The Power to Unite and Divide

At times, many of us have reacted to a professional sporting event as if it were a matter of life and death.  For professional soccer players in Colombia during the ’80s and ’90s it was.  The recent ESPN 30 for 30 documentary, The Two Escobars, focuses on Pablo Escobar and Andres Escobar (no relation) and their drastically different views of and impacts on Colombian soccer.  Not only is the film ripe with discussion material for sports and religion/theology, it is one of the best documentaries I have seen in quite a while.

Before Andres Escobar and Pablo Escobar arrived on the scene, Colombian soccer was irrelevant.  The professional teams were in shambles and all of the country’s best players left to play elsewhere.  At best, soccer served as a distraction from the daily troubles of life for Colombia’s poorest citizens.  Yet Andres and Pablo rose to prominence at roughly the same time.  Pablo would build an empire on cocaine, at his height earning over $50 million a day.  Andres showed promise on the field and became one of the country’s greatest players, a defender who would captain both his professional and national teams.

Andres Escobar

As Pablo needed to launder his illegal earnings, he turned to Colombia’s professional soccer teams to do so, purchasing teams, paying players, and cooking the books int he process.  Of course, he wasn’t the only drug king looking to clean up some money.  Other dealers got into the business and birthed what would become known as narco-soccer.  Suddenly, Colombian soccer was on the map because teams could keep or hire and train the best players.  The national team benefited from this “trickle up” success as well and made a stunning run to qualify for the 1994 World Cup in the United States…their first time to do so.

Yet Pablo’s love for soccer did not show itself at the height of his empire.  All along the way, he loved soccer and the poor of Colombia.  In fact, his life of crime developed out of a desire to stand for the poor.  As soon as he began making large sums of money, he used part of it to build soccer fields in every poor neighborhood of Colombia.  He built clinics, schools, housing projects, and businesses.  Pablo felt a special connection to many of the professional players, including Andres, whose salaries he would later pay because many of them learned the game and honed their talent on his fields.  Yet Pablo and other drug dealers often used these same players as pawns in multi-million dollar bets over private or league matches.  As a result, the players often endured unspeakable pressures to succeed.  At times, their lives and the livers of family and friends were on the line should they fail.

Pablo Escobar

Andres, a quiet presence on and off the field, had great hopes for soccer as a place of unity, forgiveness, and opportunity for the poor of Colombia.  He too used his success and money for the betterment of his fellow citizens, setting up scholarships for promising students.  Though he knew from whence his benefits came, he was never as comfortable consorting with Pablo as were many of his teammates.  He attended parties and played in private matches because he knew that to not do so would be a sign of disrespect that would most certainly be met with violence.  Though he and his team made a beautiful run to the 1994 World Cup, their performance in the first round suffered because of the intense pressures they were under to perform.  At the same time, the drug lords’ arguments back home over who should start for the national team prevented them from ever having their best team on the field at all times.  After their first loss to Romania, one of the players’ relatives was murdered.  In the second game against the United States, Andres accidentally scored an own goal.  As soon as it happens, he, and by now the viewers of the documentary, are all too aware of the fate that awaits him in Colombia.

The Two Escobars benefits mightily from archival footage of both Escobars, professional and national Colombian soccer, and the violent effects of the drug trade in Colombia at that time.  Nearly every minute of the film is constructed with this footage, except for the interviews with Andres’ surviving family and teammates and Pablo’s closest cronies and family members as well.  The filmmakers, Jeff and Michael Zimbalist, weave all of this footage together to create a captivating narrative that raises significant questions.

The Colombian National Team

As I was watching it, I recalled a section of Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove’s book, God’s Economy, which I had just finished reading.  He writes, “People who are starving and dressed in rags don’t want to hear someone read a list of propositional ‘good news.’  They want to see the good news in action.  The church doesn’t hold revival meetings and call it a day–we feed the hungry, clothe the naked, dig wells, and staff medical clinics.  Social actions isn’t an optional part of evangelism; it is evangelism” (163-164).  A scene in the film that struck me focused on the deep sadness and mourning experienced by the poor people of Colombia when Pablo Escobar was killed.  One of the interviewees commented that many of Colombian’s poorest citizens looked upon him as a type of savior.  Now I am not about to make a comparison between Pablo and Jesus.  Pablo’s life and work lead to the destruction of countless lives arond the world that, perhaps, far outweighs the good he did in his own country.  However, I believe that the film asks us to consider that the good he did not be forgotten or ignored, just as it is most certainly not by the people who benefited from it.

At the same time, I was mindful of the prominence of liberation theology at around the same time and its emphasis on Jesus and God’s preferential option for the poor.  I was also mindful of the ways in which this theology was both a threat to political and economic structures and the church itself that had developed too close of a relationship with these structures.  It is worth remembering that many of the priests who advocated liberation theology were under threat from the authorities of their own faith.  The Two Escobars opens up a potentially fascinating conversation about the relationships between Pablo’s and the church’s work for the poor at this time.

Of course, finally, The Two Escobars reveals the power of sport in our world to heal, unite, and empower.  It also shows its destructive side as well.  Pablo and Andres embodied both.

The Two Escobars re-airs on ESPN Classic on Saturday, July 10th, at 6-8 pm (Eastern Time), on ESPN 2 on Sunday, July 18th, at 2-4 pm (Eastern Time), and on ESPN Classic on Thursday, August 5th, at 10 pm (Eastern Time).  It is also available on DVD.  You simply must watch it.