1-4: After Escobar

 
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juan gabriel vásquez

In the 1980s and 90s, Colombian football was some of the best it had ever been. The price: near-total control by the country’s drug lords. This week, Goldblatt talks with fan and novelist Juan Gabriel Vásquez about what it was like growing up in Colombia during that time, how following the sport helps him see his country’s changes, and whether there’s any such thing as a pure game.

About the guest
Juan Gabriel Vásquez is an acclaimed Colombian novelist — his most recent book is called Reputations — and football fan. He grew up in Bogotá, Colombia, where he now lives, and has also spent time in France, Belgium, and Spain. His stories have appeared in anthologies in around the world and his novels have been translated into 28 languages. He supports Millonarios F.C. from Bogotá.

 

words from the host

In this week’s episode my guest, Juan Gabriel Vásquez, revealed that he hopes to write a historical novel centred on the murder of Colombian footballer Andrés Escobar. As you can hear from our conversation, Colombian history and football offers no shortage of material, but Colombian literature—indeed, world literature—offers less help. 

Latin America, more than any other literary culture, has proved receptive to football as a theme. The game can be found everywhere from the poems of Brazil’s twentieth century poet Carlos Drummond de Andrade to the short stories of Argentinian writer Roberto Fontanarrosa. Sometimes the game plays a brilliant cameo, like the delirious story of the football referee in Mario Vargas Llosa’s Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter

However, novels, and novels that really make football a central element of the tale, are thin on the ground, and rarely are they translated into other languages; for example, Una pelota, un sueño y diez centavos (A Ball, A Dream and Ten Cents) by one of Ecuador’s literary greats, Demetrio Aguilera Malta. While we wait for Vásquez’s work, here are are five football novels worth your time.

 

The Damned UTD by David Peace

I know I have already gone on about this book in connection with the film adaptation, but it is simply riveting. I knew within five minutes of opening it that I either had to stop reading there and then, or stay up till four in the morning and finish. I took the latter option and did not regret it. It’s a searing, cussed, maniacal monologue inside Brian Clough’s head during his short sojourn at Leeds United, previously his sworn enemy. His follow up about Clough’s contemporary Bill Shankly, Red or Dead, is a 700-page internal monologue best approached in small doses.

Drumbeat by Mohamed El-Bisatie

Shorter and sweeter is Drumbeat, set in a fictional micro-emirate in the Gulf whose national football team qualifies for the World Cup. The empire announces that it is the duty of all citizens, all expenses paid, to attend the tournament. For two weeks the country is left in the hands of its multinational workforce: Indonesians, Pakistanis, Indians and Egyptians. In the absence of their masters, and against the backdrop of the World Cup, an alternative world emerges.

Soñé que la nieve ardía (I Dreamt the Snow Was Burning) by Antonio Skármeta

Skármeta, a Chilean writer of Croatian descent, captures the final days of Allende’s Chile before the military coup and terror of 1973 that brought General Pinochet to power. Set in a shared house in Santiago, it contrasts and connects the lives of young middle-class student radicals and a poor but aspirant professional football player from out of town. The two of course collide in the Estadio Nacional, which becomes a prison and torture house for the new regime.

The Unfortunates by B.S. Johnson

Here, a shoutout to a key figure in Britain’s lost literary avant-garde of the 1960s. As well as writing experimental novels, B.S. Johnson wrote the occasional football or tennis report for The Observer newspaper. He combined all these aspects of his life brilliantly in The Unfortunates, in which an anonymous sportswriter wanders the streets of an unnamed English industrial city, seeks out its melancholy pubs, and reports on a football match. The book, first published in a box, consists of 27 separate sections of which only the first and last should be read in that order; the rest are to be experienced randomly. Johnson’s biographer, the novelist Jonathan Coe, considered it "one of the lost masterpieces of the sixties.” I agree. 

The Van by Roddy Doyle

The Van is the third of Roddy Doyle’s riotously funny and deeply poignant Barrytown trilogy. It’s set primarily during the heady summer months of football fever in 1990, when Ireland made their fabulous World Cup debut in Italy. Poised on the cusp of economic transformation that for a few whirlwind years would make the Celtic Tiger Europe's fastest growing economy, it brilliantly and economically renders the ways in which football can capture and give form to a national mood. 

 

episode gallery

 Fans at a 1994 World Cup match pay tribute to Andrés Escobar, Atlético Nacional's defender and captain, who had been murdered just two days before.  Photo by Shaun Botterill/ALLSPORT

Fans at a 1994 World Cup match pay tribute to Andrés Escobar, Atlético Nacional's defender and captain, who had been murdered just two days before. Photo by Shaun Botterill/ALLSPORT

 Before Pablo Escobar turned himself in to Colombian authorities in 1991, he designed and built his own private prison, La Catedral. It included a small football pitch, where Escobar's favorite footballers — including players from the national team — were often invited to play.  Photo by Eric Vandeville/Gamma-Rapho

Before Pablo Escobar turned himself in to Colombian authorities in 1991, he designed and built his own private prison, La Catedral. It included a small football pitch, where Escobar's favorite footballers — including players from the national team — were often invited to play. Photo by Eric Vandeville/Gamma-Rapho

 Pablo Escobar, one of the world’s most infamous drug lords, was also one of football's biggest supporters in 1980s and 1990s Colombia. He invested in equipment and facilities for teams, and supported the country's national team: Atlético Nacional.  Photo courtesy of  These Football Times

Pablo Escobar, one of the world’s most infamous drug lords, was also one of football's biggest supporters in 1980s and 1990s Colombia. He invested in equipment and facilities for teams, and supported the country's national team: Atlético Nacional. Photo courtesy of These Football Times

 Andrés Escobar after scoring an own goal in Colombia's 1994 World Cup match against the U.S. Colombia lost the game, and Escobar was shot to death less than two weeks later by men who lost money on the match.  Photo by Michael Kunkel/Bongarts/Getty Images

Andrés Escobar after scoring an own goal in Colombia's 1994 World Cup match against the U.S. Colombia lost the game, and Escobar was shot to death less than two weeks later by men who lost money on the match. Photo by Michael Kunkel/Bongarts/Getty Images

 “Football is a very big element of the national unity," says Juan Gabriel Vásquez. "So the importance that football has had for Colombia has not been really reflected in the results on an international scale.”  Read more at the  Paris Review .

“Football is a very big element of the national unity," says Juan Gabriel Vásquez. "So the importance that football has had for Colombia has not been really reflected in the results on an international scale.” Read more at the Paris Review.

 Colombia fans pay tribute to Andrés Escobar during a 1998 World Cup match between Colombia and Tunesia in Montpellier, France.  Photo by Alexander Hassenstein.

Colombia fans pay tribute to Andrés Escobar during a 1998 World Cup match between Colombia and Tunesia in Montpellier, France. Photo by Alexander Hassenstein.

 Two men construct a flower memorial to Andrés Escobar.  Photo by Jeremy Horner/Corbis.

Two men construct a flower memorial to Andrés Escobar. Photo by Jeremy Horner/Corbis.

 Colombian goalkeeper Réne Higuita during a 1995 match at Wembley Stadium in London. In the early 1990s, Higuita played at the private prison Pablo Escobar built for himself in Colombia. Check out his famous scorpion kick by clicking on the photo above.  Photo by Mark Thompson/ALLSPORT.

Colombian goalkeeper Réne Higuita during a 1995 match at Wembley Stadium in London. In the early 1990s, Higuita played at the private prison Pablo Escobar built for himself in Colombia. Check out his famous scorpion kick by clicking on the photo above. Photo by Mark Thompson/ALLSPORT.

Jordan Bailey