Colombia Exorcises Drug Gangs From Soccer Bringing Wins

Win or lose against Brazil, Colombia is leaving behind one of the World Cup’s darkest moments after 20 years.

In 1994, two weeks after scoring an own goal as Colombia was eliminated by the U.S., defender Andres Escobar was shot dead outside a Medellin nightclub in a killing linked to drug traffickers.

The murder led to a “long-lasting depression” in which Colombian soccer clubs remained controlled by traffickers, said Juergen Griesbeck, a German who co-founded a community project in Medellin in response to the killing called Futbol por La Paz, or Football for Peace. Now, the 2014 squad is giving the nation cause for pride, he said.

“The power the national team has is incredible,” Griesbeck said.

Colombia plays its first World Cup quarterfinal today, in Fortaleza against host Brazil. It has one win in 14 games against the record five-time world champions, at the 1991 Copa America, according to

Colombia’s 22-year-old attacking midfielder James Rodriguez, who plays for Monaco in France’s Ligue 1, has a tournament-high five goals in four games -- one more than four-time World Player of the Year Lionel Messi and Brazil’s Neymar.

Other standouts for Colombia, which is in its first World Cup since going out in the first round in 1998, include midfielder Juan Cuadrado, who plays for Fiorentina in Italy, and Porto striker Jackson Martinez.

Victory Chance

Bloomberg Sports analysis gives Colombia a 28.6 percent chance of reaching the semifinals and Brazil 71.4 percent. Brazil is 17-20 favorite to win the game with Dublin-based bookmaker Paddy Power Plc, while Colombia is a 7-2 chance. A successful $1 bet on the Brazilians would yield 85 cents plus the stake.

France faces Germany in the other quarterfinal game today.

Spurred on by tens of thousands of fans clad in the national team’s yellow, Colombia has thrived because of teamwork, according to coach Jose Pekerman, an Argentine who said he feels “very Colombian.” Star striker Radamel Falcao, who can’t play because of a knee injury, forsook a vacation to be in Brazil with the squad, Pekerman said.

“It’s like a real family,” said Pekerman, 65, who played for Independiente Medellin in the 1970s, told reporters last week at the team’s training camp in Sao Paulo.

An Example

Santiago Escobar, the brother of the slain defender, said in a phone interview yesterday that the team is “giving an example to the country” with its play and behavior, adding he doesn’t yet dare say “everything is healed.”

After a 2-0 round-of-16 win over two-time world champion Uruguay on two goals by Rodriguez, some celebrations in Bogota turned violent, with 150 people getting injured, according to Mayor Gustavo Petro. A test of the country will be when it loses at the World Cup, Escobar added.

Twenty years ago, drug cartels in Cali and Medellin owned or influenced local soccer clubs and wanted to have more players in the national team, said Javier Hernandez, head of media for the 1994 squad.

Squad members, including midfielder Carlos Valderrama and striker Faustino Asprilla, heard of threats if certain players weren’t selected for the game against the U.S. in Pasadena, Hernandez said.

“There was panic,” Hernandez said. Valderrama and Asprilla, who have retired from soccer, couldn’t immediately be reached for comment for this story.

‘Dark Interests’

Humberto Munoz, who worked for a rancher in the Medellin region, received a 42-year prison sentence after he admitted killing Escobar. Santiago Escobar said criminals with links to drug cartels were also responsible.

“There wasn’t justice,” Escobar said. “There were a lot of dark interests in my brother’s death.” Munoz was freed after 11 years for good behavior.

Teams have since worked to sever ties with drug cartels, according to Alejandro Arenas, who co-founded Football for Peace. The America de Cali team has made “enormous efforts” to end links with traffickers, the U.S. Treasury department said in 2013 as it lifted a ban on the club doing financial transactions with American citizens.

One Remaining

Pekerman limits outside interference by only taking calls from soccer federation President Luis Bedoya, rather than other officials, said Hernandez, who has written a book about the 2014 team called “Colombia Es Mundial.”

Colombia has won 18 of 27 games since Pekerman -- who wears a Colombian soccer federation button on his lapel -- took charge in February 2012.

This year’s squad still includes one player from the 1994 roster -- 43-year-old back-up goalkeeper Faryd Mondragon, who plays for Deportivo Cali. Most of the other players are based in Europe, where they have lucrative salaries and are more focused on soccer than social issues in Colombia such as anti-crime initiatives, Hernandez said.

“They’ve got the money,” he said. “Now they want the glory.”

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