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The Globe and Mail

Decades after Andres Escobar killing, Colombian soccer finally recovers

On July 2, a week after his own goal had cost Colombia a chance to advance into the knockout rounds of the 1994 World Cup, a group of men approached team captain Andres Escobar outside a Medellin nightclub.

An argument that had started inside now escalated. Someone pulled a gun and began shooting. They pumped six bullets into him.

According to his fiancée, after each shot, one of the assailants yelled, "Gooooaaalll."

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It's never been clear if Escobar was killed on impulse or assassinated. The only man convicted of the crime – the bodyguard for a pair of local drug dealers – repeatedly changed his story.

Escobar's murder was a tipping point. It destroyed Colombian soccer. Twenty years on, it's only begun to recover here in Brazil.

There is no greater or more clichéd way to express the elemental link between fans and their teams than to tie them together in death.

After Uruguay beat Brazil in the 1950 World Cup final at the Maracana, contemporary reports had local supporters jumping to their deaths inside the stadium. There is no record of their names.

Nevertheless, it's a feature of any retelling of the Maracanazo.

Did it happen? Who knows. These examples have nothing to do with real people. The victims are emblematic of the larger point – how much the game meant. They killed themselves for it.

Escobar's death was different. It had a face. The whole world had seen the replay of his terrible error. He'd written an article of apology afterward, and concluded it with the line, "Life doesn't end here."

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This death had the opposite effect – it made the game trivial.

The crime gripped the world's imagination, but it was a final insult for Colombians. They were by this point inured to the link between soccer and violence, but this was too much.

At the height of the coke trade, before Pablo Escobar was chased out of his aunt's house in 1993 and shot on a rooftop, before Colombia's cartels were pulled apart in a campaign of legal murder, the preferred toys of the narcotraficantes were soccer clubs.

The other Escobar, history's most famed drug kingpin, was a sort of psychopathic Robin Hood. He built vast estates for Medellin's poor, and then set his child assassins into them to take target practice. They used the method Escobar had pioneered as a teenage hitman – two men, back-to-back on a motorcycle, the rearward-facing one spraying machine-gun fire.

Pablo Escobar had many interests, but soccer was his fixation. He controlled the hometown team, Atletico Nacional, behind a series of fronts. It was both a plaything and a money-laundering operation. He was buried wrapped in a Nacional flag.

During the 1980s and early '90s, Colombian soccer became a battleground between the country's most powerful crimelords. Officials were either bought off or cowed. Referee Alvaro Ortega was murdered in the street several days after making a call that cost Nacional a win. When the country's justice minister pointed out in 1983 what everyone already knew – that drug lords owned most of the country's first division – he was killed as well.

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This culture of death overwhelmed an entire country, and infected all its institutions. The only one it improved was soccer.

Suddenly, there was unlimited money to spend on players and managers.

Having never before done anything of consequence, Nacional lifted a Copa Libertadores – the South American Champions League. Andres Escobar scored the first penalty in the shootout that won it.

In life, the two unrelated Escobars were said to have been cordial, though never friendly. (In death, it was said that if Pablo had been alive, he would not have allowed Andres to be killed.)

Propped up by drug money, the national team was now concentrated in two professional clubs – Nacional and America Cali (of the Cali cartel). A golden generation began to form and cohere. At the 1994 World Cup, Colombia was the fourth-ranked side in the world. Pele had predicted it would win.

Then it went sideways on the field, and right into the ditch off it. Many of the best internationals quit in despair.

Escobar's murder leant popular support to an ongoing campaign to cleanse Colombia of the cartels, by any means necessary. Coke went out of fashion. The drug business moved further north, closer to its primary market. Colombia's crime problem didn't disappear, but the drug lords lost their place at the head of society.

Without their money, Colombian soccer collapsed, at home and abroad.

It's taken two decades to rebuild. On Friday, Colombia will play Brazil in its first ever World Cup quarter-final.

Escobar's family will be in attendance. His siblings spoke to FIFA's website pre-tournament to remind people why they're here.

"People should enjoy football with passion, but never forgetting it's a game."

It's a wonderful sentiment. Thanks to the complexities of human nature, it will never be entirely true.

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