“It’s too dangerous to get involved in soccer,” offers a thug named Popeye, once a right-hand man to Colombian drug kingpin Pablo Escobar, as a lesson he learned from the boss’s murder. “Narco-soccer,” as it was called back when all the Latin American cartels from Medellín to Cali each owned their own teams, left the drug lords too out in the open. Which also goes a long way to explaining how Jeff Zimbalist and Michael Zimbalist, co-directors of the riveting and thoroughly researched doc The Two Escobars, managed to find such a treasure chest’s worth of historical footage. The Escobars of the documentary’s title are the infamous Pablo and Colombian soccer hero Andrés, unrelated and having little in common but a last name, a shared birthplace, a passion for soccer, and the fact that they lived and died under the constant watch of the media eye.
To the beat of an eclectic score and through seamless editing that weaves together a plethora of news accounts, personal photos, and interviews with relatives, teammates, and other firsthand—frontline—witnesses, the directors deftly segue between two stories, either of which could stand solidly on its own. What links the two is the dirty little open secret that Colombia’s national soccer team, which rose all the way to the 1994 World Cup—where Andrés made the fatal mistake of kicking the ball into his own team’s net during a match against the United States, costing the Colombians a shot at the title and Andrés his life—was a money laundering operation for the ruthless Pablo as well as a trophy. Which gives whole new meaning to the announcer’s phrase “The winner will be determined by a shoot out” at the Cup of the Americas game, especially once a referee is killed for a bad call.
But what’s most thrilling about Two Escobars is the filmmakers’ nonjudgmental approach, which avoids anti-drug moralizing or the easy slamming of our own wasteful, Reagan-era war on drugs. Instead, the directors choose to focus on hard facts like “With Pablo there was no recession,” as one DEA agent notes. Both Pablo and soccer literally grew together as the drug baron built soccer fields and helped the poor as his riches escalated. Soccer became Colombia’s answer to Cuba’s baseball or our basketball, a dream for the lowest classes to rise above the ghetto. (Okay, so our sports teams aren’t financed by drug lords, but one impoverished country’s cocaine trade is a rich one’s pharmaceutical industry.) At the same time the Zimbalists don’t shy away from the bloody reality that even as the national team climbed to greatness, Colombia had the highest murder rate in the world.
Though Pablo ran for public office to avoid U.S. extradition (subsequently winning, then being thrown out, then murdering those who removed him), he didn’t so much lead a shadow government as a shadow empire, every bit as embedded in the fabric of his nation’s society as the Russian Mafia in Moscow. (Forget the ESPN roster, Two Escobars would make for a terrific double bill with another Tribeca Film Festival pick, Thieves by Law). He held private games with handpicked players, even inviting the national team to play at the Cathedral, where he was eventually sham-incarcerated after successfully paying off enough officials to change Colombia’s constitution and abolish the extradition treaty. Team captain Andrés, a Derek Jeter figure nicknamed “the gentleman of the field,” had some misgivings about these shenanigans according to his sister, but as the head coach put it, “If Don Vito Corleone invites me to dinner, I show up.”
In reality, the soccer icons were simultaneously godlike heroes and modern-day gladiator slaves. Though Andrés worked with the poor and gave back to his community every bit as much as Pablo did, in the end, like his fellow teammates, he was only as good as his game. When Colombia lost to Romania in the first round at the World Cup, one player’s brother was killed back in Medellín. Sports became quite literally a matter of life and death. And with that kind of pressure the team was already psychologically defeated before they even hit the field for the crucial match against the U.S. Unlike American sports stars, with their emphasis on rugged individualism, the Colombians played as a community. Which inevitably led to the downfall of both soccer and Pablo.
Even as the government retaliated against the drug lord, the heart of the people was with him. They identified with the baron who came from nothing as well as those once-dirt-poor athletes, all possessing the same frustration with a broken government that itself relied on a drug kingpin’s law and order. By the time all hell broke loose, with the Cali cartel and a former friend turned rival joining forces to slaughter Pablo’s family to get to him, the shadow emperor had been practically anointed a saint. And the fact that a pair of drug-trafficking brothers in cahoots with the men who killed Pablo would soon after murder the revered Andrés over an insult at a nightclub makes a twisted sort of sense. As the wise psychopath Popeye laments about the government spending vast sums of money on its international PR image instead of on the country’s lethal internal problems, “It’s like trying to cure gonorrhea by pouring alcohol on your penis.” Certainly, Two Escobars is a doc that doesn’t flinch from the deeper disgusting truth.
The Two Escobars will play on April 22, 23, 25 and May 1 as part of this year’s Tribeca Film Festival. For more information click here.