 2. While getting into his car on the way back, six bullets were fired into his chest. The killers had shouted “Goooooooooool” right before pressing their triggers.
Magical reality is a concept where supernatural elements are a stable part of your extended reality. In 1990s Colombia, magical realism was as much a part of culture as music, movies, football and violence. What does it mean to play football? What are we putting at stake when we put on a jersey and a pair of cleats? Since when have bullets become part of the equation? In a continent like South America, the answer to such questions is far more complex than you can imagine. When a parallel economy is such an integral part of sport and its progress, can you draw the line between influence and lunacy?
Colombia has since progressed as a nation, both economically and football-wise. Post the Escobar incident, hordes of players decided to quit. A whole new team was built, and they hosted and won the Copa America in 2001. The latest generation of Colombian footballers is very highly valued in Europe. Radamel Falcao, James Rodriguez, Jackson Martinez and Carlos Cuadrado have played for some of the biggest clubs and are enjoying the most stable and successful period in Colombian soccer. At the World Cup in Brazil, they were by far one of the best teams up till the quarter-finals, where they lost to the hosts.
As Carlos Valderrama climbs the steps of stadium after stadium, you can bet he hopes that this story, as tragic as it has been, ends in euphoria.