Pablo Escobar – Since Atlético Nacional was born in 1947, the club has managed to become the most successful team in Colombia. After being the first coffee team to win the Copa Libertadores in 1989, twenty seven years later they have managed to repeat the maximum continental title. Thanks to their victory against Independiente del Valle, Atlético Nacional won their second Copa Libertadores last July. This title gives him the right to play in the next Club World Cup, which will be held in December in Japan, where he will face Real Madrid, among others.
However, despite having two Copa Libertadores in their windows since July 28, the reality is that the first, the one from 1989, is not without controversy. At that time, soccer – like almost everything in Colombia – was infested by the country’s big drug dealers. When it comes to drug trafficking, one name comes to everyone’s mind: Pablo Emilio Escobar Gaviria. ‘El Patron’ took over Atlético Nacional at the end of the 1980s with the purpose of making it the pride of Medellín. Football lover like Pablo, he would try to take his club to the top at any price.
So, he ended up getting it. Under his tutelage, a team led by Francisco Maturana and with players like René Higuita on the field, managed to win the Copa Libertadores by beating Paraguayan Olimpia. The ‘purslane’ club thus became the first Colombian team to win the title. Said victory allowed them to meet in the Intercontinental Cup against the almighty Milan of Arrigo Sachi. That match fell on the side of the Italians, although it was not until minute 119 when a goal by Alberigo Evani tipped the balance. Atlético Nacional was already in the elite of world football, and Pablo was rubbing his hands.
Pablo Escobar’s reign of terror
The power and influence that Pablo Escobar had at that time is well known. His reign of terror spread throughout Colombia and soccer, of course, was no exception. The drug trafficker managed two clubs throughout his life: Club Deportivo Medellín and Atlético Nacional, both involved in numerous controversies during those years. One of them, how could it be otherwise, was in relation to the achievement of that Copa Libertadores.
Jhon Jairo Velásquez Vásquez, better known as ‘Popeye’, was one of the hitmen who accompanied Pablo Escobar during his life. He has denied that that title was bought by the drug trafficker, although he has confirmed the threats and extortion suffered by some sectors of football, such as the referees. One of them was even killed.
This is Álvaro Ortega. In a match between América de Cali and Club Deportivo Medellín, the referee’s work did not leave Pablo Escobar satisfied. ‘Popeye’ has referred to that event in the following terms: «That day I was next to ‘El patron’ and América de Cali beat Medellín with the referee’s hand. Pablo was very offended and ordered ‘Chopo’ to look for referee Álvaro Ortega to kill him.” The referee, father of two girls, was murdered at the age of 32 on October 26, 1989 after receiving ten shots.
Previously, Pablo Escobar had already attacked the referees’ union. A year before the murder of Álvaro Ortega, the drug trafficker ordered the kidnapping of Armando Pérez. That crime was committed with the aim of sending a clear message to the referees: he would make anyone who did not whistle the matches to his liking disappear.
Another incident with the referees was the one involving Juan Bava. In 1989, in the semifinals of the Copa Libertadores, the referee team for the match between Atlético Nacional and Danubio from Uruguay was threatened the night before the match. A group of men from the Medellin Cartel entered the hotel room where they were breaking down the door. They went with machine guns and offered them money – which they did not accept – for the victory of the Colombian team. They were threatened with the murder of their relatives and their person if the result was not what they wanted. The match ended 6-0 for Atlético Nacional and Juan Bava assured some time later that they did not favor the Colombian team, although they were grateful for Nacional’s victory.
Once in the final, the outcome is well known. Atlético Nacional beat Olimpia after equalizing 2-0 in the first leg. The match went to penalties and many say that the fear of the Paraguayan team players was such that they did not dare to win the game for fear of being killed. Olimpia missed four decisive penalties in a row, until Leonel Álvarez scored from eleven meters and gave the victory to the Colombians.
Twenty-seven years after the first Libertadores Cup of Atlético Nacional and those unfortunate events, the Colombian team will again face the champions of other continents, this time without the shadow of ‘El Patron’ behind. And it is that although it has not been possible to confirm that Pablo Escobar bought that 1989 Copa Libertadores, the climate of fear that the drug trafficker established does not seem to go unnoticed by people in the world of soccer, whether they were referees or rival players.