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Shadow Of Shame
S.L. Price
May 23, 1994
THE SPECTER OF VIOLENT DRUG CARTELS HANGS OVER THE SPLENDID COLOMBIAN NATIONAL SOCCER TEAM
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May 23, 1994

Shadow Of Shame

THE SPECTER OF VIOLENT DRUG CARTELS HANGS OVER THE SPLENDID COLOMBIAN NATIONAL SOCCER TEAM

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It might be the last reprieve he gets. In 1990 el loco, as he is known, made one of the most foolhardy moves in World Cup history: On one of his mad forays from the goal to take a back pass, he was humiliated when Cameroon's 38-year-old Roger Milla plucked the ball away and scored to knock Colombia out of the tournament. Now, out on bond and back playing with Nacional while he waits for his trial, Higuita knows his hope for redemption is slipping away. "I'm just a survivor of the war our country lived," he says. "But I paid the consequences."

Five feet behind Francisco Maturana, a thin black man stands, bored, a sawed-off shotgun on his hip. Maturana, the coach of Colombia's national team and América, doesn't notice. Why should he? The guards are here every day, squintily scanning América's practice field in Cali as Maturana continues his small crusade to heal his country. Guns, threats, suspicion—it is all like old furniture. Maturana has other concerns.

"Colombia needed this," he says of the national team's recent success. Maturana smiles. His teeth are perfect. This is no shock; before he took over the team in 1987 and began its string of international triumphs, Maturana was a dentist. There are times, even now, when he will be attracted to a woman and then find himself growing cold after sighting the smallest flaw in her smile. And he still knows the power of a good anesthetic. "This country has suffered a lot," he says. "Soccer helps relieve the pain."

Colombia is one of the hemisphere's most stable democracies, with a robust economy, rich natural resources and an intellectual tradition that includes the works of Nobel Prize-winning novelist Gabriel García Márquez and acclaimed painter and sculptor Fernando Botero. But for years Colombia has been known mostly for blood. Since 1989 tens of thousands of Colombians have died in the government's successful campaign to destroy the Medellín cartel. The casualties include 1,000 police officers, dozens of journalists, more than 200 judges and, five years ago, three of the country's six presidential candidates. Yet, even with the end of Escobar, Colombia remains riven by leftist guerrillas, a Cali cartel that has taken over nearly all of the Medellín mafia's business, and numbingly violent petty criminals. Colombia's murder rate is eight times that of the U.S.

Nevertheless, in what Maturana calls "the shadow of shame," Colombian soccer has thrived. In 1990 the national team made its second appearance in the World Cup and, before Higuita's gaffe against Cameroon, tied the eventual champion, Germany. The Colombian attack, flowing through two-time South American Player of the Year Carlos Valderrama, the midfielder with the blond Bozo hairdo, combines creativity, discipline and—best of all, considering the boring strategies widely used in Cup games four years ago—daring. With stars such as Córdoba (who carries on Higuita's goalie-sweeper legacy), the spectacular Asprilla (who celebrates each goal with a cartwheel), high-scoring midfielder Freddy Rincón and forward Adolfo (the Train) Valencia, Colombia has one of the most compelling teams in the game. "Before, you'd see people in the stadium lighting a candle and praying that Colombia would lose only 1-0," Maturana says. "Now it doesn't matter if we win, because they enjoy the show. Now they go not to suffer but to enjoy."

Sometimes they do both. After Colombia beat Argentina in September, about 20 people died around the country during the ensuing all-night celebration. The day before Colombia played Bolivia in the Colombian city of Villavicencio in April, a bunch of kids tried to climb into the stadium to see the home team practice; the wall they were scaling collapsed, and one boy was killed while several others were injured.

There is, simply, no other game of importance in Colombia. Every green space, no matter how small, attracts enough males—from six to 60 years old—to form teams and kick whatever excuse for a ball they can find. Asked if he ever played, President Gaviria, 47, tugs up his pants legs to reveal long surgical scars on both knees. "So you have no doubts that I play," he says.

This produces the expected laughter from a visitor, but it doesn't last. Few conversations in Colombia go long without turning to drugs. From Gaviria on down, Colombians echo Luis Carlos Perea, a defender on the national team, who says, "We're trying to show through soccer that Colombia is not just coca, violence, terrorism and death."

Yet those four horsemen of the drug trade have been with soccer for more than two decades. When some professional clubs experienced a financial crisis in the 1970s and early '80s, the traffickers' bottomless cash well was tapped to pay off debts, lift salaries and bankroll pricey foreign talent. "They were the ones who rationalized the financial situation," reads a 1988 report by the Colombian Superintendency of Exchange Controls. "They made it possible to contract various foreign players that Millonarios could never otherwise have obtained."

But with that came complications. In November 1992 a stockholder in both the Independiente and Envigado clubs was kidnapped from his home in Medellín; he hasn't been seen since. In June of that year the vice president of Millonarios was shot dead at a restaurant.

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