After Escobar: Game of Our Lives Episode 4

In the fourth episode of Game of Our Lives, Colombian novelist Juan Gabriel Vasquez talks about football in Colombia, growing up at a time when football was inextricable from cartels and paramilitaries, and the murder of player Andres Escobar.

    Can you separate sport and politics?

    For Juan Gabriel Vasquez, a novelist, translator and columnist who grew up in 1970s and '80s Colombia, an attempt to separate the two would be foolish.

    "I grew up as an adolescent knowing that in Colombia, futbol was linked to drug money," says Vasquez, the fourth guest on the Game of Our Lives podcast.

    Despite a brief moment in the 1950s - when the clubs stopped paying transfer fees, got kicked out of FIFA, and created their own league known as El Dorado - Colombia's national and domestic teams were never particularly good. But that changed in the early '80s, as the rise of coca and new drug cartels in Cali and Medellin ushered in the era of so-called "narco-football".

    Pablo Escobar, the head of the Medellin cartel and one of the world's most infamous drug lords, also became one of the game's biggest supporters. He invested in equipment and facilities for teams, threw his support behind the country's national team, Atletico Nacional, and even had a football pitch installed in the private prison where he was imprisoned after surrendering to the Colombian government in 1991.

    "I grew up knowing that America de Cali - the team from Cali - belonged to drug dealers in the Cali cartel, and that Atletico Nacional in Medellin belonged to drug dealers in the Medellin cartel," said Vasquez.

    In the late '80s, people began dying. "There was a murdered referee after one match that Pablo Escobar's team lost, with a last-minute goal," said Vasquez.

    In 1994, something happened that Vasquez describes as the worst moment for his generation. "The moment that really became a metaphor of everything that was wrong with the political moment of the situation in society and football was the murder of Andres Escobar in 1994," he says.

    Pablo Escobar had died a year ago, leaving a void of power in the country. The Colombian national team had qualified for the football World Cup for the first time in over three decades, and expectations were high.

    The team headed to Los Angeles, led by defender and captain Andres Escobar. The 1994 tournament had the highest attendance of any World Cup at the time, but it was one moment during a match between Colombia and the US that would forever mark the tournament.

    Here's what happened: The score was 0-0 and the US team made a pass from the left-hand side of the pitch. Escobar tried to block the pass by sliding on the ground, but he was too late - and instead of blocking the ball, he pushed it into the Colombian goal, scoring against his own team. Escobar fell to his knees. Colombia lost the match. They played one more game during the tournament, but they didn't make it to the next round.

    Escobar returned home to Medellin. Less than a month later, he was shot dead outside a bar by men who had lost money on the game.

    "I was 11 when Pablo Escobar started murdering ministers and congressmen and judges and presidential candidates. So, this was a part of my life growing up," says Vasquez. "But this - the murder of a football player that I admired, that I looked up to because I had grown up playing in his same position ... It was one of the saddest days of that time for me."

    On this week's show, Goldblatt and Vasquez talk about what it meant to grow up in a country where football was so deeply linked to violence, how things have changed since the deaths of both Escobars, and the football novel Vasquez aims to write.

    You can hear the full conversation between Goldblatt and Vasquez in the player above. Then, visit Game of Our Lives to read Goldblatt's football novel recommendations.

    Follow the show on Twitter and Instagram at @gameofourlives.

    Subscribe for free on Apple Podcasts, Stitcher , or wherever you get your podcasts. You can also listen on our Facebook page.

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera News


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