Skip to main content
Original Issue

Shadow Of Shame


The devil died in December, and thousands mourned. A shower of gunfire, and there was Pablo Escobar, a punctured corpse on a rooftop in Medellín, leaking like just like every judge and cop and political candidate he disposed of without a blink. Escobar was the most savage entrepreneur of our time, a drug dealer without equal, and on the day of his burial so many went to thank him that his widow and children could not get close to the grave.

There were debts, you see. Escobar had done plenty for Medellín—rebuilt neighborhoods, paid for funerals—and so many people considered him Robin Hood that it mattered little that the streets kept spitting up kids hooked on coke or gunning toward brutal ends. Yes, most Colombians were relieved when the drug lord was cornered and killed by special security forces. But his death was always viewed differently in Medellín, where even today people go to lay red roses on the mound in Jardines Montesacro cemetery, all under the vulturous gaze of a one-eyed man squatting under a tree at Escobar's feet.

Debts. Across town Renè Higuita stands in an empty stadium, another Medellinense paying off what he owes. Four years ago Higuita was one of the world's top goalies. His sudden sorties out of the goal and his Louis XIV curls made him, according to Oscar Córdoba, his successor on the national team, "the symbol" of Colombian soccer. Now nothing and everything has changed. Higuita is still the symbol of Colombian soccer but with a bitter twist: In January he got out of prison after having been held for seven months for, in essence, his ties to Escobar. At 27, in the prime of his career, Higuita has no shot at joining the national team, which has risen at dizzying speed to become one of the favorites to win the World Cup, which will be played in the U.S. in June and July.

Pelè recently called the Colombian team the "best in South America," a stunning accolade for a country playing in only its third World Cup and long overshadowed by traditional South American powers Brazil and Argentina. But it's true. Colombia recently had a 28-game unbeaten streak that included a 4-0-2 run through the Cup qualifying round and a shocking 5-0 win over Argentina in Buenos Aires last September. This Colombian team is dynamic, skilled and—as the class of Group A, the four-nation World Cup bracket that includes the host U.S. squad—impossible to ignore.

Higuita was Colombia's goalie in the last World Cup, in 1990. But this time, says Juan Josè Bellini, the head of the Colombian Soccer Federation, "we don't need him." Why? On the surface, because he was charged with profiting from the release of a kidnapped girl—the daughter of a former associate of Escobar's—and failing to provide information about the abduction to authorities. Higuita had helped facilitate the girl's deliverance and, for his pains, accepted a $50,000 tip from her father. The charge of illegal profiting was dropped last week, but Higuita must stand trial for withholding information.

There was a deeper reason for Higuita's banishment, however, and that was his open friendship with Escobar—further evidence of the coke king's suspected control of Higuita's professional team, Nacional, one of 16 franchises in Colombia's top soccer league. Like nothing else, Higuita's presence on the '94 World Cup team would trumpet the strong links between Colombian soccer and the drug traffic, subjecting the country to a monthlong bashing in the States. "It would make for a bad sensation worldwide," says Fernando Brito, head of Colombia's version of the FBI. "We're all very aware of that."

Problem is, in the Colombian league Escobar's relationship with Higuita and Nacional wasn't unique.

•In 1984, when Hernàn Botero Moreno, then the president of Nacional and an ally of Escobar's, was extradited to the U.S. on money-laundering charges, the league postponed all games in protest.

•Until his death in 1989, a boss of the Medellín cartel was a main stockholder of Bogotà's Millonarios soccer club.

•Leonel Alvarez, a midfielder for the World Cup team, was, like Higuita, photographed visiting Escobar when the drug lord was in prison three years ago.

•The leaders of the now dominant Cali drug cartel, Gilberto and Miguel Rodríguez Orejuela, are believed to control the Cali soccer franchise Amèrica. That's comparable to having John Gotti own the Dallas Cowboys. No, corrects Tom Cash, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) agent in charge of Florida and the Caribbean, "it's like having John Gotti with the Cowboys—and nobody giving a damn."

In Colombia, however, conversation after conversation about soccer comes to this point: With the death of Escobar and the decline of the brazen Medellín cartel, the strongest ties between narcotics and sport have been broken. "I could not certainly say there is no influence, but I think the main problem is behind us," says Colombia's president, Cèsar Gaviria, who will leave office later this year, "in some cases because the people don't exist any-more." Gaviria produces a small giggle. "We can't talk about Escobar's influence on Nacional because he no longer exists."

But some observers would argue that Escobar's spirit lives on each time the Colombian national team takes the field. No one suggests that any player has dealt drugs or laundered money. Still, more than half of the players on the team have been associated with Amèrica, Millonarios or Nacional, three clubs considered to have been or still to be in bed with narco-traffickers.

Faustino Asprilla, Colombia's dynamic forward, has been a sensation all season for Parma in the prestigious Italian league. But even that success story has unseemly roots. While Escobar was in jail in 1991, he reportedly authorized Nacional to sell Asprilla to Parma for $4.5 million. "You cannot deny the influence [drug money] has had on the national team," says Francisco Santos, managing editor of the Bogotà newspaper El Tiempo, Colombia's largest daily. "[The cartels] financed the progress Colombian soccer has had." But understanding that is one thing; saying it out loud is another, as Santos well knows.

On Sept. 6, 1990, the South American soccer federation banned international play in Colombia for a year after six men wielding pistols and submachine guns demanded that referees ensure a Nacional victory over the Brazilian team Vasco da Gama in a game in Medellín on Aug. 26. Santos, an outspoken critic of narco-trafficking and of Escobar, wrote a column that read, in part, "Our soccer is plagued by money from drug trafficking and its corrupting influence." On Sept. 19 Santos was kidnapped by members of the Medellín cartel. Eight months later he was released unharmed from a farm outside the city.

It's no shock that the cartel had taken offense. Escobar had long been el padrino of Medellín soccer, building fields, spending money on stadium lights and uniforms and insisting that Nacional use only Colombian talent at a time when his archrival, Miguel Rodríguez Orejuela, was buying players from all over the continent for his club, Amèrica. In 1989 Nacional served international notice that it had arrived by winning the South American club championship, known as the Liberators' Cup. "Soccerwise, Escobar's a hero," says Juan Carlos Pastrana, editor of the Bogotà newspaper La Prensa. "I don't think there's been anybody else like him in soccer in Colombia."

Yes and no. Five of the nation's pro teams are reportedly under investigation by Colombia's Security Administration Department on suspicion of laundering drug money; sources say two of the clubs are Amèrica and Nacional. Other law enforcement officials suspect that narco-traffickers have made inroads on the Júnior team of Barranquilla. Last year team owner Fuad Char was denied entry into the U.S.

Colombian authorities insist, however, that in recent years the sport has been cleansed considerably. There have been public stock sales and an influx of legitimate sponsors. But much of the drug influence has simply moved underground—a reflection of the Cali cartel's approach, which is more buttoned-down than that of the Medellín cartel's.

That is another reason Higuita doesn't fit anymore. He lacks discretion. Consider his unrepentant attitude toward his recent time in jail. "The best moments of my life are the ones I spent in jail," he says. "I learned true friendship. In jail I found a different kind of loyalty—from the so-called delinquent, the so-called narco-trafficker, the so-called terrorist. I learned to know his heart, and it is a noble heart."

Not only did Higuita accept the $50,000 for helping to free the kidnapped girl, but he also placed a phone call to Roberto Escobar, Pablo's brother, when Roberto was in jail last year. During the call, which was monitored by Colombian authorities, Higuita pleaded with Roberto to get him back in Nacional's good graces after he punched a reporter while he was recuperating from a serious knee injury. Roberto agreed and then called a director of Nacional. Higuita was given another chance.

It might be the last reprieve he gets. In 1990 el loco, as he is known, made one of the most foolhardy moves in World Cup history: On one of his mad forays from the goal to take a back pass, he was humiliated when Cameroon's 38-year-old Roger Milla plucked the ball away and scored to knock Colombia out of the tournament. Now, out on bond and back playing with Nacional while he waits for his trial, Higuita knows his hope for redemption is slipping away. "I'm just a survivor of the war our country lived," he says. "But I paid the consequences."

Five feet behind Francisco Maturana, a thin black man stands, bored, a sawed-off shotgun on his hip. Maturana, the coach of Colombia's national team and Amèrica, doesn't notice. Why should he? The guards are here every day, squintily scanning Amèrica's practice field in Cali as Maturana continues his small crusade to heal his country. Guns, threats, suspicion—it is all like old furniture. Maturana has other concerns.

"Colombia needed this," he says of the national team's recent success. Maturana smiles. His teeth are perfect. This is no shock; before he took over the team in 1987 and began its string of international triumphs, Maturana was a dentist. There are times, even now, when he will be attracted to a woman and then find himself growing cold after sighting the smallest flaw in her smile. And he still knows the power of a good anesthetic. "This country has suffered a lot," he says. "Soccer helps relieve the pain."

Colombia is one of the hemisphere's most stable democracies, with a robust economy, rich natural resources and an intellectual tradition that includes the works of Nobel Prize-winning novelist Gabriel García Màrquez and acclaimed painter and sculptor Fernando Botero. But for years Colombia has been known mostly for blood. Since 1989 tens of thousands of Colombians have died in the government's successful campaign to destroy the Medellín cartel. The casualties include 1,000 police officers, dozens of journalists, more than 200 judges and, five years ago, three of the country's six presidential candidates. Yet, even with the end of Escobar, Colombia remains riven by leftist guerrillas, a Cali cartel that has taken over nearly all of the Medellín mafia's business, and numbingly violent petty criminals. Colombia's murder rate is eight times that of the U.S.

Nevertheless, in what Maturana calls "the shadow of shame," Colombian soccer has thrived. In 1990 the national team made its second appearance in the World Cup and, before Higuita's gaffe against Cameroon, tied the eventual champion, Germany. The Colombian attack, flowing through two-time South American Player of the Year Carlos Valderrama, the midfielder with the blond Bozo hairdo, combines creativity, discipline and—best of all, considering the boring strategies widely used in Cup games four years ago—daring. With stars such as Córdoba (who carries on Higuita's goalie-sweeper legacy), the spectacular Asprilla (who celebrates each goal with a cartwheel), high-scoring midfielder Freddy Rincón and forward Adolfo (the Train) Valencia, Colombia has one of the most compelling teams in the game. "Before, you'd see people in the stadium lighting a candle and praying that Colombia would lose only 1-0," Maturana says. "Now it doesn't matter if we win, because they enjoy the show. Now they go not to suffer but to enjoy."

Sometimes they do both. After Colombia beat Argentina in September, about 20 people died around the country during the ensuing all-night celebration. The day before Colombia played Bolivia in the Colombian city of Villavicencio in April, a bunch of kids tried to climb into the stadium to see the home team practice; the wall they were scaling collapsed, and one boy was killed while several others were injured.

There is, simply, no other game of importance in Colombia. Every green space, no matter how small, attracts enough males—from six to 60 years old—to form teams and kick whatever excuse for a ball they can find. Asked if he ever played, President Gaviria, 47, tugs up his pants legs to reveal long surgical scars on both knees. "So you have no doubts that I play," he says.

This produces the expected laughter from a visitor, but it doesn't last. Few conversations in Colombia go long without turning to drugs. From Gaviria on down, Colombians echo Luis Carlos Perea, a defender on the national team, who says, "We're trying to show through soccer that Colombia is not just coca, violence, terrorism and death."

Yet those four horsemen of the drug trade have been with soccer for more than two decades. When some professional clubs experienced a financial crisis in the 1970s and early '80s, the traffickers' bottomless cash well was tapped to pay off debts, lift salaries and bankroll pricey foreign talent. "They were the ones who rationalized the financial situation," reads a 1988 report by the Colombian Superintendency of Exchange Controls. "They made it possible to contract various foreign players that Millonarios could never otherwise have obtained."

But with that came complications. In November 1992 a stockholder in both the Independiente and Envigado clubs was kidnapped from his home in Medellín; he hasn't been seen since. In June of that year the vice president of Millonarios was shot dead at a restaurant.

Even Maturana and the national team haven't been immune. Hernàn Darío Gómez, Nacional's coach, succeeded Maturana as national coach until a barrage of death threats made it clear that he should step aside. Gómez became an assistant coach, and Maturana, who says this World Cup is definitely his last, agreed to come back.

One of the DEA's most trusted informants, a former mid-level money launderer for the Cali cartel who uses the alias William Soto, says he took part in soccer games between private teams owned by cartel leaders and featuring pro players. At stake? Two hundred kilos of cocaine. But, Soto says, none of those games involved players from this year's national team. Rather, the strongest link between the Cali cartel and soccer may now be the use of the Amèrica club by Miguel Rodríguez Orejuela (a former team president) and his brother Gilberto as a vehicle for laundering cash. "Everything Amèrica has belongs to [Miguel]," Soto says. "The gym, the facilities, everything. Everything is cartel."

Everything, it seems, except Maturana, who has walked as narrow a tightrope as there is in Colombia while coaching Nacional from 1987 to '90, when Escobar was at the height of his power, and then, after a year in Spain, coaching Amèrica the last three years. "Everything about Medellín is connected to drug trafficking," Maturana says. "So it was with soccer. But I never had trouble; I never went with Escobar or those guys." He got a glimpse of the system, though. Before he coached National to Colombia's first international championship, in the '89 Liberators' Cup, Maturana says, a man offered him 10 million pesos if the team won. Maturana refused the tip. "I'm a public figure," he says. "I'm very careful where I go, very selective with my friends. If I ever had an approach...I'd say no."

Apparently the Cali bosses have no desire to ask. Maturana's success has made him untouchable. "They respect him," says Soto. "I was at a meeting when [the drug lords] talked about trying to get him involved, but Maturana is so valuable as a coach that they don't want to hurt him. These guys put machine guns to people's heads. But they have so much respect for Maturana that when he broke off from Pablo Escobar [at National] to go to Miguel Rodríguez [at Amèrica], it was no problem. And he can go back to National tomorrow, no problem."

Maturana's appeal runs so deep that he was a fringe figure in an episode that sums up political life in Colombia. In 1985 a left-wing guerrilla group called M-19 invaded the Palace of Justice in Bogotà, burned records and killed 11 Supreme Court judges before being violently dislodged by the army. But in '91, after M-19 was granted a full pardon, its top strategist, who was not present at the Palace massacre, was elected to lead a convention that rewrote Colombia's constitution—a rehabilitation equivalent to Lee Harvey Oswald's being voted into the U.S. Senate. Literary critics call the brilliant fiction of García Màrquez "magic realism." But in Colombia, says a bemused U.S. embassy staffer, "magic realism is everyday life."

Which may be the only explanation for what happened with M-19 and Maturana in 1991. Looking for legitimacy, the former outlaw group chose the coach as one of its delegates to the constitutional convention. Because he was working in Spain, Maturana was unable to attend the convention, but he said he was honored by the nomination. "People saw his name and voted him in," Bellini says. "He's an idol."

Mostly because he wins. In its last 34 international contests as of last Friday, Colombia had lost only once. In addition to that, the 45-year-old Maturana pushed an idea that had gnawed at him since he was a player in the 1970s and '80s: soccer nationalism.

Since the 1950s Colombian teams had imported talent and coaches from Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay, and with them came those countries' tactics and tendencies. "When we went to Argentina, we looked like Argentines," Maturana says. "It was like looking in the mirror." And if the Colombians weren't aping the defensive, physical pride of the pampas, they were imitating the speedy European style—even though the Colombian players had never been known for fleetness.

Maturana insisted that Colombians play like Colombians. He encouraged individual flair, discipline, a short passing game. Most radically, he parlayed Higuita's talent with both his hands and his feet into what is now a Colombian institution—the goalie who doubles as a sweeper. The strategy is entirely dependent on instinct: When the keeper feels that a forward rush by him can overwhelm the defense, he goes. As the game with Cameroon in 1990 showed, it's a dangerous tactic. But Maturana believes that the freewheeling goalie expresses the Colombian soul: aggressive, creative, forever teetering between triumph and disaster.

With a talent-rich team and the more cautious Córdoba in the goal, Maturana might now be proved a genius. But when he first took over National—and simultaneously the national team—in 1987, few people believed he could build a world power by celebrating Colombian qualities. That he was able to do it is due in large measure to the man behind Nacional, the man who, when other teams were still winning with foreign talent, endorsed Maturana by establishing a simple rule: Nacional wins or loses only with Colombian players. By winning the Liberators' Cup in '89, Nacional proved that Colombians could play with anyone in South America. Then, in December of that year, in Tokyo, Nacional took Italian powerhouse A.C. Milan to the final minute of overtime before losing. That told Colombians what they had been waiting to hear: Colombia could play with the world.

"More than drug money, it was drug imagination," says La Prensa's Pastrana. "Nobody had dreamed that we could have a Colombian team. Escobar had the instinct that Maturana was a great coach. Nobody knew then."

Few know this: Maturana's scope is even broader. He has done much to keep this national team above violence and drugs. He counsels his players on how to dress, how to speak, even how their wives should dress and speak. He knows that his team can set a positive example. "I'm telling all my people how to be more educated," Maturana says. "When you show that image, you feel better about yourself. That's what we want to show. But most of all, we want to show it inside Colombia."

In gathering this team Maturana was guided by the unorthodox belief that geography is chemistry. "For example," he says, "Alvarez and Gabriel Gómez are midfielders from Antioquia, a region of hardworking, disciplined people—and they're the ones who have to keep things under control. The fantasy I leave to Asprilla, Rincón, Valderrama—people from Cali and the coast. Those people are always partying; they're harder to discipline. They take care of the creative part." And somewhere in all that you can also see García Màrquez's magic and Botero's artistry and Colombia's social strife. "We're always in conflict," Maturana says, "and that's what you see in our soccer." Maturana was raised in Medellín and now lives in Cali, and he has come to this conclusion: His game is his country—both pain and glory.

"Yes," he says, his voice close to a whisper, "it is Colombia."

The rain drops like a million needles, splashing off skin, slicking the ball; players go skidding along the asphalt in an oily tumble. No one stops playing. The game has been going on for generations now, every Sunday afternoon on this tiny stretch of street in Cali since long before the 85-foot statue of Jesus was raised in the hills above the city 42 summers ago.

William Marulanda Navía, 34, has lived all his life in the house two doors away from one of the rickety aluminum goals. His father played for Amèrica in the early 1960s, but the son has never done more than play in this game in the street. Blood drips down one of his knees. Soccer is one of the few constants he has ever known. If his country should lose in the World Cup, it won't hurt too much. "Colombia has had so many problems, it's like we've been in a constant battle," Marulanda says. "This is the only way we've survived all these years. We're used to losing. But we're also used to recovering quickly." This is one of those times of loss and renewal, he insists. "We have a bad image," he says, "but other countries are going through troubles too."

Colombians resent this: No one has lost more in fighting the drug war, and no one gets more of the blame. Colombians know that many Americans will see their team this summer and think cocaine, and Colombians insist that we shouldn't be so smug. They'll tell us that the U.S. is the No. 1 market for coke, that Bolivia—this year's surprise entry in the World Cup—grows more coca than Colombia, and that most of the chemicals used to produce cocaine come from Brazil, the oddsmakers' favorite to win the World Cup. As Maturana says, every country has its shadow of shame. Drugs are like soccer. They are everywhere.

But one thing drugs cannot do. They can't create talent. Drug money didn't spawn the genius of Asprilla and Valderrama or the creative philosophy of Maturana. "It was the seed money," says El Tiempo's Santos, "but this national team is also the product of individual players, getting better. It is a success story, a success story that started wrong. But how many NBA players grew up watching crack dealers and then were rescued?"

Across town Córdoba, 24, says he always feels the weight of 34 million Colombians on his shoulders. He is different from Higuita, more conservative, better educated, from a good family—the perfect Maturana player. "I have to be myself," he says. Yet he understands that he is measured against Higuita. "To fight against a symbol is very difficult," Córdoba says.

It won't be the first time. In 1988 Córdoba spent time as Higuita's backup with Nacional, learning the goalie-sweeper mindset by watching the master. Much of who he is, Córdoba knows, he owes to Higuita. "We became good friends at Nacional," Córdoba says. "Now we're not just friends; there's more to it."

Córdoba doesn't feel sorry for Higuita. "Renè contributed a lot to the growth of the Colombian team," Córdoba says. "He came at the right moment. We always feel that he's with us. It's not that I'm here because he's not. It's my turn."

Pablo Escobar is dead, not forgotten. Neither is Colombia's old goalie. While Higuita celebrated his 27th birthday last August in Patio Number 5 of Modelo Prison, Córdoba and his teammates held a small celebration in his honor. They set up a video camera and placed Higuita's uniform on a chair. Everybody sang Happy Birthday to You.

Two days after that, Colombia crushed Peru 4-0. Higuita watched the game on TV in jail. Later the tape of his birthday party came in the mail.