Medellin Adventures – The shadow of Pablo Escobar over Colombian football

Atlético Nacional, once financially backed by drug kingpin Pablo Escobar, is the biggest club in Colombia and a team steeped with both success and horrible tragedy. Santokie Nagulendran visited the club in Medellin to tell their story.
Medellin Adventures - The shadow of Pablo Escobar over Colombia football
Art by Fabrizio Birimbelli.

‘’I don’t care about when Nacional are playing, why do you want to go?’’ my Uber driver, an Independiente Medellin fan, exclaims as I tell him of my plans for my short stay in Medellin. The drive from the airport in the nearby town of Rionegro to Medellin is a beautiful one, its night time, so the vast mountains encompassing the city are illuminated as we drive around the long winding roads into a city now described as Colombia’s hipster capital. A far cry from being the murder capital of the world in the 1990s. The reason I wanted to watch Atlético Nacional was simple: they were infamous for their passionate atmosphere and the best club team in Colombia in recent times and defending league champions.  Luckily, they were due to play a home game the next day, in Colombia fixtures are officially confirmed only a week or so before the game, so I was ready to enter the cauldron.

In the Harry Potter books, Hogwarts is a bustling place, full of magic, vibrancy and a charm unbeknownst to the ‘’real world’’.

Yet there is always a lingering darkness and fear brought about by the mere mention of villainous Lord Voldemort, ‘’He who must not be named’’, that leaves an everlasting fog of terror over everybody.

While Hogwarts is fantasy, and despite hard-core Harry Potter fans disputing this…it does not exist; Medellin, Colombia’s most notorious city due to the sheer scale of drug cartels and violence prevalent,  on the contrary, does exist and actually does mirror Hogwarts. It’s an extremely vibrant place where the whole atmosphere can change swiftly with the mention of a name which has come to be associated with bloodshed and death, and brings memories of two significant and very different people: Pablo Escobar.

Escobar, ‘’The King of Cocaine’’, was estimated to have made $21 billion smuggling the drug into the USA before being hunted down in 1993; he grew up in Medellin and its estimated around 5,000 people were murdered as a direct result of his actions. The tales around Pablo Escobar could take up numerous books, and indeed, his notoriety has increased in recent years due to the Netflix show Narcos.  Yet his relationship with Colombia remains complex, while generally regarded as a heinous murderer by most, his expenditure on new schools, houses and community football pitches in severely impoverished areas meant he earned a sort of anti-establishment status amongst some locals disillusioned with the Colombian Government, and there are not many forms of entertainment that evoke the feeling of anti-establishment more than football, which provokes a tribalistic, feral sense of being in even the most composed of fans.

It was only right then that football was a passion for Pablo Escobar, a keen player as a youngster, he invested money unofficially into both of Medellin’s biggest clubs: Atlético Nacional and Independiente Medellin, meaning both clubs could sign foreign players and keep their best stars with the lure of high wages.

Players such goal-keeper as Rene Higuita, famed for his scorpion kick saves, developed his game on the pitches funded by Escobar and would remain a loyal friend to the drug baron, visiting Escobar while the Kingpin was held in a luxury, virtually self-governed prison in 1991. Higuita would embody football in Colombia for all the wrong reasons, he was talented but also corrupted by the decaying environment of 1990s Colombia. In 1993, an 11 year old girl named Marcela Molina was kidnapped, her father had links to a Medellin drug cartel, and contacted Higuita to help secure the young child’s release, owing to the player’s fame and knowledge of the Medellin communities. Higuita secured the release of the girl but also accepted a 50,000USD reward from the girl’s father, which is a crime in itself. Higuita was jailed and missed the 1994 World Cup as a result, a golden opportunity squandered, yet the player would later claim he was only arrested due to his links with Escobar. In 2004, Higuita would test positive for cocaine while playing club football in Ecuador; football and cocaine, two things both intrinsically linked in the crazy social sphere of Colombian sport.

Escobar’s footballing investments culminated with Atletico Nacional winning the 1989 Copa Libertadores for the first time in their history, winning the final against Olimpia of Paraguay, and captain Andres Escobar, the ‘’other’’ Escobar of no relation, scoring a goal. The era of ‘’Narco Football’’ in the 80s and 90s which saw numerous drug dealers invest in football clubs was a peak era of local football for the country and fuelled the nation’s obsession with the sport. Yet there were downsides, bribery was common, and 15 November 1989 is a day remembered for all the wrong reasons. Alvaro Ortega, a referee, was officiating a game between Independiente Medellin and America de Cali, and Escobar had felt the official had been bribed. He supposedly ordered Ortega’s murder, and the referee was shot dead on the street.

Football was not all fun and games at this point.  After Escobar’s death in 1993, where he was killed while running way, and according to his sister, died while wearing football boots, Colombia’s local football scene gradually subsided, Atletico Nacional lost their main investor and many players left Colombia for fear of the growing violence in the country: Colombia had the highest murder rate in the world, 420 per 100,000, and Medellin itself had double that rate.


(Cable carts in Medellin, vital for transport in the much-improved city)

Growing up in England, where you have to buy tickets for football matches years in advance and mortgage your house to afford them (okay not that dramatic but you get the drift, its expensive), it’s always refreshing to find out in other countries that you can buy tickets on the day and for an affordable price. Research had told me that average Atletico Nacional tickets were less than $15 usd and unless it was a big derby game, could be bought from a ticket office on the day. So it was with this in mind, after a day of going up the infamous Cable Carts in the city which take you high up into the beautiful greenery overlooking everything, that I headed to Atletico Nacional vs Atletico Huila for their Wednesday evening game at Estadio Atanasio Girardot, a 46,000 seater stadium, which Nacional share with Independiente Medellin, mirroring the San Siro and Stadio Olimpico in Italy as famous pitches which fierce rivals share.

The walk to the stadium is a sight to behold, a sea of fans wearing the green and white stripes of Nacional, with food, another national passion, in abundance as stalls which weren’t there in the daytime have appeared.

It’s a hot humid evening, and security checks into the stadium are thorough, as you would expect with football in Colombia still having a volatile reputation. Pockets are emptied and a walk past police dogs are needed just to get into the complex which not only holds the stadium, but a Basketball and Volleyball arena to name a few.

As soon as I entered the stadium, touts swarmed, sensing I wasn’t a local and offering tickets at supposedly cheaper prices. After politely declining, finding where to buy actual official tickets became a mission in itself, with no obvious ticket office and little knowledge of the Spanish language, it became a wild goose chase, which eventually ended with me finding a slowly moving queue going into the a tiny club shop on the other side of the complex.

Estadio Atanasio Girardo, home to Atlético Nacional and Independiente Medellín, two of the biggest clubs in Colombia
Estadio Atanasio Girardo, home to Atlético Nacional and Independiente Medellín, two of the biggest clubs in Colombia

In the queue, upon hearing me talk English, those in front of us began to ask me questions in Spanish, which I did not understand, but assumed were queries as to why an English guy was going to an Atletico Nacional game for the fun of it. After declaring my love for Tottenham Hotspur, we did manage to all share mutual appreciation for Davison Sanchez, the Spurs defender, who once played for Atletico Nacional. Football. The global language.

Historically, Nacional is a club that has dealt with tragedy along with success. The club is still haunted by the fate dealt to local player, Andres Escobar, who played for Nacional for the duration of his career, a talented and dominant centre back, he also played in the 1994 World Cup for Colombia where expectations were sky high: the people expected Colombia to win it, owing to the boom of ‘’Narco Football’’ and their taste for success. However, it was not to be, and Escobar fatefully scored an own goal against hosts USA in a group game. Colombia failed to make the knockout stage and Escobar returned to Medellin, where he was shot dead by local gangsters, aged 27, in an apparent revenge attack for making the mistake at the World Cup. Andres Escobar, in a foreshadowing perhaps of the threat he felt would come after the goal, even released a statement to the media after the USA game declaring:

“Life doesn’t end here. We have to go on. Life cannot end here. No matter how difficult, we must stand back up. We only have two options: either allow anger to paralyse us and the violence continues, or we overcome and try our best to help others. It’s our choice. Let us please maintain respect. My warmest regards to everyone. It’s been a most amazing and rare experience. We’ll see each other again soon because life does not end here”

The story of Andres Escobar still shocks us today, and came to personify the true magnitude of violence in Colombia, Escobar was killed over something as relatively trivial as football, and in 2002, Medellin city unveiled a statue to their tragic hero.  

Nacional fans are infamous for their ultras who occupy the North and South stands of the Girardot stadium, never sitting down and always jumping while singing throughout the whole game. Not knowing the songs, I decided to sit on the West side of the stadium, and with seats unreserved (another alien concept to Premier League football in England), took a seat with my partner. The stadium itself feels a lot bigger than the 46k capacity, in part to the bowl shape of the structure which reminded me of the Nou Camp in Barcelona. Women and kids were at the game in abundance, which was good to see, in contrast to the male-dominated crowds you find in England.

Despite not being a game against one of the stronger clubs in Colombia, the atmosphere was electric from the kick-off, the north and south stands buzzing with energy while those around me waved their arms in the same synchronised fashion while singing.  Food sellers swarmed up and down selling everything from burgers to ice cream, while people constantly jumped from row to row if they saw somebody they knew. The game itself was a slight anti-climax, Nacional dominated and grinded out a 1-0 win thanks to a goal from prolific veteran striker Dayro Moreno, the goal itself met with celebrations I’ve not seen outside of going to the Champions League final at Wembley in 2013.

( Ordering food is a serious event in itself at football games in Colombia)

The fans went home happy and based on current form, it is likely that  Atlético Nacional will win the league title once again, and having won the Copa Libertadores for the second time in their history in 2016, the same year in which they were named by International Federation of Football History and Statistics as the officially the ‘’best club in the world’’ based on performances in all competitions, will be strong contenders for the continental title this season.

Whilst the quality of football on display I saw could not rival any top league in Europe: Colombia is no different to neighbouring South American countries: their best prospects end up being transferred either to North America or Europe, James Rodriguez for instance left for Argentina aged 18, while Falcao did the same aged only 15, and thus the league is made up of young players trying to establish themselves with the hope of a big move or older players winding down their careers.

Yet for sheer atmosphere and community feel it’s hard to find an experience which can better Nacional, there is a flurry of energy and sheer passion which only a few clubs can claim they have on match day.

Colombia, and Medellin in particular, is a place with a traumatic recent history not known to most major cities, yet football plays a part in people moving on and celebrating the culture of the city as it moves forward. Pablo Escobar’s exploits will always be associated with Medellin, but it is a city trying not be defined by him.

Santokie Nagulendran

Writes about football across the globe, which provides a therapeutic release from the emotional turmoil of supporting Tottenham Hotspur