Colombia. International success and fame, yes, but Colombian football sunk also to shameful disgrace this year.
At October 1st, 1989, the referee Arturo Ortega was gunned down after officiating in Medellin a scoreless draw between Deportivo Independiente and America (Cali). Soon after the murder a journalist received an anonymous call from a man claiming to be one of the killers, who said ‘we and our patrons lost a lot of money’, blaming Ortega for the result of the match. The murder of Ortega was the last drop in the already dark reality of Colombia, football included, and the championship was canceled. At the moment 318 games were played and the championship was in the second phase, but it was canceled entirely – no champion, no any kind of final standing. To a point, it was a revolt against the narco-cartels and it was also without much significance. Seven clubs were run by narco-cartels at the time: Atletico Nacional and Deportivo Independiente (Medellin), America (Cali), Millonarios (Bogota), Independiente (Santa Fe), Union (Magdalena), and Deportivo (Pereira). It was hardly a secret… and football mirrored the grim Colombian reality: the country divided by narco-cartels with their influence, practices, and rivalries – a match between Deportivo Independiente and America was more than a football rivalry, but also a battle between narco-cartels not only for the title and it was impossible to tell what exactly was at stake: was it a war between cartels for bigger shares of the drug market or clash of egos? Most likely both, but there was another element equally strong: betting. The same people who were ready to do anything to put their team on top also bet money (legally and illegally) on the outcomes of games and when big money was to be won egos suddenly were not all that important – at least for a moment. In the eyes of Medellin’s fans (and not only theirs), Ortega unfairly favoured America in his last match. He was ‘guilty’… but was he? Was it just bad refereeing or was he controlled by the owners of America? Of course, the notorious Medellin cartel led by larger than life Pablo Escobar was blamed and most certainly he was behind the murder, yet… there were layers and layers so difficult to peel and reach definite truth. Criminals were involved in sports for a long time all around the world – there were money in sports. Money to be made and money to be cleaned – one of the most important reasons for drug cartels to get involved with football was because it provided easy way to launder money. There were also egos – the ‘big boss’ must be first in anything. And most drug lords were genuine fans of football and their teams too… Pablo Escobar was all of that and he was also the most flamboyant and controversial drug lord. He was uncharacteristically emotional watching the penalty shoot-out of Copa Libertadores final at the stands and cheering Atletico Nacional’s victory, according to his long-time bodyguard. Atletico Nacional’s triumph was his own doing – he not only made his beloved club strong, but treated players as friends. But he also took control of Atletico Nacional rival Deportivo Independiente (DIM) and was often seen at the stadium watching their games. Friends are friends, but… Escobar often invited rival drug lords to party and play private games – ‘come around, bring the best players you chose and let see who will win’. And bet on the outcome… There was no player-friend capable or refusing a call for private play from the boss… even Maradona flew to play for Escobar and that when the drug lord was in prison – Maradona always claims he had no idea why he had to fly to Colombia and who Escobar was, just going for the money offered and very much surprised to play a game in a prison. If only he knew, he would, naturally, have refused… but unfortunately he did not know. Right… at the time when Maradona was snorting cocaine like there was no tomorrow he had no idea where cocaine comes from and who was running it and was in the news almost daily. Friendlies and some man-to-man betting around the barbecue is one thing, winning a championship – quite another for the same protagonists. One could lose a few hundred thousands with a smile to a ‘buddy’ at home, but that thousands and more have to be legalized or just come back through official games and fixed betting on larger scale – and here there are no buddies. In general, Escobar was the most brutal among the drug lords – others preferred bribes to murder – but it was a small distinction. A few years later Andres Escobar, the great defender of Atletico Nacional was killed, presumably for his ‘shameful’ performance at the 1994 World Cup, but he was the only player among the Colombian stars uncomfortable with and quite openly critical to drug money – which effectively meant standing against his own boss Pablo Escobar. Escobar was ruthless, yet, he was also a saint even now to many in Medellin – he built housing and schools to the poor (and, to a point, it was genuine concern for bettering their lives). He gave them also a great team – and this was even patriotic, for to a large degree he was responsible for elevating Colombian national team to a world-class power. Except Andres Escobar all Colombian stars of the time, coach Maturana included, praise Pablo. Then again, almost all of them played for Atletico Nacional and personally benefited by ‘friendship’ with the drug lord. Escobar really loved football, that was sure. It was also a deadly love… Alvaro Ortega went against Medellin on two accounts: ‘robing’ DIM from a possible victory and thus robing Atletico Nacional as well in the battle against America (Cali). He had to die.. again, for two reasons (not counting the hint of lost money from betting): the usual fan’s anger at the real or imagined ‘crooked’ referee supporting the enemy and also a referee appearing to be in the crutches of a deadly rival (Cali drug cartel). Football became a part of the war between the war between Colombian government and the drug lords and there are doubts that even today the game is clean from drug money and influence. But in 1989 the championship was canceled – the scandal was too big, the crime too much. And because of that only photos of teams will be given – for the teams existed and played more than half of the season.
Once Caldas
Deportivo (Cali)
Atletico (Bucaramanga)
Deportivo (Cucuta). Standing from left: Chepe Torres, Pedro Nel Barbosa, Antonio ‘el gringo’ Palacios, Willian Mosquera, Luis Carlos ‘el panameño’ Sánchez, Carlos Mario Estrada  .
Crouching: Juán Bautista Sanclemente, Raúl Humberto Mora, Juán Carlos Gutiérrez, Hernán Alzate, Danilo Robledo.
Atletico Junior
Deportes (Tolima)
Those were the ‘clean’ teams – may be true, may be not… And now the teams definitely belonging to the drug cartels:
Atletico Nacional (Medellin). Top row from left: Miguel Alfredo Nuñez, José Fernando “Chepe” Castañeda, José René Higuita Zapata, Hernán Torres Oliveros.
Forth row: Luis Carlos “Coroncoro” Perea, Juan Jairo “El Andino de oro” Galeano Restrepo, Jhon Jairo “La Turbina” Tréllez Valencia, Héctor Cortina Maestre, Albeiro “Palomo” Usuriaga(QEPD), Andrés “Seguridad” Escobar Saldarriaga (QEPD), Giovanis Cassiani Gómez, John Mario “Canino” Caicedo, Víctor Emilio Luna Gómez.
Third row: Hernán Jairo Luna Villamil (MD), Jhon Jairo “Maravillita” Carmona Rios, Gildardo Biderman Gómez Monsalve, Elkin Javier Sánchez Vásquez (PF), Nelson De Jesús Gallego Dautt(AT), Diego Alonso Barragán Rodríguez (PF), Hernán Darío “Bolillo” Gómez Jaramillo (AT), Francisco Antonio”Pacho” Maturana García (DT), Luis Fernando Suárez Guzmán(AT), Leonel De Jesús Álvarez Zuleta, Didí Alex Valderrama Pinedo, Wiston Tobón Ochoa (MD).
Second row: Jairo Grisales (KIN-QEPD), Jaime De Jesús”Jimmy” Arango Estrada, Alexis Enrique”El Maestro” García Vega, José Ricardo “Chicho” Pérez Morales,Luis Alfonso “El Bendito” Fajardo Posada, Jhon Jairo “Rata” Restrepo Toro (KIN), Francisco “Tara” Jaramillo (UT), Niver Arboleda (QEPD), Luis Fernando “Chonto” Herrera Arango, Víctor Manuel Zuñiga, Jorge Carmona Rios (QEPD), Ramón Elías “Ticho” Pabón (UT).
Front: Hernán Gustavo Arboleda, José Fernando Santa, Óscar “Galea” Galeano, José Durán, Iván Darío”Chumi” Castañeda Zapata, León Fernando “Pollo” Villa Arango, Gustavo Adolfo”Mísil”Restrepo Vásquez, Jaime Sierra Porras, Carlos Mario Maturana García, Víctor Hugo Marulanda Velásquez.
Well, this is the ‘primary’ club belonging to Pablo Escobar and the team with the great Colombian stars famous around the world, almost the whole national team plus coach Maturana and the brother of Carlos Valderama – Didi, by now an aging star. On top of the world at the moment, but not leading in the domestic championship, which certainly brought frustration to both ordinary fans and Pablo Escobar.
DIM – as usually is written and called Deportivo Independiente (Medellin) in Colombia. Technically, their match against America brought ‘the revenge’ on the referee Ortega. Pablo Escobar was certainly ‘something else’ – he was the only drug lord owning two teams and supporting physically both. Yet, his major love was Atletico Nacional – DIM had a strong team, but nothing like the star-studded Atletico Nacional. It also serves as an example to question a claim often made in Colombia: that drug lords benefited the development of football by bringing top foreign talent. First, Colombian clubs imported great foreigners from the first day they created the professional league, so it was nothing new. Second, the drug lords did not hire the best foreigners even when the poured enormous money into their clubs – as the foreigners playing for DIM testify: Juan Carlos Letelier (Chile) and Jorge Jara (Paraguay) are not world-class stars. No matter what, Colombians could not compete with European clubs when it came to great stars – the reasons for that are not only monetary, of course.
Deportivo (Pereira)
The last four of the cartel-owed clubs were the leading teams when the championship was canceled:
Millonarios finished 2nd in the Torneo Apertura with 38 points. Standing from left: Sergio Goycochea, Luis Manuel Quiñones, Cerveleón Cuesta, Wilman Conde, Eduardo Pimentel. First row: Carlos Enrique “Gambeta” Estrada, Jair Abonía, Oscar “Pajaro” Juárez, Hugo Galeano, Alberto Gamero, John Jairo “Pocillo” Díaz.
America (Cali) won Torneo Apertura with 44 points. As the text shows, drug lords running the club did not banish them from playing in the USA. Then again, their owners kept lower public profile than Pablo Escobar and were more ‘refined’ – preferred bribes to gunning down referees.
Union (Magdalena) – was 2nd in Copa Colombia. The Argentine-born goalkeeper of national team Bolivia Carlos Trucco was the most recognizable player in the squad.
Independiente (Santa Fe) was leading the Copa Colombia stage when the championship was cancelled. Standing from left: Adolfo Valencia, Freddy Rincón, Manuel Rincón, Miller Cuesta, José Romeiro Hurtado, Fernando Hernández. First row: John Edison Álvarez, William “El Palmero” Morales, Héctor Ramón “El Rambo” Sossa, Sergio Vargas, Germán Morales
To a point, those Colombian stars who were not playing for Atletico Nacional were with Independiente.
Well, that was the bitter end of otherwise great year for Colombian football.