Colombians find football is the game to die for

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THE primary schoolboys from the Cali slum of Agua Blanca are unaware the logo on their black-and-white-striped football strips - Newcastle Brown Ale - refers to an alcoholic beverage. The only two words of English they know are Alan and Shearer. They also know that their Number One hero, the Colombian international Faustino Asprilla, used to play for Newcastle United. That's why their school chose the strips.

Watching these Colombian boys, aged 5 to 13, run their hearts out chasing a ball over a bumpy pitch this week was uplifting. But the less innocent side of football was only a couple of miles away. Before Cali's most famous club, America, played a championship-deciding match not far from this slum last December, the crowd stood for a minute's silence to honour the just-deceased mother of the club's two long-time behind-the-scenes owners, Miguel and Gilberto Rodriguez Orejuela. The brothers are in jail for heading the Cali cocaine cartel.

A couple of months earlier, the former America winger Anthony de Avila, after scoring the goal that put Colombia into next month's World Cup finals, had dedicated his goal on live TV to the Rodriguez Orejuela brothers - the "patrons" known to have controlled his career.

Those incidents shocked outsiders but not Colombians, well aware that the country's drug lords control the country's top clubs and, as a result, are a big influence over the national side, including the 36-year-old veteran de Avila, that will play England in France next month. After criticising de Avila's remarks, Colombia's former prosecutor-general Alfonso Validivieso saw his popularity plunge and was forced to drop his candidacy for the Colombian presidency.

The drug barons, from the Medellin, Bogota and Coast cartels, have long owned the big clubs, sometimes openly, often through front men, using them to launder their billions of dollars of proceeds from narcotics trafficking, mostly cocaine but including heroin and marijuana. "No self-respecting drugs capo would be seen without a football team, a stable of thoroughbred racehorses and a beauty queen in his bedroom," a Colombian human rights worker told me this week.

A recent official investigation concluded the cartel bosses control 80 per cent of shares in the top five clubs, which make up the backbone of the national side. Colombian international players with foreign clubs, including Asprilla, now with Parma in Italy, all played previously for one of the big five - America of Cali, Deportivo of Cali, Millonarios of Bogota, Atletico Nacional of Medellin or Envigado, from the outskirts of Medellin.

Although the most notorious drug lords are dead or in jail, US agents say younger "lieutenants" have taken over in some cases while the capos still run much of their operations, including their football connections, from jail.

The investigation, which found many club shareholders appeared to be "ghosts" - apparently drug traffickers using false names - has been suspended amid the euphoria in the run-up to the World Cup. An unofficial straw poll conducted in Colombian cities over the past few days found more Colombians can name their World Cup squad than can name the four leading candidates in their country's presidential elections on 31 May.

Last September, for example, Bogota police waited for a televised Colombian World Cup qualifying match against Venezuela to free a kidnapped businessman. A split-second after Colombia scored a goal, the police stormed in, overpowering the kidnappers while they were jumping with joy.

If the previous head of Colombia's Soccer Federation, Juan Jose Bellini, jumps for joy during the forthcoming World Cup, it will be in a Bogota jail cell where he is serving six years in jail for laundering money for the Cali cartel. Bellini was formerly director of the America Cali club and a close friend of the Rodriguez Orejuela brothers. "People here joke that the safest time to walk the streets of Cali is during an America home match since that's when all the crooks are at the game," a local businessman said.

Also watching the World Cup from a jail cell will be Cesar Villegas, former director of First Division side Santa Fe of Bogota, convicted of "illegal enrichment" from narcotics proceeds. The first person to reveal publicly Colombian football's narco connections, was the justice minister Rodrigo La Bonilla in 1983. A few months later, he was killed in Bogota by a hit man.

In 1989, after druglord Gonzalo Rodrigo Gacha, known as "The Mexican" and longtime owner of the Millonarios side from Bogota, was ambushed and killed by security forces, it emerged he had been paying his players' salaries and bonuses in undeclared narco-dollars cash, dodging Colombia's foreign currency regulations. In 1993, Omar Dario Canas, a striker for Atletico Nacional of Medellin and a protege of the Medellin cartel boss Pablo Escobar, was found dead. Most Colombians believed the Cali cartel had killed him to hurt Escobar.

Another friend of Escobar, Rene Higuita, then goalkeeper of Atletico Nacional and Colombia and renowned for his outfield dribbling and unique "Scorpion" clearance, saw his career slump after visiting the drug lord in prison. Higuita was also briefly jailed for his role in a kidnapping believed link to a cocaine deal.

What most Colombians consider the worst moment in their football history came in 1994 after the much-hyped national side was eliminated early from the World Cup in the United States after losing to the US. On returning to his home city, Medellin, the defender Andres Escobar (no relation to the druglord), who scored the own goal that gave the US victory, was shot dead. His assailant was jailed for 43 years but the motive was never clarified. Most Colombians believe the killer was paid by gamblers upset because they had bet millions on Colombia in the game.

Back in the Agua Blanca slum this week, the 12-year-old midfielder Jonathan Mario Aullon told me Newcastle United was his second-favourite team in the world. But he hit an eerie chord when I asked which team was his Number One. "America Cali," he responded. "A morir" (to die for).