Drugs, Poison, Guns, Football?

In Central and South America the legacy of Andres Escobar's death in 1994 appears to have left lessons unlearnt. Here's Chris Ledger.

Diego Maradona, Adrian Mutu, Abel Xavier and Jaap Stam are just a few of the players to have failed drug tests in the past. It still remains a controversial subject in Europe to such an extent, that MEP’s asked the European Commission in September to create a database on drugs taken by footballers. In South and Central America though it’s a whole different story - taking recreational or performance enhancing drugs is far from the main problem. There is a far deeper issue, one that’s linked to serious criminality and goes beyond any sporting governing body.

Perhaps the most famous incident involving drug cartels in world football occurred during the 1994 World Cup. Before the tournament was held, drug barons slowly became significant figures in Colombian football. The Medellin drug cartel for example, was exceptionally profitable and barons invested their profits in football. Not only did they use bogus ticket sales to hide where the money really came from when they acquired expensive free agents, but they also spent vast amounts of money on gambling.

Colombia were strongly favoured to beat the United States during the group stages but lost 2-1 when Andres Escobar conceded an unfortunate own goal. Several Colombian drug barons lost millions of dollars after placing several bets on them winning, and 10 days later Escobar was murdered outside a nightclub.

Humberto Castro Munoz – a bodyguard for one of the most influential and dangerous drug cartels in Columbia – was convicted for murdering the former Young Boys defender. Escobar was shot 12 times by three gunmen and it was widely reported that the last words he heard were “thanks for the own goal”. These problems are ever occurring though, even after Escobar’s tragic death.

One of the more recent sinister events in South American football was when Hijos de Acosvinchos, a Peruvian football team, were drugged with poisoned water. Their opponents, Sport Ancash, were accused of administrating benzodiazepine - a powerful psychoactive drug that acts as a sedative – before their second-division encounter. Just 3 minutes before Sport Ancash would have won the match 3-0, 4 of their opponents collapsed on the pitch.

Whilst Sport Ancash’s president, Jose Mallqui, blamed the incident on food poisoning, no one can deny last month’s disturbing events in Honduras. Two drug gangs, Mara 18 and Los Tercerenos, interrupted a community football match posing as national police. The nine masked men, wearing flak jackets and masks, fired several rifles including M18’s and AK47’s and killed 14 innocent supporters who they thought were part of the rival Los Olanchanos drug cartel. Several others, including the match referee, were injured during the massacre for no apparent reason - they were simply at the wrong place, at the wrong time.

As football has become a globalised industry that’s being increasingly associated with greed and ruthlessness, it comes as no surprise that South and Central American footballers are also flirting with criminality. Brazil is one country that has been hit with several high-profile controversies involving professional footballers. CSKA Moscow striker Vagner Love for instance, was once detained by police for accompanying bazooka and machine gun-carrying drug traffickers to a nightclub in Rio de Janeiro.

Roma forward Adriano has also been associated with powerful drug cartels, after he was photographed holding a rifle with the notorious drug baron Fabio Atanasio da Silva in June. Adriano was also accused of transferring a significant five-figure sum to da Silva’s bank account during this period too. Bruno Souza, the former Flamengo captain and goalkeeper, is perhaps most famous for being accused of arranging the murder of Eliza Samodia, his former lover who he once allegedly forced to swallow an abortion-inducing drug after kidnapping her.

It is a complicated situation worsened by the countries’ inability to accept the situation. The effectiveness of the legislative framework in South and Central America for example is questionable. In Europe there have been several high-profile prosecutions for illegal drug activity in the game. The former Juventus doctor, Riccardo Agricola, was imprisoned for 22 months in 2004 for administrating several banned drugs to their players between 1994 and 1998.

Former Southwick coach Barry Noonan was also imprisoned in 2007 for 14 years, for plotting to import and supply cocaine at a total market value of £200,000; whilst Everton’s Jose Baxter and the troubled Paul Gascoigne have been arrested within the past year for possessing drugs. The fact that Munoz only served just over a quarter of his original prison sentence for murdering Escobar suggests that the drug industry is still a deadly and influential force in South American football.

Even acclaimed schemes that try to eliminate drugs in football may not be the answer to these problems. In Bolivia - the poorest nation in South America - the 5-time Nobel Peace Prize-nominated Tahuichi Soccer Academy was formed in 1978 to develop young footballers’ social intelligence, and to prevent them from getting involved in the world of crime and drugs. The prestigious academy has won over 90 international tournaments since its conception, and has produced several famous Bolivian footballers such as Jaime Moreno, Erwin Sanchez and Luis Cristaldo.

The academy also embraces the idea of prohibiting drugs in football as the club’s motto is “yes to sports, no to drugs”. This still may not be enough - in an underdeveloped and politically dysfunctional country that’s one of the world’s biggest cocaine exporters - to stop the epidemic of corruption in South American football. The academy will not stop drug barons from buying football clubs and it certainly won’t stop drug cartels from massacring innocent bystanders during football matches. And it definitely failed to prevent the Bolivian President Evo Morales from kicking a player in the testicles during October’s friendly match between two rival political parties.

It may not even prevent their 3,000 enrolled students, many of who are sponsored due to their roots in poverty-stricken slums and may be naive, from getting involved in the drug industry. Money and fame has the potential to dramatically change the most innocent person, as the effects of football academies like Tahuichi may not be long lasting. Nothing will change the inevitable scenario of drugs and football continually bringing tragedy to South and Central America.

As well as writing for IBWM, Chris is the editor of the outstanding Obscure music and footballblog. You can follow him on Twitter @obscurefootball