siempre verde

words: peter macia

photography: paul smith & david cannon /allsport

[Ed. Atletico Nacional were to host Chapecoense of Brazil in the first leg of the 2016 Copa Sudamericana final on November 30, 2016. On its way to Medellin for the first leg, Chapecoense’s charter flight crashed after running out of fuel. Nineteen of Chapecoense’s first team players, members of its coaching and support staff, 23 journalists, and most of the flight crew perished in the crash. Atletico Nacional has since requested that the title be awarded to Chapecoense, and its fans filled the stadium in Medellin to pay tribute. Though the two clubs are now inextricably united by tragedy, Nacional and its supporters can offer the promise of hope and healing. To find out how to support Chapecoense, email forcachape@chapecoense.com or become a member of the club. The following story appears in Victory Journal #12.]

 

When I die, I want my coffin

To be painted green and white like my heart

When I die, don’t cry for me

Because I was born green, and green is happiness

The crowd jumps, the heart beats

Come on, Verdolagas, I want to be champion

Come on, El Verde, I will always be there for you

Because not even death will separate us.

 

When they sing at Medellín’s Estadio Atanasio Girardot, they sing of love eternal. The stands smolder with flares and flicker with the flashes of 50,000 souls as the barra brava lead supporters through the ballads: “Cradle to the Grave,” “The Immortal Side,” “When I Die.” As with many great romances, there is an air of tragedy in their melodies, but these are joyous times for Atlético Nacional. Though they have overcome great odds to get to this home end of the 2016 Copa Libertadores final, they have overcome even greater odds just to get to 2016 at all.

In March 1988, TIME magazine dubbed Medellín “the most dangerous city,” without qualification. The most dangerous city in the Americas, on Earth, in history: it was the epicenter of our violence. In less than two decades, the cocaine trade had become a multibillion-dollar, multinational business, headquartered in Colombia. Its machinations had upended society, and in the process made the leaders of its grand cartels de facto lords and legislators. As the cartels’ power and wealth spread through the population, so spread their espousal of tactical violence to quotidian life. From 1988 to 1994, homicide became the most likely cause of death for urban Colombians, but especially for men between the ages of 20 and 29. At its peak in 1991, the homicide rate for these young men was a staggering 1,709 per 100,000. (For comparison, according to the most recent UN data, Honduras holds the highest homicide rate in the world, at 84.6.) These murders  usually occurred in public, on weekends, and as the result of petty arguments. The victims were usually intoxicated and the perpetrators seldom identified, never mind brought to justice. Statistically, murders were as common as the pigeons on Plazuela San Ignacio.

Football should have been a refuge for Medellinenses during these troubled times, but instead it became a frontline in the drug war. Cartels soon realized their local grounds were fertile for image and money laundering and began funneling profits into the game. The Medellín cartel’s Pablo Escobar first built pitches in deprived neighborhoods, then, according to reliable sources, became the chief financier of Atlético Nacional sometime in the mid-’80s. In a nationalistic move that echoed his politics, Escobar made it club policy that the squad be built exclusively from Colombian players. In 1988, Nacional finished second on goal differential to Bogotá’s Millonarios, itself allegedly financed by Escobar associate Gonzalo Rodriguez Gacha (aka El Mexicano), ending a seven-year dominance by América de Cali, which was backed by the Cali cartel’s Rodriguez Orejuela brothers.

Nacional and Millonarios qualified for the 1989 Copa Libertadores on the back of their domestic success, and Escobar’s and Gacha’s teams met in both the group stage and quarterfinal that May. Nacional advanced and ultimately beat Paraguayan powerhouse Olimpia for their first continental title and the first Libertadores trophy won by any Colombian club. Success only seemed to validate the cartels’ investments—triumph, the great conscience cleaner.

A quarter of the way through the following domestic season, four men stepped to league referee Alvaro Ortega outside a Medellín hotel and gunned him down with 18 shots. The assassins were said to be Medellín cartel members, angered by Ortega’s calls in a match on which they had lost a $750,000 wager. In response to the brazen assassination, Colombia’s Minister of Education banned all Primera A clubs from municipal stadiums, and the football association voted to cancel the remainder of the season. The gravity intensified when, just weeks later, Gacha was killed during a police raid of his compound, and Millonarios were suddenly without a benefactor.

Despite this existential threat to its chief financiers, Colombian football’s rise continued. Nacional finished the 1990 season in second behind América and lent its core players and coach, Francisco Maturana, to that year’s World Cup squad. The result was a symbiosis equally beautiful and stupendous. Both Nacional and Colombia played like marauding pirates, a high back line frequently swung through by a swashbuckling madman eager to join his ravenous attackers. René Higuita, aka El Loco, nominally played in goal but was just as often found dribbling through the opposition 70 yards away from it, banged perm flapping behind him—the surrealist’s prototype of the modern sweeper keeper. Higuita’s doppelganger, Leonel Alvarez, patrolled the midfield, destroying opponents and crafting chances for his teammates. Linking these two and leading the back four was a calm and composed technician named Andrés Escobar. This trio formed the spine that made Nacional dominant and Colombia a dark-horse favorite going into Italia ’90.

In hindsight though, they never had a chance. Colombia’s footballing bravado was as shortsighted as that of the cartels. In Italy, they backed into the knockout stages despite finishing third in Group D. In the round of 16, they held out for 106 minutes before Cameroon’s 38-year-old Roger Milla scored the opener. Three minutes later, Higuita found himself 40 yards out of goal, receiving a too-slow backpass from Nacional teammate Luis Perea. Under pressure from Milla, Higuita attempted to drag the ball behind his standing leg (typically loco). Milla nicked it and raced toward the open net. Higuita gave desperate chase, but Milla slotted home the deciding goal. Colombia

was on the next plane home. Years later, Milla revealed that it had been his unwitting Colombian teammate at Montpellier HSC in France who had tipped him off. “Through [Carlos] Valderrama I’d seen videos of Higuita dribbling the ball out of his area. I knew if I was quick enough I might be able to take advantage of a mistake. It worked.”

Between Italia ’90 and USA ’94, as the government closed in on Pablo Escobar and the Medellín cartel, Nacional and América de Cali exchanged the title three times. Meanwhile, the national team went on a run of 23 games unbeaten with a squad chock-full of the cartel clubs’ players, and was preparing for its final World Cup qualification matches in mid-1993 when Higuita was arrested after helping negotiate the release of the kidnapped 11-year-old daughter of a cartel money launderer. While Higuita sat in his cell without bond or charge, Colombia qualified, and Maturana excluded him from the World Cup squad. “If I was ever needed again to help free someone, I’d do it without hesitating,” Higuita later said. “I’m a footballer, I didn’t know anything about kidnapping laws.” On December 2, 1993, Pablo Escobar was killed in a firefight with Colombian police, and the relative order he had maintained through intimidation and brute force crumbled.

Without Higuita, and with their country in turmoil, Colombia arrived at the USA World Cup in June 1994 tactically and mentally unprepared. After losing their opener to Romania and receiving death threats from cartel bettors, the Colombians looked shell-shocked as they took the field against the hosts. When USA’s John Harkes struck that venomous cross from the left wing in the 35th minute, as Earnie Stewart broke between Colombia’s center backs, Andrés Escobar had no choice but to make a play on the ball. Higuita’s replacement, Oscar Córdoba, was frozen on his line. The ball ricocheted off Escobar’s shin and into the back of the net. The Colombians could not recover. A week later, they were home earlier than planned, as they had been in 1990. Two weeks later, Andrés Escobar was dead, slain on a Saturday, in the parking lot of a popular Medellín nightclub after a drunken, petty argument with cartel thugs emboldened by the power void. Andrés Escobar was 27 years old. 

René Higuita and Andrés Escobar had been the perfect odd couple on the pitch, the latter’s cultured discipline enabling the former’s maniacal yet effective rampages. Off the field, they were less attuned. Escobar was a quiet, religious family man, while Higuita had made no bones of his troubled past. “The best moments of my life are the ones I spent in jail,” he told Sports Illustrated at the time. “I learned true friendship. 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.”

While Andrés Escobar’s death may have hurt Nacional’s heart, Pablo Escobar’s death likely saved Nacional’s soul. As other clubs’ nefarious affiliations put them under a trans-American financial embargo (known in Colombia as the Clinton List) for years to come, Colombian soft-drink tycoon Carlos Ardila Lülle was able to purchase Nacional outright soon after Pablo Escobar was killed. It was the first time a club had not been owned by a group of public shareholders. Millonarios eventually followed suit and is now controlled by the head of a private equity group, while América de Cali is overseen by a snack baron. These private, legal investments buoyed a nearly bankrupt league and mirrored the sustained and vigilant social reforms by the people and their government.

The Primera A is now financially stable for the first time since the Medellín and Cali cartels ran rampant. Nacional are once again among its dominant powers, and half the current national squad, ranked number four in the world by FIFA, have played for the club at some stage. Just prior to their quarterfinal appearance at the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, their best-ever finish, Maturana was asked if the team and nation could finally move on from the tragic loss of Andrés Escobar. “It was a difficult time in Colombia as a country,” he said. “Andrés had the misfortune to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. It was not a premeditated thing because we did this, that, or did not win. No. At that moment in our country, anyone could have died.”

As the current Nacional squad warm up before their first Copa Libertadores final in 21 years, the heroes of the 1989 squad are honored on the pitch. Higuita is there, wearing a Nacional shirt and a broad smile, as are Perea and Maturana. Nacional plays brilliantly as the stands sing the ballads. When the final whistle blows, and the scoreboard reads Atlético Nacional 1, Independiente del Valle 0, Marlos Moreno, a slight teenage striker, raises his arms to the heavens, more relieved than triumphant. Moreno has been brilliant in Nacional’s Copa run and will soon join Pep Guardiola at Manchester City. He is the light of Colombia’s next golden generation, a promising sign of long-term stability and strength. He was born two years after Pablo and Andrés were killed, after the World Cup disappointments, and after the time of murder as a way of life. He is a Medellinense, a Verdolaga since he was born, green and white until he dies.