Colombian Soccer & The Drug Lords
1980's and 90's Colombia was ravaged by an endless cycle of narco-violence, yet in the midst of this deadly scourge soccer thrived and enjoyed a golden era.
The unlikely catalyst? laundered drug money that built soccer fields and paid top dollars for players and coaches.
At least six professional clubs were known to be linked with drug cartels and their sordid affairs of killings, kidnappings and briberies.
Cocaine kingpin Pablo Escobar ran Medellin-based Atletico Nacional as an open secret, funneling his ill-gotten proceeds to develop, acquire and retain the best talent on the pitch.
Rival drug lord Miguel Rodriguez Orejuela oversaw the Cali cartel and pumped money into America de Cali with similar designs.
For the merchants of death, it was all part of a devil-turned-angel strategy to clean their image as much as their cash.
New fields in poor neighborhoods drew populace support while inflated gate receipts and player transfer fees washed dirty money.
In 1989, Escobar's squad went on to become the first Colombian team to win South America's most prestigious club competition, the Copa Libertadores.
The following years saw Colombia qualify for every World Cup- 1990, 1994, 1998. The '94 squad was the best the country ever assembled and their undefeated run for the 1994 World Cup included a 5-0 thrashing of powerhouse Argentina.
Legendary Pele even boldly predicted that Colombia would take the trophy.
But reality came crashing down on expectations, followed by tragedy. Colombia was eliminated in the first round and team captain Andres Escobar (#2 in photo above and no relation to Pablo) was gunned down a week later in apparent retaliation for scoring his own goal in a game against the U.S.
His murder marked the beginning of the end of the "narco-soccer" period as some players quit and officials stepped up their crackdown on the sport's bloody business.
An indirect outcome was that the national team's FIFA ranking plummeted from a high of #4 to a low of #34 for the decade.
But more recently, Colombian soccer has surged again with Atletico Nacional winning the 2016 Copa Libertadores for the first time since 1989.
As if Pablo Escobar was still trying to burnish his image from the grave, his old team graciously forfeited the Sudamericana Cup trophy to the ill-fated Cinderella team they were to face off for the title, Brazil's Chapecoense club whose members were wiped out in a plane crash outside Medellin on Nov'28'16.
BASKETBALL February 20, 2010 Kirk Hinrich of the Chicago Bulls breaks a franchise record, scoring his 771st three-point field goal and clearing the 770 mark set by Ben Gordon. Coming out of the University of Kansas, Hinrich put in stints with the Bulls, Wizards and Hawks during his NBA career from 2003-2016. He was a member of Team USA when they won bronze at the 2006 FIBA World Championship in Japan.
HOCKEY February 15, 2000 NJ Devils’ Martin Brodeur becomes the first ever NHL goalie to receive credit for a game-winning goal. Facing the Flyers, he was the last Devil to touch the puck before it went into the opponent’s net when one of the Flyers’ own players accidentally scored his own goal. Considered one of the best goalies of all time, Brodeur won 3 Stanley Cups and 2 Olympic gold medals representing Canada.
MOTOR RACING February 18, 1990 Derrike Cope wins the 32nd edition of the Daytona 500 stock car race. Driving a Chevrolet for the Whitcomb Racing team and winning his first NASCAR chase, Cope beat out runner-up Terry Labonte and third place finisher Bill Elliott. Dale Earnhardt led the pack for 155 laps, or ¾ of the race and came short towards the end when his car ran over a piece of metal on the track, shredding his right rear tire.
OLYMPICS February 15, 1980 American Eric Heiden wins the 500 meter speed skating race at the Winter Olympics in Lake Placid, New York. The Wisconsin native wrapped up the tournament with a total of 5 gold medals, including the 500, 1000, 1500, 5000, and 10000 meter chases. Heiden broke 4 Olympic records and 1 world record in the competitions and is considered the best overall athlete- sprint and long- in the sport’s history.