Negative Effects of Narco Football


It is often said that Pablo Escobar was not afraid to kill to win a football match. His violent and ruthless business style was transferred to football. It was his power and notoriety which was feared throughout society and was used to win games when he pleased. One of the most famous examples of violence in Colombian football is that of the assassination of the referee Alvaro Ortega in 1989. Shortly after a 0-0 draw between Independiente Medellin and América de Cali, where the linesman Alvaro Ortega accidently ruled out a Medellin goal, Ortega was assassinated. (Rodríguez) It is assumed that the assassination came from orders from the Medellin Cartel who were angry with Ortega. This incident had both national and international repercussions on the reputation of Colombian football. The Colombian football association cancelled the rest of the football season as a result of the murder of Alvaro Ortega. There was widespread condemnation of the corruption within Colombian football from abroad. In Italy there were even calls for Colombia’s world cup spot to be revoked. (Matthews, 1989) Ortega was not the only footballing official to get into trouble with the drug cartels.  In 1988, referee Armando Perez was kidnapped for 24 hours. When he was later released he issued a statement saying to other referees, saying that “either you call the game squarely, or we’ll rub you all out”. (The Age, 1988) This put fear in the minds of Colombian referees, who were forced to favour the side with the most bloodthirsty owners. This is shown shortly after the Armando Perez incident, in a playoff game where Quindio were beating Santa Fe de Bogota 1-0. The referee allowed the game to go into extra time, in which Santa Fe scored an equalising goal. It is arguable that the referee allowed this to happen due to fear of the repercussions from the narco ruled Santa Fe, if he were to allow Quindio to win.

In April 1984, the Colombian Justice Minister, Lara Bonilla, was murdered by the Medellin Cartel. He had been leading an investigation on the influence of drug money in society. When he made allegations over the involvement of the drug cartels in six of Colombia’s top flight football teams, Pablo Escobar got angry and ordered for his assassination. (Gustkey, 1994) This shows the lengths that the ruthless drug king-pins were willing to go to preserve the status quo.    

Bribery and distractions

The negative influence of the drug cartels on football does not just stem from the excessive use of violence.  The cartels proved to be a huge distraction for the players. Pablo Escobar and Rodríguez Gacha enjoyed playing the game as much as they enjoyed watching it. It is known that Esbocar would often invite many of his favourite players to play with him at his luxurious ranch called Hacienda Nápoles. Escobar and Gacha would often chose the players they wanted, as if they were playing a video game, and play football matches against each other. Later, when Escobar was in prison in La Catedral, he would still have the players come and play with him in his specially built football pitch. Of course the players were paid generously for this. However these unofficial games proved to be a huge distraction for many of the players, like Andrés Escobar, who were questioning their morals. (Jeff Zimbalist, 2010)Andrés Escobar In June 1993, René Higuita was arrested after being filmed entering Escobar’s private prison to play football. He was charged with kidnapping and drug trafficking. This had a huge impact, not just on the player himself, but on the Colombian national team. He was one of the team’s best players and was unable to represent his country at the 1994 world cup. It is argued that the loss of Higuita was one of the reasons why Colombia did so badly in 1994. A new, inexperienced goalkeeper had to be called up, who didn’t give the same confidence to the team as Higuita had done. The players were also constantly being given death threats. During the 1994 world cup, many of the Colombian players had been receiving death threats and threats to kill their family if they underperformed, from the drug cartels back in Colombia. The cartels had huge amounts of money in bets on the world cup and did not want to lose it. Therefore they felt that they had to control the team from outside while threatening the players to play well. For example, death threats were given to the head coach Maturana to drop Barrabas Gomez from the team because the cartels did not want him to play. This life or death mind set which the players had right before crucial group games was not a healthy one. When some of the players came onto the pitch they would look at the crowd to try and spot where potential assassins were sitting. (Mance, 2014) It is not surprising that the team greatly underperformed under such immense pressure. The most famous example, showing the rotten problems within Colombian football, is that of the death of the Colombian defender Andrés Escobar. In the 1994 World Cup, Colombia were playing the USA. A ball was crossed into the Colombian penalty box and while trying to clear the ball away, Escobar miskicked it and it ended up in the back of his own net. Soon afterwards, Colombia was eventually knocked out of the tournament in the group stages. Escobar returned home quickly and was shot and killed by two reported assassins outside a Medellin nightclub. (Davison, 1994) Bar-On argues that The more likely explanations [for the death of Escobar] were extreme nationalist football passions and that Colombian drug lords lost millions of dollars gambling on Colombia's three World Cup matches in 1994.”[1] However this incident shocked the whole world and explicitly highlighted the chaos that Colombian football, politics and society was in.

Bribes and death threats like the ones mentioned above were also given to the referees of the Colombian league. They were constantly being bribed to influence the outcome of games so that the drug lords didn’t lose the money they were gambling with. In 1988, The Age newspaper reported that “one explanation for the referee’s behaviour is that the illegal betting system, controlled by a local mafia, has raised the match stakes to as much as $260million a game.”[2]In 1989 when Atletico Nacional won the Copa Libertadores, there was some controversy over bribes given to the referee. A year after the final with Olimpia, the Uruguayan referee of the game publically claimed that Pablo Escobar had put him under pressure to “ensure that Atletico won the tournament”. He died a year later after being poisoned. (Spurling, 2011) This shows the corruption from all angles within Colombian football.

[1] Tamir Bar-On, The Ambiguities of Football, Politics, Culture, and Social Transformation in Latin America, paragraph 7.5, Sociological Research Online (22/12/97).

[2] The Age (15/11/1988)