San Francisco Film Society Screen: “The Two Escobars”

by Peter Wong on August 27, 2010

Jeff and Michael Zimbalist’s fascinating sports documentary “The Two Escobars” — which opens tonight at the Sundance Kabuki Cinema — begins with a recounting of the Colombian soccer team’s ill-fated matchup against the United States during the 1994 World Cup. The climax comes with Andres Escobar accidentally scoring a goal against his own team. That mistake ruined Colombia’s once in 28 years shot at the title. What makes that mistake far more serious is the revelation that drug cartel kingpins had bet millions on Colombia’s victory in this match.

That intersection between Colombia’s soccer teams and its notorious drug trade forms the dramatic core of “The Two Escobars.” The newest offering from the San Francisco Film Society Screen comes from two Bay Area-based filmmakers, who trace the intersection through its titular subjects. The first Escobar, soccer player Andres Escobar, has already been introduced. The second and more familiar Escobar is international drug kingpin Pablo Escobar. The two men shared a surname, but they weren’t relatives. Yet their lives and fates would constantly intersect.

Providing the major point of linkage between these two men is “narcosoccer.” In candid interviews with surviving members of Escobar’s cartel, the Zimbalists lay out the basic principles of the scam. Drug sales generated an enormous amount of illegal cash. Yet that money couldn’t be used legally without a means to launder it. Soccer provided the perfect means of doing so. Ticket sales were cash-based only. The price of acquiring players or teams came with a 100% drug cartel markup.

The film hints that Colombia’s soccer teams knew large amounts of drug money came into the sport. Yet they weren’t that eager to take fiscal abstinence vows. Those thousands — if not millions — of dollars provided the financial resources to obtain great foreign players or keep good existing players. In short, drug money helped build Colombia’s soccer teams during the 1980s and 1990s into world class contenders.

“The Two Escobars” undercuts simplistic assumptions that funneling drug money through the country’s soccer teams was purely a business arrangement. Pablo Escobar and several major drug barons were tremendous national soccer fans. In the words of one interviewee, the drug lords treated the teams they acquired as toys on which they lavished lots of attention.

Yet the depths of Pablo Escobar’s love for soccer impresses the viewer. Slum dwellers had proper soccer fields to hone their skills, thanks to the drug lord’s financial largesse. One smiles at hearing how even furious pursuit by government troops didn’t distract Escobar’s attention from a radio broadcast of a soccer match. Then again, one remembers how the drug cartel head wasn’t above ordering the killing of a referee whose bad call cost his team a victory.

If Pablo Escobar represented the negative side of the narcosoccer era, Andres Escobar embodied its positive side. “The Gentleman of the Field” wanted to use his skill and that of his teammates to embody the best of Colombia. Through his grace and natural talents, he hoped to show that soccer could provide a constructive alternative to the country’s drug war-related violence. Andres Escobar’s idealism, though, stopped far short of insulting Pablo Escobar by refusing his gifts.

That confluence of critical mass of talented players and financial resources of drug cartels led to Colombian soccer team victories. Such wins helped unify Colombians of all classes. The film offers a great anecdote about military enemies setting aside their conflict to watch a Colombian team’s soccer match against a foreign team. President Gaviria made the Colombian national team’s successes the cornerstone of his international PR campaign to clean up the existing image of the country as a hotbed of drugs and high murder statistics.

Seeing footage of the Colombian national team in action, one can see why the team led by Andres Escobar fired the national imagination. At their peak, the national team skillfully dominated the field. Their career high must surely be the World Cup qualifying game against Argentina’s team. An amazing sequence recounts how Escobar’s team beat the veteran soccer team by scoring an astounding five goals.

But the astounding variety of people interviewed by the Zimbalists provides its own pleasures. The filmmakers talk to narcosoccer-era members of Atletico Nacional. Government officials are heard from, ranging from ex-president Gaviria to DEA’s Tom Cash. The sisters of both Escobars talk about their respective siblings. But it is Pablo Escobar’s right-hand man and professional killer Popeye who provides moments of both dread and dark humor in equal measure.

That said, the film does not minimize the seriousness of Pablo Escobar’s criminal activities. To avoid rotting in an American jail, the drug lord used his financial resources to buy off government ministers. Footage of people murdered on Pablo Escobar’s orders reminds the viewer of the drug lord’s ruthlessness.

But the Zimbalists also show that toppling Pablo Escobar would not automatically bring peace and prosperity to Colombia. The tactics employed by the PEPEs against Pablo Escobar’s cartel makes one recall the old saying about worse cures. Medellin’s criminal element stayed in line as long as Escobar’s iron rule was in place. Most importantly, nobody stepped up to fill the drug lord’s role of building new housing for Colombia’s poor residents.

In this light, Andres Escobar’s dream regarding soccer’s role in Colombian society seems both endearing and naïve. Despite Colombia’s miraculous victory over Argentina, the political chaos that enveloped the country eventually touched the country’s star players. What was once a unifying institution for Colombians fractured into ruthless individualism. The Zimbalists effectively show what happens when the romantic vision of sports saving a society collides with reality.

The filmmakers have performed the remarkable feat of creating an ultimately tragic movie that appeals to both soccer fans and audience members who were never swept up in the recent World Cup fever. Depicting victory and defeat matters less than their penetratingly examining the world that makes either result possible. .

(“The Two Escobars” opens August 27, 2010 at the Sundance Kabuki Cinemas (1881 Post, SF). Advance tickets are available at www.sffs.org )

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