Suddam Hussein’s eldest son, Uday, used to torture Iraqi soccer players at the former Olympic committee headquarters in Baghdad after draws and losses. The building’s basement torture cell housed a sarcophagus, amongst other equipment, “with long nails pointing inward from every surface, including the lid, so victims could be punctured and suffocated.”
In Iraq, playing for the national team blurred the lines between life and death.
At the time, the same thing was happening in Colombia halfway across the world. It is only fitting that in the midst of the 2010 FIFA World Cup, ESPN’s 30 for 30 would release its documentary on “The Two Escobars.”
The man who controlled Colombia, Pablo Escobar, was like Uday in his overwhelming desire to win soccer matches. Escobar and his rivals initially bought and owned Colombian soccer clubs in order to launder and legitimize drug money. However, business sense quickly escalated into dangerous and corrupt competition.
Referees were bought off and killed on a regular basis. Escobar even held private matches at his residence, betting $1 million a match.
But he was also a modern day Robin Hood who built houses for the poor and soccer fields for the poor’s children. He won the love of the impoverished as a generous giver and provider.
The most controversial angle that ESPN took was that Colombia and Medellin, Escobar’s home base and stronghold, were better off with Escobar in charge because he ruled with an iron fist and governed with certain regulations in place.
After Escobar’s death, Medellin ran amok with violence, drugs, and complete, uninhibited chaos because there was no one to enforce order.
Within the chaos, the Colombian national soccer team united to become one of the favorites to win the 1994 World Cup. Team captain Andres Escobar became the first Colombian to get an offer to play for AC Milan.
The players were able to mentally escape the extreme turmoil and pour their souls into the only thing that could make them forget: kicking a ball.
As a result, an entire nation placed its hopes behind a team that could somehow pause the violence with their magnificent play and give pride to people who had lost all dignity. Soccer was the ultimate unifier for a broken nation.
Expectations hit a high when the Brazilian legend Pele declared Colombia his pick to win the World Cup.
The pressure was too much. Colombia lost their first match to Romania 3-1 and then lost 2-1 to the United States after Escobar accidentally deflected a cross into his own goal to tie the game 1-1. The team received death threats before and after the game. Escobar became the scapegoat for a World Cup favorite that failed to even advance to the Knockout Stage.
Less than two weeks later, Escobar was shot to death outside of a nightclub.
If the death was premeditated, it was because powerful gangsters had lost a large amount of money betting on Colombia. The word on the street, however, was that Escobar got into an argument with the Gallon brothers, drug lords who took over much of Pablo Escobar’s territory, over the unintentional goal. The brothers were hot-tempered and ordered their bodyguard, Humberto Munoz Castro, to take out Andres.
Castro served 11 years of a 43-year sentence while the Gallon brothers paid $3 million to buy off the prosecutors.
What makes “The Two Escobars” more poignant than any other sports documentary I have ever seen was the fact that ESPN focused on a broader scope with incredible depth, emotion, and far-reaching interviews. Andres was merely a pawn in the corruption that ruled and leveraged soccer and politics while Pablo died trying to hold onto his corrupt and violent power.
I had heard about the numerous point shaving scandals that rocked college basketball growing up. Sports had always been so pure to me that the revelation of players losing on purpose or cheating affected me tremendously.
Sports today have become so glamorous and celebrified that we forget the reasons why we started playing in the first place: love for the game, escaping into a world that can make us forget, and uniting people despite race, gender, or age.
The tainting of sports has gone so deep that college coaches are now obtaining commitments from eighth graders (see former Kentucky coach Billy Gillispie’s recruitment of Michael Avery).
“The Two Escobars” reminded me that even in war-torn countries run by crime and extortion, we can still lose ourselves in the pure elation of sports even if it’s only for a moment. And in that moment, we find true joy and peace.
After Andres’s death, the government resolved to clean up Medellin. By 2009, Colombia’s death rate had been reduced to half of what it was at the height of Pablo’s violence.
Without drug money to support the clubs though, Colombian soccer deteriorated rapidly and never came close to matching its 1994 success. But the country is rebuilding and there is hope for the future.
As for Iraqis, Suddam Hussein is now dead. His sons are dead.
Perhaps soccer can return to being a sport again.