On Wednesday night River Plate play the second leg of the Sudamericana final against Atlético Nacional, from Medellín, Colombia. The first leg was a 1-1 draw so the odds are in River’s favour (although away goals do not count in the final). The Sudamericana is not the most important international competition in this continent; indeed it’s barely the most interesting competition that will come to a close this week, what with Racing, River and Lanús all in with a shout of winning the title on the last day of the season this Sunday. Nevertheless, they’re both good teams and the match does promise to be a bit of a stonker.
We came across this piece by canchallena’s Ezequiel Fernández Moores a few days ago and we wanted to share it with you. Pegamequemegusta veritably digs his comprehensive take on things and his deadpan delivery. We’ve brought you several of his articles in the past and they always get us thinking, even of hippos, so we hope you enjoy it, too. If not, pegáme, que me gusta.
translation ~ pegamequemegusta
“What do you know about Atlético Nacional?” ask the Colombian journalists. The Brazilian player Josef de Souza replies: “They’re a good team, they’re strong in several areas and they’ve got good players, like Pablo Escobar.” It’s a few hours before the semi-final kicks off in Medellín and there are no follow-up questions. It isn’t clear whether it’s a slip, a mistake or, as many believe, just another of the little japes typical of the São Paolo player. Escobar, dead since 1993, is no longer “in the game”, of course, but his name is writ large in the history of River’s rival tonight in the first leg of the Sudamericana final. Before Escobar, Nacional had only won four championships in four decades and had never made it past the first round of the Copa Libertadores in their four attempts. Under Escobar, in contrast, Nacional becomes the first Colombian club to win the Libertadores, courts the heights of world football and establishes itself as one of the most powerful clubs not only in Colombia but in all South America. There’s no denying that they had – and still do – great players and plenty of style. Yet they were also backed by Escobar, ‘El patrón del mal’.
Before Escobar, over four separate terms from 1962 to 1983, the president of Nacional was Hernán Botero Moreno, widely remembered for, in 1981, waving a wad of banknotes during the clásico with Independiente de Medellín, suggesting their opponents had bribed the referee. Botero controlls 76% of the shares in the club when in 1985 he becomes the first Colombian extradited to the United States on money laundering charges. In response, the Colombian First Division declares a period of mourning and suspends the following round of matches. These are the times of narcofútbol. Another of the subsequent owners of Nacional, Octavio Piedrabita, also accused of money laundering, is murdered in 1986. Pablo Escobar comes on the scene. Millonarios, under Gonzalo Rodríguez Gacha, aka El Mexicano (the number two in the Medellín Cartel), wins the championship two years in a row (1987-88), knocking mighty América, run by the Rodríguez Orejuela brothers (the Cali Cartel), off the top. In 1989 it’s Escobar’s turn. Nacional are proclaimed king of the Libertadores – but not of their country. The Colombian championship is suspended after a couple of hitmen kill referee Álvaro Ortega. “The assassination,” John Velásquez, alias Popeye, the drug lord’s right-hand man, says in 2012, “was ordered by Pablo Escobar.”
Nacional’s year is also Pablo Escobar’s. In 1989, his Medellín Cartel assassinates vice-president candidate, Luis Carlos Galán, detonate 100 kilos of dynamite in the headquarters of the newspaper El Espectador and take down an Avianca airplane with 107 passengers in the belief that among them is another candidate, César Gavira. Other politicians are also murdered. Judges, too, journalists, priests, policemen and trade union activists, many of them victims of Escobar’s cartel. In 1989 Medellín is witness to 4052 homicides, almost twice as many as in 1988. Times of car bombs, massacres and magnicides; fifteen murders a day; an explosion every second day; times of narco-terrorism and cartels, armed gangs, guerrilla and paramilitary warfare. The peak of the violence is 1991: 6349 homicides, 17 a day. The “Capital of Crime”, writes Gerard Martin in his book Medellín, tragedia y resurreción, “is more violent than the Chicago of Al Capone, the Palermo of the Corleonesi, the Marseilles of the French Connection.” Dozens of politicians, judges and journalists are bought off. ‘Medallo’ [‘Medal’], the city’s erstwhile nickname, is ditched in favour of ‘Metrallo’ [‘M16’]. Medellín, “the city of eternal Spring” is now “the city of eternal shooting” [“la ciudad de la eterna balacera”].
Nacional’s successful Copa Libertadores campaign kicks off in 1989 against Millonarios. Raucous derbies and controversial refereeing. In the first round, they draw 1-1 in Bogotá and lose 2-0 in Medallín. In the second round, Nacional knock out Racing (2-0 and 1-2) while Millonarios pass Bolívar on penalties, with the Peruvian referee José Ramírez penalising the Bolivian goalkeeper in the defining stages for not staying on his line, and neglecting to do the same with Sergio Goycochea, who saved, winning his team the match. The two Colombian teams meet again in the quarters. This time Nacional win: a valuable 1-1 draw in Bogotá accompanied by scandalous refereeing by the Chilean Hernán Silva, and a 1-0 win in Medellín. “Tonight,” a Millonarios player tells a Colombian collegue, “there were guns in the stands, there were guns everywhere. I don’t know how no-one was killed.” Regarding the semi-finals, against the Uruguayan team Danubio, many will recall the referee Juan Bava telling El Gráfico: “A couple of guys came to the hotel with machine guns. They offered us money and threatened to kill us.” No further assistance required. Nacional, who had drawn the first leg 0-0, run riot 6-0.
In the final, Nacional lose the first leg 1-0 in Asunción against Olimpia. Conmebol [South American football association] decides that the return leg should be played in Bogotá. Olimpia come to the ground escorted by tanks. They lose 2-0. They also lose on penalties. Eighteen penalties, four saves by René Higuita. The fear stoked by the threats before every match played in Medellín goes to a new level in the following year’s Libertadores owing to a formal complaint by Uruguayan referee Juan Daniel Cardellino. Conmebol suspends all Colombian stadiums. “Extra-footballing reasons”, the sanctions are called by then president Sergio Naranjo in his farewell report on his stewardship of the club. That December, Italian newspapers argue that Nacional should not be allowed to play the Intercontinental Cup. AC Milan win, just about. Their owner, Silvio Berlusconni, is jubilant. “What money is clean?” wonders at one point the journalist Pepe Calderón, a character in Autogol [Own Goal], a novel by the Colombian Silva Romero.
Nacional, as has been said, has exceptional players during Escobar’s time in charge. They include some of the best players of the Colombian national team, who impress in Italia ’90 and in 1993 thrash Argentina 5-0 in the Monumental. They arrive at USA ’94 as one of the favourites but get knocked out in the first round and, upon their return, Andrés Escobar, the player who scored the own goal, is murdered. One year earlier, the army, or paramilitaries working for the state, had killed Pablo Escobar. An Independiente de Medallín flag, not a Nacional one, is placed on his coffin. Two decades later, the drug lord, who at the zenith of his power would hire the Brazilian musician Roberto Carlos [for private shows], is the subject of guided tours in Medellín – museum and tomb included – as well as a record-breaking tv series, and has even made Cannes, played by Benicio del Toro, even as the Colmbian state has been forced to castrate the hippos in his private zoo. There are now sixty of them. According to the authorities, “they represent a threat to public safety.”
Escobar is dead. Medellín, while retaining a relatively elevated amount of homicides, is a different city, whose policies on social integration are cited as models, while the public works designed to highlight its great natural beauty have been widely praised. “Cities,” the Colombian writer juan José Hoyos, “are built on amnesia: one layer of asphalt, a layer of amnesia and then another layer of asphalt.” And Nacional, without a doubt, is a different team. Between 1994 and 2014 they’ve won nine Colombian championships, the last three in succession and with their eyes on a fourth. They also win two Cups and a Colombian Superliga. And two Copas Merconorte. Now they want the Sudamericana. They still have good players (Edwin Cardona and Daniel Bocanegra), good collective play and a worthy manager (Juan Carlos Osorio, firm favourite for the Colmbian job once José Pekerman’s cycle ends). Their patrón is different now, likewise the power wielded. The Organización Ardila Lulle, one of the four most powerful conglomerates in the country, is the sponsor of the championship through the soft drink Postobón (Liga Postobón). And they televise it through a mixture of free-to-air and cable tv, through RCN or Winsports. Carlos Ardila Lulle, whose fortune is estimated to be at $3000m, is the champion of the league he sponsors and televises. His conglomerate includes La Mega, a radio station that blasts reggaeton, pop and electro. The flagship program of La Mega is called El Cartel.