Sunday, June 4, 2023

Colombia: Calling time out on narco-soccer

The stands of the Atanasio Girardot stadium in Medellin shook with the intensity of thousands of fans as another round in one of Colombian soccer’s greatest rivalries got underway.

“Nacional, I love you!” belted out the Atletico Nacional fans this month, under the watchful eye of police and security, as Independiente Medellin fans hurled back calls for victory.

The Colombian government is trying to clean up soccer’s image.

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Twenty years ago, you would have heard the names of some of the world’s best soccer players ringing out.

But while economic growth and increased security over the last decade have boosted the country’s international reputation, success has been slower to return to the once-mighty institution of Colombian soccer.

The sport has seen a dramatic fall since the 1990s, after the U.S. war on drugs cut the flow of millions of dollars from organized crime to soccer teams, and the national squad failed to get past the first round of the 1994 and 1998 World Cups.

In the sport’s heyday, Colombian drug lords used teams to launder money, boost their image and flaunt their wealth in a process dubbed narco-soccer. The boss of the Medellin Cartel, Pablo Escobar, owned Atletico Nacional.

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That money helped the Colombian national team climb to fourth place in the 1993 international ranking.

“We had hope,” said Nacional fan Alvaro Agamez Licha, 30. “Not to win the (1994 FIFA) World Cup, but to make a good representation.”

But the team fell far short of expectations, and Medellin-born star Andres Escobar was assassinated after he ended the squad’s tournament with an own-goal.

The government has launched investigations into teams suspected of money-laundering and seized millions in assets in an effort to eradicate narco-soccer.

Last year, President Juan Manuel Santos signed a bill requiring clubs to report their financial dealings. It has been a difficult adjustment. Some of the most popular teams reported millions of dollars of debt in 2011.

Last year’s FIFA U-20 World Cup, held in this country, has helped bring back a measure of hope, cementing the country’s image as a secure venue for an international event.

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And, for the first time since 1998, the national team is expected to qualify for the 2014 World Cup.

But concerns remain. Ties linger between organized crime and soccer. And Colombian soccer suffers from bouts of violence that mar the game’s image.

“The problems are for real,” Agamez said. “You can’t hide the sun with a finger.”

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