NEW YORK (Reuters) - Colombians lament that their country is best known for exporting cocaine, which overshadows accomplishments in the arts and letters, commerce and sports.
A documentary premiering at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York shows Colombia at a moment of glory — the rise of the 1994 national soccer team — but one inevitably taken down by the malevolence associated with the drug trade.
“The Two Escobars,” by brothers Jeff and Michael Zimbalist, crams 100 minutes of alternating joy, thrills, heartbreak and tragedy into a film that tells a story little known outside the South American country.
Huge sums of cash provided by drug lords including one man named Escobar — the notorious Pablo — helped promote the careers of a generation of soccer stars including another Escobar — the devout and humble Andres.
The documentary, part of ESPN television’s “30 for 30” series, interviews all the principals except the two Escobars, both of whom are dead. Pablo was gunned down by police while on the run in December 1993 and Andres was shot dead for a rare mistake in an otherwise brilliant career.
Colombia’s president at the time, Cesar Gaviria, former players and football officials and even jailed members of Pablo Escobar’s inner circle appear on camera, finally able to speak freely about a cathartic moment in the country’s history.
“Fifteen years later is enough time. It’s no longer so dangerous to talk about it,” Michael Zimbalist told Reuters.
Andres Escobar had never scored an own goal in his life until the 1994 World Cup, when he accidentally deflected a ball into Colombia’s own net in a 2-1 loss to the host team also known for being periodically humiliated by other Latin American teams on the football pitch.
That goal eliminated Colombia, a team that entered the tournament with serious hopes of winning and instead went home disgraced.
Days after returning home to Medellin, Andres Escobar was murdered, shot dead by men who surrounded his car late one night under murky circumstances. A bodyguard linked to one of Pablo Escobar’s enemies was convicted but no one was satisfied all the facts came out.
“We were investigating a murder and quickly realized the story ran far deeper,” Jeff Zimbalist said.
“In order to accurately tell the story of what happened to Andres Escobar we had to tell the story of narco-soccer in Colombia and needed to trace the rise and fall of the Colombian soccer team, which was not coincidentally aligned with the rise and fall of the hopes of the Colombian people that year.”
The documentary examines the influx of drug money into Colombian club teams. Drug cartels naturally gravitated toward a business that generated much of its revenue — ticket sales — in cash as a way to launder money.
Colombian clubs were then able to pay their local stars to stay home and hire players from abroad, lifting the level of Colombian football. But the influx of drug money also led to corruption and match-fixing and violence inside and outside the stadium. A referee was killed when one of Pablo Escobar’s teams lost a match.
This also coincided with an unusual generation of talent exemplified by Andres Escobar and other star players including Leonel Alvarez and Carlos Valderrama.
But then the Faustian bargain made with drug traffickers took its toll. Rival drug rings owned rival clubs back home and naturally wanted their stars to play on the national team over those from other teams.
The team received death threats — the coach was told one player would die if he appeared, so he was benched. Players believed drug lords placed huge bets on Colombia to win, adding to the pressure.
So when Andres Escobar scored that own goal, he also sealed his own fate.
Reporting by Daniel Trotta; editing by Michelle Nichols and Todd Eastham