Football: The search for El Dorado

For Colombians like Faustino Asprilla, football can provide a promised land far from murder and mayhem
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Newcastle travel to Barcelona on Wednesday strengthened by the return of Faustino Asprilla, their flamboyant Colombian. Asprilla scored a hat-trick in the first meeting at St James' Park, and Newcastle have struggled in their talisman's protracted absence through injury. Even Asprilla's prodigious skills are unlikely to extend Newcastle's journey beyond the Champions' League but Barcelona, bottom of Group C, will bridle at his re-emergence.

Here James Wilson visits Asprilla's home town in Colombia to discover a fascinating insight into the roots of a special talent...

Because of incidents such as lacerating his foot while kicking in a bus window, getting mixed up with a German porn actress, or being prosecuted for firearms offences, the Colombian footballer Faustino Asprilla is often described as "controversial". Because he has largely given up talking to the press after its coverage of such incidents, he is also "enigmatic".

Both these adjectives are useful substitutes for "Colombian". Not much is known about Colombia and I would guess it is probably the most misspelled country in the world, people being more familiar with the movie studio. It is a very beautiful country with a number of problems, which makes it like most countries in the world, except that Colombia is widely associated with cocaine, which gives it and its people a certain notoriety.

I went to Colombia earlier this year. I was on the bus to Asprilla's home town of Tulu, travelling along the Panamerican highway through a luscious landscape of sugar canes and distant mountains, when we passed a young lad on a bicycle wearing a Newcastle shirt. There was a number 11 - Asprilla's number - on the back. In Tulu I unpacked my own Newcastle shirt, and the hotel porter offered to buy it from me. I declined. "Asprilla's father has one," he said. ''He wears it when be goes to the Tulu games."

Asprilla was born in Tulu in 1969. I had been led to expect a poverty- stricken village, but a sign boasted 155,000 inhabitants and there were no pigs on the streets. Asprilla and his career are the biggest news in Tulu; when he visited, the whole place would go mad, with parties in which Asprilla played a prominent part.

"I used to have to ask him to warn me when he was coming back, because it used to cause such chaos," I was told by the writer and politician Gustavo Alvarez Guardeazbal, the former mayor, who described himself as Asprilla's "public defender". It was in Tulu that Asprilla was taunted by a bus driver, climbed out through the sunroof of his car, and kicked in one of the bus windows. "I told people not to be unfair with him," Guardeazbal said. "They had to understand that just because he was a genius at football, it didn't mean he could handle anything else." Asprilla helped Guardeazbal get re-elected.

Asprilla had played for several local teams before he was bought for about pounds 50 and two used footballs, by the Carlos Sarmiento soccer school, which was set up with a gift from a local sugar baron. Three Colombia goalkeepers also went to the school.

At one of its trials I watched a practice match involving about 35 kids on a bone-hard pitch, Fabio Mosquera, one of Asprilla's early coaches, was refereeing. ''He was nutty, that one," said Mosquera. "Head in the clouds. But at heart" - and he clapped his fist to his breast - "he was a good kid."

Another, Fernando Valderrama, had the young Asprilla in his group. "He used to hate the physical stuff," he recalled. "I'd say, 'Faustino, what's up?' and he'd say, 'Aw, coach, I don't like all this running about...' He always wanted to be doing stuff with the ball."

Asprilla has an enormous new house outside town, along an unmetalled road with the way barred by a security guard who took the taxi driver's number. The house is an exercise in footballer's taste - part brick, part golden stone, part wooden boards like a Dallas ranch. In the carport stood a Mercedes, a four- wheel-drive thing, and a sleek black sports model. Staff were tending the horses in the stable blocks. In front was the space where the football pitch would be built.

Back in Tulu, on a bumpy pitch covered with thick tropical grass, Fernando was putting about 40 kids through their paces. "There are some here as good as Asprilla," he said. Around 4,000 boys try out for the school each year. It takes 10 or 12, who travel up to four hours a day to get to training. A house the size of Asprilla's is a powerful incentive.

After the Sarmiento school, Asprilla began his professional career in Ccuta, a less than illustrious club who played their home games in a town 60 miles away because nobody went to watch them in Ccuta. Asprilla didn't know where the place was before he got on the plane, but he scored twice on his debut. Ccuta offered him a house with no electricity and didn't pay him for three months.

I went to Ccuta to find out more, but instead spent most of my stay having my traveller's cheques rejected on account of new money-laundering laws. I lamented this to one bureau owner, Aparicio. Aparicio gave me a beer and was joined by a man who produced a gun from inside his trousers. Aparicio handed him a box of bullets and he carefully loaded it. It was a beautiful silver thing and I imagined its cold barrel against my temple. I wanted very much to leave, but felt it would look rude after accepting the beer.

But the bullets weren't meant for me. The man left. "If someone attacks you, you have to be able to defend yourself," Aparicio explained. I was quite shocked the time I saw several fellow guests at a rather high-class wedding produce handguns from inside their tuxedos to deal with some gatecrashers.

Within a year Asprilla was sold to the Medelln club Atletico Nacional, Colombia's most successful club. The drug baron Pablo Escobar was a supporter. "He was still rough around the edges," said one journalist. "In Ccuta, they hardly paid him and he was starving - his mother had to send him money to buy food. He ate anything that was put in front of him. But there wasn't another player like him in Colombia."

In 1992 he signed for Parma, in Italy, since when he has been Colombia's only constant presence in European football. Virtually every other player to have gone there has been an unhappy failure. Even Carlos Valderrama, a truly great footballer who was South American Player of the Year in 1987 before he led the exodus, underachieved at Montpellier and Valladolid. So he went back to Colombia and was the continent's Footballer of the Year again in 1993.

One journalist told me this record of failure was because most Colombians were poorly educated compared with, say, their Argentinian counterparts who could integrate more easily. Asprilla did not have much education either, but unlike Valderrama, who is renowned for being withdrawn, he is outgoing which is partly why he has ended up in so many scrapes - and so makes friends.

And as he has endured in Europe, everyone told me he has matured. "He's more serious, more responsible," said the Medelln journalist. "More conscious of what it means to live abroad, to live in different cultures. He has learned that you can't live out your private life in public."

I grabbed only a few words with Asprilla, at Colombia's training camp hotel in Barranquilla, before a World Cup qualifying game. We spoke shortly after I had seen him in a position of prayer with a pair of evangelical Protestants (it was Easter). Yes, he likes it at Newcastle, where he lives very quietly; no, it's not so different from Italy. It doesn't matter that he doesn't get the chance to get back to Colombia much - he can relax and ride his horses in the holidays. I had thought he would feel like a fish out of water at Newcastle, but evidently not. "I don't need to be surrounded by Latins to feel happy. What is important is what happens on the pitch. That's what I'm employed for," he explained.

And that was about it. I barely had time to ask him about the little cameo I had seen. Was religion important to him? He nodded sagely. "It's always important to pray," he said. "Especially on a day like this."

So I asked the two evangelicals about their meeting. "I saw you praying with Faustino - I didn't know he was very religions?"

"He's not," said one rather shortly.

"What did you say to him?"

"I told him that, yes, he has his money and fame, but fame will disappear," she replied. "But God is forever, and I told him he should remember that."

The next time I saw Asprilla was back at Newcastle's training ground in Durham, where he was having a play fight with Les Ferdinand and looked a lot more relaxed than he had during training in Barranquilla. One man nodded at Asprilla. "Can you imagine him being any bother?" he said incredulously. "They keep on saying he started a riot, he's a gun-toter, he's a drug smuggler - but everyone just wants to cuddle him." There is something of the urchin in Asprilla that complements Newcastle. His interpreter, Nick Emmerson, told me: "He is always going to the Metro Centre. He loves playing in the arcades. That game where you sit on a motorbike? That's his favourite. He plays with the little Geordie lads who are skiving school. He'll give one of them a fiver and tell him to go and get him some change. When the kid comes back he'll give him a pound and they'll play in the arcades."

When Asprilla lived in Italy he used to like going fishing. "When he first came he wanted to get a fishing boat," said Emmerson. "So they took him to Tynemouth the first weekend he was here. He took one look at the North Sea and said 'Fuck that!' He has never mentioned it again."

Asprilla's father, Diego, likes and admires England. He spends a lot of time here - not in the winter though - and enjoys wandering about, popping to Tesco. "This is such a disciplined country," he said. "Everyone drives correctly, on the proper side of the road. And I can go out with with my watch and my wallet, and not worry about getting robbed." I was touched to find such an Anglophile. "It will take Colombia 200 years to catch up with London," he predicted.

Colombia was the country which spawned the legend of El Dorado, which has come to symbolise a fevered and fruitless quest for wealth and esteem. There is a lake near Bogota where a Muisca Indian chieftain, coated in gold dust, was immersed each year in a ritual celebration of his power. When the Spanish conquistadores came they sent out expeditions to the interior to search for the source of these fabulous riches. The Indians soon worked out that the best way to get rid of the invaders was to tell them El Dorado was just around the next corner. This way the Spanish got lost, discovered the continent, and died of syphilis. When the lake was drained there was nothing to be found.

Four hundred years later Colombians are trying to find their own El Dorado, a promised land away from murder and mayhem; perhaps even a land which the rest of the world does not instantly associate with cocaine. The place wants something to be proud of. Why not football?

When Colombia beat Argentina 5-0 in 1993, the country went mad; it was said about 50 people died in the celebrations. Three months after that, Pablo Escobar was shot on a roof and things seemed set for a new era. The World Cup could not come quickly enough; Pele tipped them to win. Of course, everyone knows what happened. "A thorn lodged in the players' hearts," I was told. One man put it best. "Nos mata la grandeza," he said. Greatness kills us.

Kevin Keegan, the former manager, knew that Newcastle, too, was looking for El Dorado. It does not have guerrillas or narcoterrorists, but bad things have happened in the city. People now bring coal to Newcastle, while not many people build ships there. So we turn football into a matter of pride, and queue to buy replica shirts as soon as they go on sale at midnight.

Newcastle were leading the Premiership by nine points when Asprilla signed. They had it at their feet. Asprilla made his home debut against Manchester United, the team in second place, when Newcastle had won all of their previous 13 home games. Asprilla played well. Newcastle lost 1-0. Greatness kills us.

When the championship was finally lost many people blamed the introduction of Asprilla, but the next season his name still got one of the loudest cheers at St James' Park. Asprilla, more than anyone else, epitomises the Keegan era. Every Newcastle fan could see Keegan was also embarked on a fevered quest for El Dorado, a dreamed-of land where titles could be won by teams which played with more attackers than defenders.

We went along with it and it seemed we would get there. Now, when the promised land has dissolved into a desert mirage, I think we still go along with it. We would rather keep searching and hope that one day we might stumble across that lake, shimmering in the evening light, full of gold.

James Wilson is a journalist with the Financial Times. This is an abridged version of an article which appeared in the first edition of Perfect Pitch: Home Ground, edited by Simon Kuper, published by Headline, pounds 7.99. Available from bookshops or credit card (p&p free). Tel: Bookpoint 01235 400 414. Copyright 1997 Headline and Simon Kuper.