THERE’S a piece of graffiti on a wall in Medellin that reads: ‘Tie me to the neon. Feed me to the cage.’ It’s daubed in six-foot neon letters that seem to shimmer in the twilight like they’re coming to life. When the sun comes down and the moon shivers, the devils children stand beneath it. The Pans people of the sex and drug trade, swaying in the hot air like advertisements for a listless world or stranded angels looking like they’re about to be swept up by a chemical hurricane.
That the main ingredient of that hurricane is Cocaine is no secret of course. It’s 1994 and the great narcotic iconoclast in Pablo Escobar may recently have been executed by the Search Bloc task force on a Medellin rooftop but here white line fever still reigns. The Cartels have simply reorganised and restructured. That’s their way. Cruel eyed, ambitious pistoleros who are the real vanguards of Colombia. Everyone else is simply overlooked. The gap between the affluent and the poor is obscenely wide here. If you’re not in the clique or on the shop floor, it’s a hard knock life on the streets of the city.
For those at the bottom end, there are two things to hold on to. The faith in Jesus and the faith in football. Prior to the USA World Cup, Colombia have somehow become the whip hands of South American soccer -matching for once the domination of Brazil and Argentina in a 25 game unbeaten run that even has Pele tipping them to lift the trophy. It means that as the first group game comes around with Romania in the States, the streets of Medellin are awash with a sea of yellow. Banners that portray the images of Colombia’s golden football generation. Players like Carlos Valderrama and Faustino Asprilla, who not only carry the hopes of the city but the whole nation on their shoulders.
Even the Cartels are in on the wave of patriotism, although it has to be said their involvement is more nefarious than simple sporting patriotism. It’s said that huge amounts of cash and even whole Cocaine shipments are being staked, with the lion’s share being held back for their grudge game with the USA in the group stages. Not a grudge in a football sense, but in the recent history of the drugs trade. The Cartels hate the mere mention of the Americans for obvious reasons but they sense karma. A powerhouse like Colombia can’t lose to a bunch of clean-cut athletes. They even have the omens on their side. A player called Escobar in the first team for God’s sake. Nothing could go wrong with that symbolism could it?
By the time the dust settles on Colombia’s first group game a few weeks later, Medellin feels eerily silent. A 3-1 defeat to Romania means there are no horns blaring in the hot night, there are no drunk teenagers running past the bars with firecrackers that lay damp and unused in the gutters, thrown there by fans to mark their frustration and disappointment at the unexpected result.
There are worried faces in the Cartels as well. Two things run like an iron testament amongst these capitalist manos: Bravado and never losing face. Privately, there’s the money already staked on the upcoming USA game, wagers they have no way of backing out of. They can’t really brush off that sort of loss either. These are savage times in the Medellin underworld. The worldwide notoriety of Pablo Escobar has meant that their narcotics trade is no private war anymore. There is a level of interference not felt in years. The American and Colombia governments have scored a huge victory in the death of Pablo and aren’t about to let things slip again. Profits aren’t seen as narcissistic badge wearing anymore. It’s life or death. Their lifeblood and they just so happen to have bet most of it on a football match that suddenly doesn’t look such a sure thing anymore.
There are another set of Colombian artisans feeling the pressure in a different part of the world. Namely the national side, who deep down have known all along that there’s a sense of the Emperors new clothes about them. That 5-0 defeat of Argentina has hung like an albatross around their neck ever since. Valderrama knows it and so does Asprilla too, not that the two men ever talk to each other long enough to take notes. There is division within the Colombia camp that hasn’t been helped by a set of lacklustre results leading up to the tournament. It seems no one has noticed back home that their three warm up games prior to the World Cup have not given them a single victory. Only the Colombian manager Francisco Mutarana gives hint of what’s to come. His pre-world Cup statement that his nation want to ‘leave a footprint’ on the tournament is hardly the rhetoric of a man who thinks his country has a great chance of winning. His words seem almost apologetic in fact, more like fish whispers in the dark to what is about to unfold.
Over ninety terrible minutes in Pasadena, the Colombian team duly self-destructs. Listless, devoid of creativity or spirit they are no match for the superior fitness and tactics of their opponents, simply rolling over and exiting a tournament with the softest of yelps as a protest. That protest comes as a consolation goal in the 90tn minute. The opposition are already 2-0 up by then, one of which to make matters worse is an own goal by Colombian defender Andres Escobar. It’s the ultimate insult to both the country and the player himself.
As the final whistle blows, back home the whole of Medellin goes into mourning. Like other countries before them, the hyperbole hasn’t quite lived up to the cold hard reality and cut throat of the tournament. There is anger of course, but like all football supporters their fury will dissipate like a summer wind. By the morning they will have taken their colours and banners down and returned to the humdrum of their daily lives and ticking of a clock that only breeds optimism towards the end of the working day.
For others however, there is a fuse being lit at the situation. Men in expensive shirts with holsters that sway like an omen. Over ninety sour minutes they have paced like prisoners on death row and cursed like fishwives at what they have been watching. Their profits evaporating. Their phones ringing off the hook in the background. Their reputations diminishing at the final whistle. Only to be replaced by the need for cold, hard revenge in the Medellin shadow.
On the plane home the Colombian players are naturally quiet. Even Asprilla, the team’s joker stares out of the window not saying much. It’s the calm before the storm and everyone knows it. The repercussions for any team going out in the group stage always have a seismic effect in the homeland. Even more when part of that homeland believes you’re bringing the trophy home.
For Andres Escobar it seems worse somehow. That own goal plays out in Technicolor in his head. It will haunt him all the way home on the plane. It will make him slightly paranoid too. Every time a teammate or even a stewardess looks at him – he will think he see’s a look of sympathy staring back. For a proud man like Escobar, such an emotion is reserved only for lonely fools.
He’ll feel it a couple of days later too. Staring sporadically out of his apartment window, he’ll drive himself mad in the isolation of his four walls, until finally he’ll be able to take no more. A proud footballer like Escobar doesn’t want to hide away anyway. He’s already issued a statement calling for understanding in the wake of Colombia’s exit from the tournament. He figures anything else he can front out on the streets of Medellin. By the time he’s made his mind up to end his isolation and hits a disco in the centre of town he even relaxes a little. He isn’t a big drinker but alcohol soothes him. As he approaches the door of the club in downtown Medellin however, it seems to have had the opposite effect on a group of individuals loitering at the entrance. They began to harangue and hassle him. Words are exchanged between themselves and the footballer. These are no ordinary partygoers however. The two individuals at the front of the group are the Henao brothers, notorious drug barons and rumoured to be connected to a huge gambling syndicate in Colombia. What occurs next is both shocking and depressingly inevitable. Six shots are fired, all into the back of the stricken footballer. In seconds, the Henao Brothers have exacted a murderous and unnecessary revenge, which will destroy a community and Colombian football for two decades after.
Some weeks later a Colombian minister says a prayer for the fallen footballer. He leaves his church and walks the short distance to his home, passing a neighbourhood whose spirit has always troubled him. As he glances up at a street corner, which is usually populated by dealers and streetwalkers, he notices that it is strangely empty. He also notices that a piece of graffiti whose message has always seemed nefarious to him has now been whitewashed over and replaced by a purer message: ‘God Bless Andres,’ it simply says. He has to admit, it moves him greatly.