Exploring Pablo Escobar’s relationship with soccer

You probably remember Pablo Escobar as the legendary Colombian coke baron who was once worth $50 billion and controlled an estimated 80 percent of the cocaine in the U.S.

But did you know Escobar, who was gunned down in 1993, was also a great supporter of football in his country. In fact El Patron was a massive supporter of Atletico Nacional, bankrolling the team to the top of the table.

“Pablo always loved soccer,” his sister, Luz Maria, said in ESPN’s The Two Escobars. “His first shoes were football boots. And he died in football boots.”

Soccer-mad Escobar began investing in ghetto soccer pitches as soon as the coke money started flowing his way in the mid-80s. Alexis Garcia, Chicho Serna, Rene Higuita and Pacho Maturana, all of whom played for the Colombian team internationally, grew up playing on soccer fields built by Escobar.

“Everyone talked about who donated the field, and he was criticised for being a drug lord,” says Leonel Alvarez, who won 101 Cafeteros caps. “But we just felt lucky to be given pitches.”

Leonel Alvarez, former manager and player of Colombia - Image Source: Eltiempo
Leonel Alvarez, former manager and player of Colombia – Image Source: Eltiempo

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Of course, it wasn’t all about the good of the game in Colombia. Escobar and his brother, Roberto, figured out they could launder money via soccer clubs, overinflating ticket revenue and mixing dirty money with clean.

Pablo was the money man for Medellin’s Atletico Nacional from the mid-80s on. “The introduction of drug money into soccer allowed us to bring in great foreign players,” says Maturana, Nacional manager from 1987 to 1990, in The Two Escobars.

In addition to funding the sport, Escobar also paid to have private matches staged at one of his many homes. Professionals from around the country were flown in to compete, and Escobar and company would wager millions on the matches.

Predictably, Escobar operated in the soccer world the same way he did in his personal business. When he found out an opponent bought off a referee, he had the man hunted down and killed.

And when Pablo Escobar was imprisoned in the laughably luxurious La Catedral, El Padrino had none other than Diego Maradona flown in to have a kickabout:

“I was taken to a prison surrounded by thousands of guards,” Maradona said recently. “I said: ‘What the f**k is going on? Am I being arrested?!’ The place was like a luxury hotel. They said: ‘Diego, this is El Patron.’”

Indeed, Escobar kept up with soccer during his 16 months on the run after escaping prison. He was reportedly listening to a World Cup qualifier on a small radio with the volume at a whisper while hiding in a ditch from pursuing authorities.

Interestingly, Escobar was killed before Colombia’s famous showdown with the United States at the 1994 World Cup. At that contest, of course, another Escobar, Andres, scored an own goal, dooming his team. He was later shot and killed.

For what it’s worth, according to Escobar’s family, the ruthless killer would never have stood for Andres’ slaughter.

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