1-4: After Escobar

Clip: [00:00:00] Siempre Coca Cola.


David Goldblatt: [00:00:05] It's September 1993. Colombia are playing Argentina in Buenos Aires at the Estadio Monumental.


Clip: [00:00:13] ¡Aqui estamos!


DG: [00:00:15] It's a qualifying game for the 1994 World Cup. Normally you wouldn't give Colombia much of a chance. Argentina have never lost a qualifier at home. Maradona taunts the Colombian's before the game begins.


Clip: [00:00:28] Argentina arriba, Colombia abajo.


DG: [00:00:32] But he might have taken a closer look at this amazing Colombian team, gifted with talents like Carlos Valderrama, and his exuberant coiffeur, and the sinuous fast striker, Freddy Rincon and Faustino Asprilla. In the first half, Argentina looked like the better side and certainly the ones most likely to score. But on 40 minutes, Freddy Rincón, on the end of a fantastic cross-field pass from Valderrama, jigs his way round the goalkeeper and it's one nil.


Clip: [00:01:03] ¡Colombia! ¡Colombia! ¡Gol de Colombia!


DG: [00:01:12] In the second half it turns into a flood. 2-nil, 3-nil, until Adolfo Valencia once again on the end of a pass from Asprilla makes it 5-nil. 5-nil to Colombia!


DG: [00:01:25] ¡Goooooool de Colombia! ¡de Colombia! ¡de Colombia!


DG: [00:01:41] My guest, the Colombian novelist, Juan Gabriel Vásquez, watched that game. It was 25 years ago, but he still savors the image of Maradona in the stands, who had no choice but to stand and applaud.


Juan Gabriel Vásquez: [00:01:53] So, when his team lost, 5-0 at their own stadium, it was really a great moment for us Colombians.


DG: [00:02:01] They headed off for the 1994 World Cup in the United States with high expectations.


JGV: [00:02:07] We Colombians really thought that we would do great things. And then there was catastrophe.


DG: [00:02:19] I'm David Goldblatt and this is Game of Our Lives. In addition to being one of Colombia's leading contemporary novelists, my guest, Juan Gabriel Vásquez is also a close observer of the relationship between football and politics in Colombia. And there's a lot to observe.


JGV: [00:02:35] Football is the most political of all sports, and it's just silly to pretend that you can separate sport and politics.


Clip: [00:02:45] Colombia is the most northerly in South America.


DG: [00:02:50] For a brief moment, in the 1950s, Colombian clubs were playing some of the best football in the world. The league itself was known as El Dorado, and they had stopped paying transfer fees. Of course, they got kicked out of FIFA, but hey who cares, because now unencumbered by these costs they hoovered up football stars from all over the world and paid the money direct to the players. And they had the backing of the government who saw it as the perfect distraction from the viscous civil war that had engulfed the country since 1949.


JGV: [00:03:22] In the middle of the most cruel civil conflict, you had to give people something. And football became it.


DG: [00:03:30] It all came to an end in the mid 1950s. Colombia returned to the FIFA fold, the money dried up, the players went home, and the quality of its football dipped. A single appearance at the 1962 World Cup was the nation’s only minor success during the next three decades of failure. That is, until a rising industry gave the Colombian game new life.


Clip: [00:03:58] NBC Nightly News with Tom Brokaw. Cocaine Inc., a huge international business run by a relatively small band of smugglers operating out of Colombia.


Clip: [00:04:08] American authorities say it was the Medellín cartel that ordered the murder of nine Colombian Supreme Court justices, and the attorney general.


DG: [00:04:19] The rise of cocaine and the drug cartels in Cali and Medellín, made Colombia virtually ungovernable in the 1980s. But, perversely it made Colombian football much better.


JGV: [00:04:31] I grew up as an adolescent knowing that in Colombia football was linked to drug money


DG: [00:04:40] Pablo Escobar of course, in particular.


JGV: [00:04:42] Yes, exactly.


Clip: [00:04:44] Drug lord Pablo Escobar.


Clip: [00:04:46] Pablo Escobar, Colombia's wealthiest man.


DG: [00:04:49] The most powerful of the drug lords, Pablo Escobar, threw his support behind Atlético Nacional, the club team in Medellín. They ended up winning the Copa Libertadores, the leading club competition of South America. But it came at a price.


JGV: [00:05:03] In the late 80s people began dying. And then, the worst moment for my generation, the moment that really became a metaphor of everything that was wrong with the situation in society and football was the murder of Andrés Escobar in 1994.


DG: [00:05:29] Now most cultural moments don't actually mean anything on their own. Nor is there meaning settled at the moment of their happening, their significance only emerges over time in the telling and the retelling of the tale, the placing of that moment in a longer narrative arc that gives it meaning. I wanted to know how a novelist, and especially a historical novelist like Vásquez, would define that murder, that moment. Where in the long history of Colombian politics and its football would it sit, and what kind of Colombia would emerge from the retelling of Andrés Escobar's story.


DG: [00:06:08] So, we pick up where we left off, after the extraordinary qualifier in Argentina. The Colombian national team travels to the United States for the 1994 World Cup. They make it to the round of 16, and then, catastrophe.


JGV: [00:06:25] So what happens is, is that the score is 0-0 and they're playing — Colombia's playing the United States at the Rose Bowl in Los Angeles, and the 32 minute, John Harkes makes a pass from the left left hand side of the field to Earnie Stewart, who is waiting almost almost on the penalty spot. But Andrés Escobar reaches the ball first. He knows that if he lets that ball pass, Earnie Stewart will most likely score. So he throws himself on the ground but he arrives just a fraction of a second too late. And so instead of blocking the ball, he pushes it towards the goal when Óscar Córdoba, the goalkeeper, is already lying down on the ground and he's unable to stop that. And so we all saw the ball really moving incredibly, insultingly slow into the Colombian goal. And this is, this is what happened.


DG: [00:07:32] And then he goes back to Colombia and a few months later he's dead.


JGV: [00:07:38] Yes. As you say Escobar had gone back to Colombia, publicly declaring that he would not stay in the United States to do some tourism, to travel around a little bit as he as his other teammates did because he wanted to face the media. He wanted to face Colombian footballers and supporters because he knew it had been his fault. His own goal had eliminated Colombia from the World Cup. So he went back to Colombia and he was just quietly sitting at this at this bar in the night in Medellín, near Medellín and some guys in the next table began insulting him. And it turned out they were betters — people who had bet a lot of money in football, a lot of money. How do you, how would you say that?


DG: [00:08:29] They gambled a lot of money on Colombia winning. And the wrong result came up.


JGV: [00:08:33] Exactly. Exactly. They were gamblers. He left, he decided not to engage in any kind of fight and when he was sitting in his car, in the parking lot, the gamblers bodyguard just took out his gun and fired six times as Escobar who was sitting there with his door closed and ready to leave the place. I remember that moment. I remember the call that reached me. I was in the United States at the time, that reached me to this hotel, and I remember thinking "A call that comes from Colombia in this time, this time of bombings, killings and drug wars, can not mean anything good." And it was my mother that was telling me that Andrés Escobar had been shot and killed.


DG: [00:09:26] Extraordinary. How did that leave you with that moment?


JGV: [00:09:30] Well it was, it was really very difficult. I grew up in Colombia during these drug wars. I was, I was 11 when Pablo Escobar started murdering ministers and congressmen and judges and presidential candidates. So this was a part of my life growing up. But this, the murder of a football player that I admired, that I looked up to because I had, I had grown up playing in his same position. This really made me hit bottom in a way. It was, I think one of the saddest days of that time for me as I remember it.


DG: [00:10:14] Which is of course disastrous for us as human beings, but as novelists, this is an extraordinary moment. And I know that you've talked of Conrad's novels in between, in particular, as a way in which the novel can go and investigate the dark spaces, the dark soul both of individuals and of nations, and that you've even thought of tackling Escobar's murder in some fictional form. I wonder if a novel were to be written about the relationship between Colombian football, Colombian history. How do you imagine it? Where would Escobar feature? How else might one capture this extraordinary moment in Colombia's history?


JGV: [00:10:57] Well that's that's a very good question and this is the question that I'm trying to answer every day, trying to figure out how to write this novel. I think the novel is is wonderfully suited to to explore the relationship between private lives and politics and what we call history. And I think football is one of the greatest theaters of, of these relationships between our private passions and politics and the political moments in our countries. So how to come about it? This is the question that I'm trying to answer. Of course there's a parallel between drug money coming in, into Colombian football and, and being a part of it during this, this great time of success, really, in Colombian football. And what happened before, what happened in the 1940s and 1950s were also a kind of newfound wealth coming basically from coffee, fueled the Colombian championship and Colombian teams. So it seems that, that these two moments have something in common and I think a novel is a great place to explore this.


DG: [00:12:13] And this is actually something you've already you've done sort of structurally in one of your earlier novels, The Informants, where you put a story from the 1940s about the incarceration of German nationals when Colombia joins the allies in the second world war and put that up against the experience of the 1980s and its own murky politics. I wonder also is there some would there be a place. I'm interested to know if there would be a cameo in your book for some of the other key figures in that area of Colombian football. I mean my personal favorite is the extraordinary goalkeeper Réne Higuita, a man known for his unbelievably exuberant goalkeeping haircuts and goalkeeping shirts. Where does he fit into your own narrative of Colombian football?


JGV: [00:13:04] Yes, yes this is very important. Thanks for mentioning him. Higuita was a magician, really. We all remember his, his famous scorpion, in which he he blocked balls by, by jumping on his stomach and kicking the ball out with his heels in an extraordinary move and very risky move.


DG: [00:13:28] I'm pleased I wasn't his coach.


JGV: [00:13:30] Yes. Yeah, he was a producer of massive heart attacks at the time. But at the same time as we had admired him and always wanted him to to play as well as he could. We realized that he was a friend of the drug dealers and he publicly declared an allegiance to Pablo Escobar and he even visited Pablo Escobar when he was in prison at this, at this prison that he built for himself, in an extraordinary moment of magical realism in my country. He had a prison build for himself so he could turn in to the Colombian authorities. But he had a small football pitch built inside a prison and he used to invite his favorite players. Réne Higuita was part of that gang. Leonel Álvarez, another great Colombian player was part of that gang. So we had this ambivalence we had this idea that our heroes were also friends with the bad guys and that that made it difficult growing up in Colombia in those years.


DG: [00:14:38] I mean in the case of someone like Francisco Maturana who was the great coach who led Colombia to these on these World Cup adventures. It's hard in a way to get away from Pablo Escobar and his like because you know these are the people employing you as the coach of your teams or Maturana coaches Atlético Nacional, Escobar's team, to a Copa Libertadores championship which sort of set sets the scene for 1990. How did you feel and what did you make of Maturana as a coach and the kind of football he coached Colombia to play?


JGV: [00:15:12] Well I think he was,he was one of these brilliant coaches that are often misunderstood and probably for good reasons. One of them one of his famous quotes at some point I think in the during that time, during the World Cups of ‘94 and ‘98, was after losing a game, he said, "Well you know losing is winning a little bit". And I understood that, but most of the country didn't for good reason because you don't want as a football fan, you don't want a philosopher as a coach, you want somebody who wins games. But despite that kind of thing I always thought he was brilliant and he took us to brilliant places in our football history.


JGV: [00:15:58] I remember, David, I remember meeting once with Óscar Córdoba, who was the goalkeeper in the '94 World Cup, and he told me about Maturana's tears when, the day before the infamous game where Escobar scored against his own side, he got a call. Maturana got a call from the drug dealers, who said, “this is the lineup for tomorrow, if this other player that we don't like is included in the lineup, we will kill his family. We will kill your family. And we will kill you all when you come back.” So, Maturana with tears in his eyes had to tell this other player that he would not play the game the next day. And well, that's, that's I think one of the, one of the moments you have to think about as a Colombian football fan.


DG: [00:16:55] Simply extraordinary to face that kind of, that kind of pressure.


JGV: [00:16:58] Yeah.


DG: [00:16:59] I mean one of the things about Maturana is, here is a Black man in charge of the Colombia football team.


JGV: [00:17:04] Yeah.


DG: [00:17:04] And there are not a lot of Black folks in charge of anything in Colombia or in 1990 as far as I know, and I wonder as in many countries, the minority of African roots is often over-represented in the football world and I just wonder again how does this play out in Colombia or whether the national team has been a force for inclusion in that sense to remind Colombia of its own internal diversity?


JGV: [00:17:31] Yes, yes definitely, yes I think. I think this is one of the greats. One of the wonderful things about about Colombian football. It has become one of the very few places really in which racial minorities not only are represented, but are successful and respected and takes center stage in the in the public life of my country. This doesn't happen in politics, this doesn't happen in the arts, but sports in general I think, and football in particular because of its own democratic nature I think it’s one of the most democratic sports I can think of. It has become that place. Yerry Mina, the central defender right now playing for Barça is comes from very humble origins, a very, very poor family. And he's right now one of the national sources of pride. There has always been a strong relationship in Colombia between a sort of national pride, a national good feeling and the the national team. I remember sitting down to this to this politician during the 2014 World Cup and every time Colombia scored a goal he would he would turn to me and say this is 300,000 votes more for the president because the president was in the middle of an election at that time. And of course, goals made people feel good and people when they feel good they vote for whoever is in charge at that moment. So this was a very interesting reading of the Colombian psyche.


DG: [00:19:13] It strikes me as an extraordinary thing that so many Latin American nations seem to have their presidential elections coincide with the timetable of the World Cup. I mean Mexico every four years they are holding federal legislative elections or its it's the presidential election and indeed as you say in 2014, the second round of the election where the incumbent Juan Manuel Santos is standing for re-election, happens a couple of days into the tournament. Let's just stop a moment and draw a picture if we can of Colombia now in 2014 because this is you know 16 years since the previous qualification. You yourself have been out of the country and suddenly here we are back at the World Cup. And I wonder how for you had Colombia changed in that decade or so and did the football team that went to the 2014 World Cup in some sense reflect the nature of that change?


JGV: [00:20:14] Yes, the world was a different place in this sense in the 2014 World Cup when you think about the relationship between that other generation of footballers, the ones who classified to the ‘90 ‘94 and ‘98 World Cups the relationship between those teams and drug money and drug dealers you start noticing a basic difference between that generation — that I loved and admired — and the one playing right now, the generation of Hamish Rodriguez and Falcao. Yeah, the great Falcao and David Ospina who plays in England. These are kids that grew up very differently. Drug money was not a part of their landscape in the sense that it was for Valderrama and Higuita and Andrés Escobar, and they grew up... And this I might be going a little bit on the limb with this, but I think that made for a different work ethic. These new players are much more sensible, much more inclined to hard work, to learning, to be less spontaneous and more disciplined. And to build their careers in a way that they have been able to build their careers away from from the problems of Colombian politics that existed in the in the 80s and 90s. And they're very different in that way.


DG: [00:21:52] It's interesting that the players have become more sober and more focused, but from what I can see from the 2014 World Cup in Colombia the public hasn't and certainly it was reported that you know in Bogota in particular after the opening match I believe against Greece, which Colombia wins, the partying is so insane that you know, we have a number of homicides across the city and the mayor of Bogota declares that henceforth World Cup days will be World Cup match days will be dry days. You won't be able to buy liquor. I wonder, I mean is this... Is there a little bit of myth-making and exaggeration here? Or is it really that crazy during the World Cup in Colombia?


JGV: [00:22:35] Well I must say you're extraordinarily well-informed, David. Yes. That is as you say and it's not an exaggeration and this is one of my great sources of frustration as a Colombian that we have never been able to celebrates good times without killing each other. After the Colombian team beat Argentina 5-0 in 1993, there were something like 50 violent deaths in the country because we were celebrating and because apparently we cannot celebrate without heavy drinking and violence ensues. We have and this is very sad for me to say, we have a deep vein of violence in my country, which obviously explains 50 years of uninterrupted war and that that is also a part of football. Recently we had this final, final of the national championship of the Colombia league, between Millonarios and Santa Fe. And the way the authorities had to deal with that was to play two games, we had to play two games, one game in which only supporters of Millonarios were allowed to the stadium and a second game in which only supporters of the other team were allowed. That was the only way we found of you know, not creating the scenario of a catastrophe. This is sad but of course you know violence and football have always come hand in hand.


DG: [00:24:11] Yet there's also I see in contemporary Colombia another more minor narrative or story to be told that is more positive because football appears to have been a small but unquestionably a practical part of the peace process that over the last well almost decade has finally brought an end to the war on drugs and above all the struggle between the leftist guerrillas FARC and the national government. And I read that football games between FARC and local communities, football games between FARC and even ex-paramilitaries is one of the ways in which people have been trying to encourage the guerrillas out of the jungle and back into everyday life.  And I wonder whether there's any element of that in Colombia and also with the national team that for all the violence, there's also a moment of unity or euphoria or is that just. . . Is it just wishful thinking on my part?


JGV: [00:25:08] Well, since it's a huge part of Colombian life, football has always been a part of the war. We all remember for instance, the nasty sides to this. One of the most infamous massacres committed by the Colombian paramilitary was famous because what they did was cut the heads off their enemies and that the people in the village, and play a football match with them. This was all over the news. On the other hand, football has always been that moment in which we let the guard down, in a sense, and we talk to our neighbor, somebody we would never talk to, outside of a football stadium or a screen in which the Colombian national team is playing. I think of a film, a comedy, a light comedy called Golpe de estadio, in Spanish, which is untranslatable sadly, but it's a film about a match between the guerrilla and the army. Soldiers and guerrilla members playing together and then stopping the fight to watch the national team beat Argentina 5-0. The whole film turns around this, and it's a metaphor really, of what football can become for a country. This is a place where we meet each other.


DG: [00:26:39] Juan, it sounds like you don't have material here for a novel... you've got some material for a trilogy when you're ready.


JGV: [00:26:46] I agree. I agree.


DG: [00:26:49] One last question to think about. One, is that Colombia have again qualified for the World Cup and I see that they have a pretty good group this time.


JGV: [00:27:00] Yeah


DG: [00:27:00] You've got Japan and you know, and I think it's Senegal so not not inconceivable to go through and the opening game against Japan is just a couple of days before the second round in the 2018 Colombian presidential elections. I wonder, what are you predicting for this team? What are you predicting for the elections? Is there a connection?


JGV: [00:27:21] The elections are unpredictable and they will be the most contested, the most polarized, the most dramatic, I think in recent times because they will essentially become a second referendum on the peace process and the country is divided. Half of the country doesn't want the peace process as it happened, as it was signed. And the other half wants it. Wants the Colombian president to be somebody who will defend the peace process. The country will break down along those lines. And that's unpredictable. I don't know what will happen. I do know that. If nothing goes wrong, we will have Hamis Rodriguez and Falcao at the top of their game. And at the same time, you remember Falcao missed the last World Cup because of a lesion. So so this this makes me hopeful. I think we will have a great time of people very, very strong in their head, very, very mindful of of their responsibilities, but also very knowledgeable in football terms. They have learned incredible amounts of things. And in the last years playing in Europe, and if they managed to make that happen in the pitch during the World Cup, I think we're in for a great treats.


DG: [00:28:47] And do you expect the presidential candidates to be acting super fan and taking plenty of selfies with the with the team?


JGV: [00:28:57] Oh yes. Even if they don't know the first thing about football, they will do that. Definitely.


DG: [00:29:03] Juan Gabriel Vásquez, it's been an absolute pleasure to speak with you. I can't wait for your novel. What can I tell you? Crack on man and write it. The world is waiting for it and the world needs it.


JGV: [00:29:17] Thank you very much. Thank you for the support. And it has been wonderful to talk to you, David.


DG: [00:29:30] Juan Gabriel Vásquez. This week we’ve been to Bogota and Medellín, cities whose relationship with football is, to say the least, intimate and intense.


DG: [00:29:44] Next week we go from Medellín to Merseyside, to the city of Liverpool, where the relationship between politics and football is as intense an intimate as anywhere in the world. In the meantime, check out our website Subscribe to the show on Apple Podcast, Stitcher, or wherever you get your podcasts, and if you liked it write us a review on Apple Podcasts—it really helps to get the word out there to the people. Speaking of which, if you know someone who would like the show, spread the joy. Tell them!


DG: [00:30:27] This show is a production of Jetty Studios. The senior producer is Raja Shah, producer and sound designer, Meradith Hoddinott. Our editors are Casey Miner and Kanishk Tharoor. Kyana Moghadam does the social media, Graelyn Brashear does the audience development. Graphic design is by Sophie Feller, podcast operations is by Jordan Bailey. Game of Our Lives is recorded at the SoundTown Studios in Bristol, England, with engineering by Richard de Mowbray. Our music is from Bang Data. You can hear more from them at


DG: [00:31:00] Our executive producer is Julie Caine. And our general manager is Kaizar Campwala. I'm David Goldblatt and I'll see you next week.