Pablo Emilio Escobar Gaviria. From growing up in a very poor household to making $420 million a week. Robin Hood to the poor and a criminal mastermind to the authorities, he led an intriguing life.
His love for money, new gadgets, drugs, cars, big houses, exotic animals, and even islands has been exhaustively talked about. But one thing that most people don’t talk about is Escobar’s love for the beautiful game – football.
His love for the sport goes beyond what most of us can imagine. The man loved to play, watch and discuss the game as much as the rest of us. His henchman, nicknamed Popeye, once mentioned that when they were on the run, hiding in a hole in the ground, Escobar would still turn on the radio and listen to updates while the authorities searched for him nearby.
It’s difficult to say, but maybe the game offered him solace from what his life had become. But through the rise & fall of Pablo Escobar, football perhaps remained the only constant.
Once he gained power, he genuinely wanted to make Colombian football better. The country had become infamous for drugs and violence. But with the rise in football, they found something to be proud of.
Pablo would travel from village to village, providing them with facilities to improve football. And I don’t mean just equipment. The man built football fields. He even invested money in football teams. Most notably the local team from Medellin, Atletico Nacional.
There is of course speculation about whether his investment was for laundering purposes or for the love of the game, but perhaps it was both.
On his private ranches, he would host 5-on-5 matches with other drug lords. They would fly in players from across the world, pay them to play while Pablo & Co. looked on and placed bets.
In fact, players of the Atletico Nacional club as well as the national Colombian team were often invited to his ranches to spend the day. Don Pablo would always take care of them. His associates said they weren’t commodities for him, that he actually cared for the players.
When he surrendered and built a prison for himself, his first demand was to install a football pitch. Players from the national team would visit him and play there. He had invested so much in the team that even those who did not want to visit him, had to.
One such man was Andres Escobar. A man who shared three things with Pablo – the surname, the love for the beautiful game and a terrible end.
Colombia were one of the favourites at the 1994 World Cup in USA, even by the likes of Pele. Their campaign was extremely unlucky. Death threats before a must-win game did not help the cause. A lot of drug lords had placed wagers on the team.
When the king dies, everyone tries to grab the throne. With Pablo killed the year before, things were getting out of hand. An own goal from Andres saw them crashing out in the first round of he tournament. He was shot 12 times when he returned home. Pablo’s cousin said that had Pablo been alive, Andres & the team would’ve been safe and unharmed.
But Pablo’s blood thirst had gotten the best of him. Something that was truly responsible for his downfall. A few years before the World Cup and before his own death, his desire for victory took a devilish shape. But in a way, it also established his love for the game.
His team was playing against America Di Cali, who were sponsored by the Cali cartel. A referee, who was often bribed by the Cali cartel robbed Atletico off the game. Pablo had him killed. It was like an obsessed lover killing for betrayal. He just wouldn’t have it.
A nephew of the Cali cartel’s drug lord said that, “My uncle wouldn’t kill anyone to win a football game. Pablo Escobar would kill anyone to win a football game. And that is why he reached somewhere my uncle or father never could. The final of the Copa Libertadores.”
The competition is the most prestigious one in the South America, an equivalent of the UEFA Champions League in Europe. His hunger for victory had proved fruitful. Atletico represented Colombia against Paraguayan club Olimpia. They won the final on penalties. Pablo was again revered by many of the populous. And in that moment he proved that his love affair with football was an endless one.
As Popeye puts it, “Pablo jumped and screamed with every goal. I’d never seen him so euphoric. Normally he was a block of ice.”
Pablo’s love was almost maniacal. That’s how much he wanted to win the trophy, and he did. It’s ironic that he even killed to make sure Atletico Nacional won. And just yesterday, that very team awarded the trophy to a team that was killed in a plane crash and was scheduled to play the South American Cup final against them.
Makes you wonder what Pablo would’ve done, doesn’t it?