June 23, 2010 / 5:54 AM / 9 years ago

"Two Escobars" a timely mix of soccer, murder

LOS ANGELES (Hollywood Reporter) - It’s no news flash that sports is big business. Even someone paying only glancing attention to the World Cup knows how athletes’ performances on the soccer field are ferociously entwined with national pride and identity.

But for Colombia’s team in the early 1990s — whose ascent was made possible by a notorious crime organization — the intensity of the connection between fans and players, and its calamitous results, is a drama writ large, recounted in heart-stopping fashion in “The Two Escobars.”

The gripping film, part of ESPN’s “30 for 30” documentary series, screened at the Los Angeles Film Festival and premiered on the sports network on Tuesday, the 16th anniversary of the Colombian team’s shocking defeat in a World Cup match against the United States.

Filmmakers Jeff Zimbalist and Michael Zimbalist (“Favela Rising”) trace the events leading up to that 1994 game, revealing why Nacional took the field in a state of mental torment. It’s the story of the quick rise and fall of Colombia as an international force in the world of soccer and of the interwoven fates of a drug lord and a futbol hero, both named Escobar.

When the country stepped into the sports spotlight, Pablo Escobar’s Medellin Cartel was the focus of the U.S.’ war on drugs. He was said to be the world’s richest criminal and certainly was the most powerful man in Colombia. However bloody his rule, he was a savior to the poor, building housing in place of flimsy shacks and installing neighborhood soccer fields, where the stellar players of the 1994 team had first distinguished themselves and found escape from poverty.

Soccer proved to be perfect for money laundering, and the tug-of-war between drug lords sometimes ended in a referee’s murder. The murder at the center of this story involves Andres Escobar, beloved captain of Nacional. With his humble, soft-spoken demeanor and good looks, he was dubbed the Gentleman of the Field. His infamous “own goal” cost the favored Colombians their shot at the World Cup, and led to his death at age 27.

But the Zimbalists show, too, the cause and effect between Andres’ death and that of Pablo six months earlier. They build their case convincingly, if with a bit too much repetition. There’s tremendous emotional energy in their masterful use of existing footage, especially of games, and in their present-day interviews with Andres’ teammates, sister and fiancee as well as with Pablo’s relatives, colleagues and enemies.

At a time when Colombia was synonymous with cocaine and “narco-soccer,” the national team, in their bright jerseys, represented something more immediate and real than hope: self-worth. Argentine fans heckled them as drug dealers upon their arrival in that country and gave them a standing ovation after they defeated the home team 5-0.

“Escobars” captures the passion and personality of a group of exceptional athletes and their ecstatic bond with fans. Like goalie Rene Higuita’s astounding scorpion-kick saves, it’s a story that often defies belief. It also is a story that is all too grounded in the ways of power and money and stupid brutality.

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