COLOMBIA and its capital city, Bogotá, often get a bad press. The past created a reputation that has been hard to shake-off, notably the country’s link with drugs, corruption and violence. Football did not escape from this stain on Colombia’s history and the game’s association with the drug cartels, including the infamous Pablo Escobar, meant that clubs were often used as an avenue of money laundering. While much of this has now evaporated, Colombia has struggled to win credibility from the global football community.
Bogotá, with a population of around seven million, is a sprawling global city. It is also a city where 40% of the people live in poverty, a figure that has fluctuated but rose during the pandemic. In recent times, the power in Colombian football has not been in the capital but in Medellín. The last time a team from Bogotá won the Finalización was in 2017, when Millonarios beat their local rivals, Santa Fe, 3-2 on aggregate in the play-off. Millonarios did win the Copa Colombia in 2022 and they have had a reasonable time in Categoria Primera A this year. The most well known club in Bogotá are the only representatives from the city in the semi-final stage of the Apertura.
The Medellín and Cali clubs became dominant in Colombia in the 1980s and 1990s which became something of a golden age for the country’s football. The success of Atlético Nacional and América de Cali was believed to be attributable to their connection with drug barons, but Bogotá was often ignored as it was the city where law enforcement was headquartered, along with lawyers who were keen to crack down on the narcotics industry. That said, Millonarios had supposed links with Gonzalo Rodriguez Gacha, known as “the Mexican”. Writer Fernando Araújo Vélez, claimed: “The cartels of Gonzalo Rodríguez Gacha, Pablo Escobar and Miguel Rodríguez Orejuela were, in reality, represented by the kits of Millonarios, Nacional and América.”
Football clubs were used by the drug cartels to launder their cash – it was quite easy to make US$ 50,000 of “dirty” money into US$ 250,000 of laundered money. Furthermore, player transfers and cash-only ticket sales on matchdays enabled clubs to “bake-in” piles of illegal money and inflate their attendances to cover the cash. Pablo Escobar has long since gone, killed in a shoot-out with Police in 1993 and the era of “Narco-fútbol” has also passed. The audacity of drug smugglers was encapsulated by the way they impregnated items like football shirts with liquid cocaine to deceive the authorities.
Violence reared its head once more in Colombian football at a game between two Medellín sides, Atlético Nacional and Independiente which saw two people killed and 14 injured. It was Medellín where Andres Escobar was killed in 1994 after he returned home after scoring an own goal against USA in the World Cup. Since those days, Medellín has been regarded as one of the most dangerous football cities in the world. There have been calls for a revision to the government’s 10-year plan for Colombian football, a project aimed at eradicating violence inside and outside of stadiums.
Unfortunately, we also remember Bogotá for the infamous Bobby Moore bracelet incident in 1970 and the attempt by a Colombian professional league to entice British and European players to clubs like Millonarios and Santa Fe in the early 1950s. Moore appeared to be victim of an elaborate scam and was innocent of any attempt to steal the item of jewellery, while some 20 years earlier, England international centre half Neil Franklin was tempted to Colombia but returned home after just a few months disappointed that reality was not aligned to promises made and with his career tarnished. Alfredo di Stefano, who would late join Real Madrid, had far more success in the Colombian Professional League in what was known as the El Dorado era.
Millonarios and Santa Fe both play at the Estadio El Campín, a 36,000-capacity arena that also hosts – much to the disgust of the football fans – rock concerts and other events. Colombia is a big exporter of football talent and ranks among the top six countries with around 450 footballers playing abroad (source: CIES Football Observatory). The leading destinations are Peru, USA, Mexico and Argentina, with the top European nations Portugal, Spain and Italy. The Colombian squad for the Copa América comprised 28 players, 24 of whom played abroad. There were only a handful of Colombians in the Premier League in 2022-23, including Luis Diaz (Liverpool), Yerry Mina (Everton), Luis Sinisterra (Leeds) and Davinson Sanchez (Tottenham). On the other hand, very few expatriates find their way to Colombia. For example, the top six clubs in the country have squads that are 92% Colombian, with just a few imports from Spain, USA and South America.
There are other clubs in Bogotá, such as La Equidad, who were founded in 1982 and have the rather peculiar nickname of “Aseguradores”, the insurers. Their only honour has been the Copa Colombia, which they won in 2008. They play at the Estadio Metropolitano de Techo, along with two other main clubs, Tigres and Bogotá FC. La Equidad are in the top flight, but Tigres and Bogotá, both of whom are relatively young, are in Categoria Primera B. Neither fared very well in the first stage of the 2023 season.
Colombia could be considered an underachieving country on the football field. They didn’t qualify for the 2022 World Cup and their only Copa América success was in 2001 when they hosted a tournament that Argentina withdrew from and Brazil, fearing the safety of their players, sent a weakened squad. Colombia beat Mexico in the final in Bogotá and on the way to the final, disposed of Peru, Honduras, Chile, Ecuador and Venezuela. Poverty is high, but Colombians are passionate about their football. Over the years, they have produced some excellent players: James Rodríguez, Carlos Valderrama, Rademal Falcao, Faustino Asprilla and René Higuita to name but a few. Can they return to the world stage once more? Much depends on economics and opportunity as much as desire, but with 52 million people, surely there has to be hope?