SA Movie Choice: 'The Two Escobars' -- a revealing and vigorous account of Colombian soccer in the 1990s

It might be the best soccer documentary ever made. The Zimbalist brothers orchestrate an investigation of narco-soccer so dizzyingly revealing and vigorous it's much more than a sports movie.

The Two Escobars

The spiel
The story of Andres Escobar is usually known to go something like this: the captain of the 1994 World Cup Colombia team who scored an own goal, Escobar was later killed by drug lords as retribution. The first half of that statement undersells both the player and the team, and the second half is at best a half-truth.

"The Two Escobars" seeks to set the record straight, and what follows is an absorbing study on state failure, the Colombian cartels, and soccer’s role in it all.

The best way to sum up the Colombian national team in the 1990s is as so, according to the film: “The government was hailing the team as its flagship while hunting down the team’s patron saint.”

That "saint" is Pablo Escobar, who, along with fellow drug lords, are held responsible for much of soccer’s growth and success in the country after laundering their dirty money through pro teams they owned and having the funds to further invest in the sport. Pablo Escobar, beloved by Medellin’s poor because of the housing and security he provided, also built fields and organized tournaments. Many of Colombia’s future stars honed their craft on fields built by him.

The Colombian national team was also a salve for the conflict between society and polity. By the 1994 World Cup, Colombia was ranked No. 4 in the world and Pele’s favorite to win it all, but also entrenched in a violent and bloody drug war.

The Colombian government used its team as a unifying power amid the chaos and violence the drug wars had wrought over its country.

These two paradoxical themes — a successful national team helped by narco funds and a government hailing that very same team as the solution to its ails — drive the film forward. "The Two Escobars" works so well cinematically because there is no narrator. Similarly to HBO’s "Maradona," the Zimbalist brothers let raw footage and insightful anecdotes from family members, coaches, teammates, government officials and cartel members do the storytelling. How they managed to interview “Popeye,” Pablo’s right-hand man for years, from inside prison is beyond me, but it speaks to the plethora of accounts and research the film offers.

Popeye reminisces on how Pablo and other cartel lords would pick their best five-a-side team from the Colombian league, fly the players in for a day, and then bet on the match. The players were paid extravagantly and the drug lord who won the bet would take home $1 or $2 million. It was like a real life customizable FIFA match.

But "The Two Escobars" goes deeper than that, explaining how Pablo Escobar was sewn deep into the lower classes, and after amassing power, became an authority with more power than the federal government.

Andres Escobar, on the other hand, is characterized as a good kid who only wanted to play. It’s not that simple in narco-soccer, where if you’re invited to Pablo’s compound, saying “no, thanks” isn’t an option.

The captain of Atletico Nacional, Pablo Escobar’s team, and the Colombian national team, Andres was known as a caballero de la cancha, or a gentleman on the field. He was getting ready for a move to AC Milan until the aftermath of the tournament put an end to those plans. For all the hopes the government, the drug lords, the players, and Colombians had for the ‘94 World Cup, it was all for not. As players recall, a dark hand descended into their hotel in the days prior to the tournament, dooming it before a ball was kicked.

The fairytale ending short speaks to a greater truth about that Colombian team, its ties to narco-soccer, and the Colombian state’s failure to deal with it. Says “Popeye”: “Trying to use Colombia’s international image to fix its internal problems is like trying to cure gonorrhea by pouring alcohol on your penis.”

Popeye, Pablo’s right-hand man at the height of his power, is introduced like this: “I’ve killed probably around 250 people, but only a psychopath keeps count.”

One of Andres’ teammates, remembering what it was like after his murder: “I was assigned 20 bodyguards and all I felt was anger.”

Andres Escobar penned this in a column following Colombia’s World Cup exit. It was days before his death:

“Life doesn’t end here. We have to go on. Life cannot end here. No matter how difficult, we must stand back up. We only have two options: either allow anger to paralyze us and the violence continues, or we overcome and try our best to help others. It’s our choice. Let us please maintain respect. My warmest regards to everyone. It’s been a most amazing and rare experience. We’ll see each other again soon because life does not end here.”

Before the ‘94 World Cup Colombia were ranked No. 4 by FIFA. By France ‘98, they had tumbled down to No. 34, and didn’t qualify again until 2014.

Trivia 2: Colombia was playing the USA when Andres Escobar scored the own goal, on a cross delivered by?*

Double bonus trivia: It’s easy to forget just how good the Colombia team from World Cup 94 was. Los Cafeteros beat Maradona’s Argentina 5-0 in Buenos Aires in its last qualifying match, and had only lost once in its last 26 games.

How to watch:
Amazon, ESPN 30 for 30 films

* The mis-hit by Andres Escobar came off a cross from John Harkes.

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