Two decades ago, the last time Colombia fielded a great national fútbol team, the people here partied hard, as they did recently, only then it was based on anticipation.
Colombia qualified for the 1994 World Cup in the United States by beating Argentina, 5-0, in Buenos Aires. Pele, the legendary Brazilian, picked Colombia to go all the way.
The team had a great leader, defenseman Andrés Escobar, the kind of man every mother wanted her son to be and her daughter to marry.
I had read about Andrés as a kid, but his story was brought to life in “The Two Escobars,” a documentary about how Andrés Escobar’s life intertwined with the notorious drug lord Pablo Escobar, even though they were not related.
Perhaps the most vivid images in the movie are tied to the violence Pablo brought, but my favorite anecdotes revolved around Andrés.
His sister said he realized he was becoming famous, but he stayed humble because he was committed to improving Colombia’s image.
His girlfriend said he helped his teammates stay disciplined.
But the best comments came from César Mauricio Velásquez, a Colombian journalist who talked about Andres’ vision for his country.
“Andrés Escobar always believed soccer could curb violence,” Velásquez said. “He saw soccer as a school of life, to teach values and tolerance, to learn to win, to learn to lose, to embrace sport as a sanctuary of unity.
“Andrés always stayed true to that belief. As captain of the Colombian National Team, he was known as ‘the Gentleman of the Field.’ ”
I loved that part of the movie.
I watched it again recently, shortly after La Selección 2014 was eliminated by Brazil in the quarterfinals of the World Cup.
It puts things in perspective.
Colombia was extremely dangerous 20 years ago, especially Medellín, where more than 600 people were murdered per month.
Today the murder rate is about 80 percent lower.
It’s no wonder so many Colombians continued to celebrate after the loss to Brazil.
The 2014 national team, which made history by advancing to the quarterfinals for the first time, was a metaphor for this place and its people.
Unprecedented success on the field coincides with the country’s overwhelming success in life.
Through last June, the country saw an increase in tourism of 7.7 percent compared to that same six-month period in 2012, a jump from 900 million visitors to more than 970 million, according to Colombia’s Trade Ministry.
The threat of violence still exists but it’s a lot more muted. You probably won’t get in trouble if you don’t go looking for it.
“No te metas, no se metan,” my friend Daniel said.
He’s my first paisa friend ever, and has always given me good advice.
Andrés never went looking for trouble, but after the team had a disastrous showing at the 1994 World Cup, including Andrés’ own goal that cost Colombia the game against the United States, he should not have gone out to party with his friends.
As almost everyone knows by now, he was murdered that night.
Upon his return to Colombia, he wrote a column for one of the country’s newspapers in which his message was, “Life goes on.”
Maybe his did not, but I bet he’s smiling somewhere because his country and its national team are more full of life than ever.
Pablo Escobar Historical Tour
To learn more about Escobar during your visit to Medellín, sign up for a half-day tour through Latin Hosts. Historical points of interest include the Monaco Building where the Cali Cartel tried to kill him, his last safe house where security forces did kill him and his family grave.