WE AREN’T SUPPOSED TO BE HERE — that’s what the lady with the avocados had said.
“You need to leave. That man, your new friend, sells drugs from the house over there,” she warned us. “So I am told.”
Now that man sits at the flimsy card table behind us, raising a light beer to his toothless grin every time we turn his way. In the corner squats El Chengue, the portly owner of this tarp-roofed establishment, rising only to stuff his waitresses’ pesos into a woven sack around his neck. He’s our escape valve if this whole thing goes south, but from the look of indifference tattooed on his face, I’m not sure how much backup we’ll be getting.
We aren’t supposed to be in this part of town. Disillusioned by the tourist runaround of Cartagena — a city whose crumbling colonial walls once inspired the words of Gabriel García Márquez but now house commercial conquistadors with names like Hard Rock and Birkenstock — we were aiming for a bus out of the city, but yesterday our taxi made it only as far as this chaotic market. Stepping over scattered mango pits, we avoided carts of raw meat and dusty produce, flowing deeper into a sea of prying eyes.
Initially, the “drug dealer” caught our attention as an artist, the painter of two life-size soccer murals on the side of a bright facade. Our conversation quickly turned from soccer art to soccer itself, then to the next day’s monumental World Cup match, and finally to the den of El Chengue. If we wanted to watch soccer, there was no better spot in the city, he said. That was all the convincing we needed, and a day later we made our return.
We weren’t even supposed to be in Colombia. The Cup was in Brazil, and so were our friends. But while the televised celebrations would fill Copacabana Beach long into the night, 31 other nations had heartstrings tied around a leather ball, and none more tightly than Brazil’s northern neighbor. A country so marred by World Cup tragedy that an entire generation of its best players had essentially walked away from the game, Colombia and its national team are here — 20 years later — on the brink of redemption as we tear into plates of steaming asada next to El Chengue.
The tension is palpable in the beautiful costeña clearing our plates. As a delicious smoke dances around the low-hanging lights, her thick braid spins from one table to the next, stopping only to catch her team surge toward history. It’s the one time the oppressive humidity has time to catch up, and her olive skin glistens like the perspiring Coke bottles collecting on our table. Unfortunately, there is little to pause for in Colombia’s second tournament match, and the waitress noticeably quickens her rhythm to stave off the fears that have gripped this entire city.
Leather hitting twine slices the tension. Two quick Colombian goals send the streets into a cacophony of bus and air horns. After twenty more grueling minutes, the final whistle blows and our little slice of Cartagena erupts. We watch as two decades of frustration and heartbreak wash from the faces around us — those of El Chengue, the waitress, and of course, our friend, the drug dealer. Colombia has advanced to the World Cup’s knockout stages for only the second time in its tortured history.
The street party is in full force outside. Sharing a relieved smile, we dive into the river of bodies that now pulses a brilliant yellow, red, and blue.
We are exactly where we need to be.
As a delicious smoke dances around the low-hanging lights, her thick braid spins from one table to the next, stopping only to catch her team surge toward history.
Taking a step back in Colombia’s checkered soccer story, it’s important to start with this: Of all the South American soccer powerhouses, none have achieved less than La Selección (the colloquial for Colombia’s national soccer team). Leading up to the 2014 World Cup, the national team had appeared in just four World Cups, making it past the qualifying round only once. For perspective, continental rivals Uruguay and Argentina have two Cup trophies a piece, and Brazil, five. In fact, despite breeding one of the richest talent bases on Earth, Colombia’s trophy case sits empty save for a 2001 Copa America Championship (a tournament that they hosted).
But the nation’s soccer misfortune stretches far beyond the stat sheet. While several countries have been embroiled in political unrest at home, no national side has been more directly affected than Colombia. Over decades of brutal narco-warfare, the team has seen players’ houses bombed, its goalie part of a cartel ransom exchange (he was jailed and missed a World Cup as a result), and the Vice President of its Colombian Federation kidnapped by FARC guerillas (he was released after FIFA threatened to cancel the country’s 2001 Copa America).
However, it’s the sting of the Andres Escobar tragedy that nearly derailed Colombian soccer forever. After Escobar, a central defender and team captain, scored an own goal that contributed to Colombia’s disappointing first round exit from the 1994 World Cup (a tournament they were projected to win by soccer legend Pelé), he was confronted outside a Medellín nightclub, shot, and killed. What may or may not have been an isolated incident was reported around the world as a revenge murder for Escobar’s World Cup slip-up, sending the harrowing message that even soccer stars weren’t exempt in the most violent country in the world.
For a team that relied on Escobar on and off the field, his murder was the final straw. Several players quit the national team, others left the game forever — the end of Colombian soccer’s Golden Era delivered from an anonymous shot in the night.
Yet, despite this rash of tragedy, Colombia is still one of the most soccer-crazed places on the planet — just ask the thousands of Naciónal fans that paint Medellín Medellín’s El Estadio Atanasio Girardot green every weekend. So, how on Earth can a nation be this infatuated with a game that has treated them so cruelly?
It’s this lingering question that brings my friend Joe and me to the Southern Hemisphere. For the first time in 16 years, Colombia’s national team is back in the World Cup, returning with a generation that grew up idolizing Escobar and the stars of 1994. This second wave of soccer talent stormed through World Cup qualification and offers a rare second chance to retake what it lost two decades ago on the world’s largest stage. Were there ever a time to be excited for soccer in Colombia, this is it, and it’s hard not to feel like we have our fingers on the pulse of history.
If there is optimism in this place, it is under steel padlock and key. Our cab drivers are our gauge of public sentiment, and it’s as if they have become accustomed to the letdowns, professing their loyalties to Brazil, to Germany, even to rival Argentina as a counterintuitive coping mechanism against a home team meltdown.
However, a statue in the small coastal town of Santa Marta hints at a different story. Standing 22-feet tall, the bronze buff of a dribbling soccer player dominates the courtyard outside of Estadio Eduardo Santos, its large golden afro an adage to its muse and Santa Marta’s prodigal soccer son, Carlos Valderrama. Referred to by countrymen as El Pibe or “The Kid,” Valderrama rose from the dusty streets of Pescaíto, Santa Marta’s roughest neighborhood, to become Colombia’s most prolific soccer star. In addition to playing in three World Cups throughout the 1990s, he has the most caps (national team appearances) in his country’s history, and is considered one of the most influential midfielders to ever come out of South America.
Along the way, he has been adopted by every man, woman, and child in Santa Marta, an international success still rooted in this small Caribbean community (both of El Pibe’s parents still live in town). Above Cancha La Castellana, the field where he first carved his name in the sand, a sign reads Aqui Nacen las Estrellas, Stars are Born Here. Hundreds of kids run up and down that soccer pitch every weekend, hoping to become that next estrella to make it out, the next to follow the steps of El Pibe.
If there is any question how deep the admiration of soccer royalty runs, the field’s caretaker, William, removes any doubt. When we mention the golden afro-ed one, the old man’s eyes light up, and he proudly directs us to a massive backroom office shrine of El Pibe photos, running his hand through the all-too-familiar blonde tint of his tightly curled gray hair. The wall is plastered with El Pibe and music idols, politicians, and other people’s babies. In Colombia, life, breath, and blood are dedicated to the soccer religion, its stars plastered on walls between Jesus and the Virgin of Chiquinquirá.
In Medellín, the whirlwind strikes before we can find a seat. In its first World Cup match this millennium, La Selección stings Greece early and never looks back. They run on a different frequency, dancing around lazy challenges and zipping down the touch line. The crescendo is capped by a James Rodriguez injury time strike, and our world becomes a blur of cheap beer, chanting, and embracing. La Selección is on the move, and despite a government-ordered curfew of 6 p.m. for the next morning’s presidential elections, the festivities march late into the Andean night.
Sharing a relieved smile, we dive into the river of bodies that now pulses a brilliant yellow, red, and blue.
A day after celebrating Colombia’s first World Cup win in over a decade, it’s hard to believe the patch of dirt we’re standing on has any connection to drugs, corruption, and murder. But, here we are, kicking rocks on a community soccer field built by Pablo Escobar — the most infamous drug baron in the world. Situated in Medellín’s Belen de las Palmas neighborhood, it’s one of a handful built by Don Pablo — a rare inside glimpse at a man that considered his passion for the game a close second to his passion for business.
Like any other Colombian schoolboy, Escobar dreamed of playing for Medellín’s famous club Atletico Naciónal, but by the mid-1980s he was bankrolling them, laundering drug money while establishing one of the strongest eras of soccer in Colombian history.
That success was short-lived, and after waging a drug war of bombs, bullets, and motorcycle assassin parrilleros on his city, fate caught up with the drug lord in 1993 on a Medellín rooftop. The Golden Era of Colombian soccer crumbled shortly after, the violent chaos that ensued nearly swallowing the entirety of this lush Andean valley.
As the dusts of violence past have slowly begun to settle, fields like the one in Belen remain, cleat-marked reminders that tradition has the power to outlast tragedy.
In fact, the fields donated by Colombia’s most notorious and ruthless killer have given the youth of this city a chance to excel, a chance that has grown current national teamers like David Ospina, Freddy Guarin, and James Rodriguez. All three grew up in Envigado, the same hillside suburb from where Escobar directed his bloody empire. And all three, like the rest of Colombia, are actively rewriting the history of this place.
From the relics of La Catedral, Escobar’s infamous mountaintop prison, it’s hard to imagine the terror that nearly destroyed the City of Eternal Spring. Now a monastery and old folk’s home, the compound has replaced barbed wire with plastic lawn flamingoes and sprawling gardens. In the city below, a revolutionary light rail and cable car public transport system have helped quell the rash of motorized violence, dropping the former murder capital of the world’s homicide rate by nearly two-thirds over a ten year period. Combined with revamped schools, an entrepreneurial influx, and the returning trickle of cartel-exiled Colombians, Medellín is once again earning praise on the international stage.
Inherently interwoven, Colombia’s soccer has followed that trajectory of rebirth, and this World Cup has been their coming out party. Springing from the rubble of historical disappointment, national pride wells from our once guarded cabbie friends. No more Brazil, Germany, and Argentina, our drivers assure us that Colombia is going to win the next game, in fact, they’re going to win the whole damn cup, and win it 5-0.
A new soccer generation has brought Colombia to its feet, and in between pulls of Aguardiente (the country’s popular anise-flavored liquor) and fistfuls of celebratory flour, they haven’t stopped dancing since. Streets are lined with vendors selling everything from team stickers to bikinis with players’ faces on them, as Lucho Bermudez’s salsa hit, “Colombia Tierra Querida”, La Selección’s unofficial anthem, crackles from doorway radios. An entire nation clad in yellow, red, and blue, celebrates as a cast of 23 introduces the world to the new Colombia, their Colombia, 90 minutes at a time.
When Colombia squares off against Uruguay in the knockout stages, we pack Medellin’s Parque Lleras by the thousands. A win would cement the deepest World Cup run in La Selección’s history and the electricity of possibility buzzes through the concrete square. A cracking volley by Colombia’s newest wunderkind, James, fittingly dubbed El Nuevo Pibe” starts the celebration early, and we drown under waves of spray foam and Aguila Light.
After the final whistle, I escape the street madness to find Joe in a corner bar named Niagra 5 Puertas. A hidden nook blocks from the park, it was one of the final places Andres Escobar visited with his friends the night of his murder, a fact memorialized by a yellowed El Tiempo clipping on the back wall. Almost 20 years to the day of that tragic July night, it’s fitting that the bar celebrates the happiest soccer moment in its history, and an end to the horrible curse hanging over this place.
Still, we can’t get over the newspaper on the wall. When Joe asks the owner’s son why they keep such a sad memory alive in this place, he doesn’t protest, he shrugs. “Because it’s history.” There is no pride in his voice, just the acceptance of a man that doesn’t run away from a tragic past — it’s the past that got him here. Mourn. Learn. Grow. It’s a cycle that this generation of Colombians has come to thrive on. As we pay our sudsy respects to the former team captain, we envision the yellowed clip joined by a new headline the following morning. Historia.
He emerges from the swarm to a disapproving referee and a red card, but it doesn’t matter — tonight he is the most popular man in the city.
Three weeks on this South American soccer trail, we finally make it into a stadium on our last night in Medellín. One day after the monumental Uruguay victory, we’re not expecting much from an early season Independiente Medellín match, but as we roll up to the stadium, a spiderweb of lines spins hundreds of feet in every direction, chants echoing from inside the football palace 30 minutes before kickoff. By the time we find our seats, the supporters’ section occupies a quarter of the stadium, singing and jumping from warm-ups until the final whistle. Streamers of red and white (Independiente’s colors) fly toward the field and a group of buxom cheerleaders in cheek-peeking skirts rev up an already lively crowd.
Independiente’s forward pokes in an injury time game-winner, sending the home crowd into hysterics. The goal scorer jumps the metal barricade behind the goal and disappears into the collective embrace of red and white, smoke and drums. He emerges from the swarm to a disapproving referee and a red card, but it doesn’t matter — tonight he is the most popular man in the city.
Every nation loves its soccer stars, but in a country known for its corruption, violence, and villains, Colombia clings to its heroes. We saw it that night in El Estadio Anastasio Girardot, and for the weeks previous, as a nation exhalted a new cast of heroes on the world’s highest stage. Immortalized were names like James Rodriguez, David Ospina, and Faryd Mondragon—the oldest player to ever play in a World Cup at age 43. Mondragon was part of the infamous squad that crashed out of the 1994 Cup and is the last physical link to La Selección’s first Golden Era, his few field minutes serving poetic turn to history’s tortured page.
While Brazil ended La Selección’s dream run a few days later, the legend of Colombia’s 2014 World Cup run lives on through a new generation with a promising future. La Selección is part of that better tomorrow, the second Golden Era of Colombian soccer, and a symbol of the strides made in this country over the last decade. The 2014 team struck a high note in the ever-complicated Colombian symphony, and as we stand with scores of yellow jerseys at the Jose Maria Cordova boarding gate, it’s hard not to wonder where the next statue will be built.
See Kade’s trip in a heart-quickening snapshot here: