Secrets, Mafia and the Best Football Academy

The Colombian football is known outside of South America mostly because of the successful national team which sends many talented players to Europe in the last decade. Most of them arrived from the major clubs of the country: Atletico Nacional, America Cali, Millonarios or Deportivo Cali. What people may not always know is that many of these players are the production of Envigado Futbol Club youth academy, one of the best in Colombia.

Envigado is a small town in Antioquia’s department, located 14km southern to the capital Medellin and has an estimated population of 200,000 citizens. Despite its size, Envigado is one of the richest cities in Colombia. The football club of Envigado was founded only in 1989 by Gustavo Adolfo Upegui Lopez, a businessman who was also a friend of the famous Medellin’s drug-cartel baron, Pablo Escobar. Envigado managed to win promotion to the first division for the first time in 1991 and played there for 15 straight seasons.

During the 80’s and the 90’s, the drug cartels were also involved in Colombian football and it wasn’t a secret that clubs like Atletico Nacional, America Cali or Millonarios received money from doubtful sources. In most cases, it actually helped the Colombian football to win titles, just like Nacional's victory of the 1989 Copa Libertadores. Even though they never won a single title or reached the final, Envigado also had doubtful connections with the drug cartel and the mafia. For over a decade, The U.S. Treasury, including the “Clinton's list” group, collected and investigated testimonies from different responsible bodies who were connected with "La Oficina de Envigado", a crime organization which served the mafia.

"Clinton's list" is a group who investigates different companies which are being suspected in connections with drug cartels and money laundering. The group was created in 1995 due to an instruction by the President of the United States, Bill Clinton, as a part of the war against drugs. The convicted companies were not allowed to have any kind of connections with companies within the United States. A company who will ignore the list will be exposed to heavy sanctions. America de Cali, one of the major Colombian football clubs in the history, was included in Clinton's list for 17 years, fro, 1996 until 2013. When owner Tulio Gomez bought the team, he changed the name of the company which allowed it to be taken off the list.

Back to Envigado. “There is an evidence of money laundering from “La Oficina de Envigado” through buying and selling Envigado’s players and also though the matches ticketing”, said the federal agent who investigated the subject. Two of the people who were extradited because of their involvement in the affair were Margarita Zulay Gallego, Gustavo Adolfo Upegui’s wife, and their son Juan Pablo Upegui. The agent added that the connection between the sides was well-known since the 90’s, but they found real evidence for illegal actions of money laundering only in the middle of the past decade through the player's transfer market.

The investigation started earlier with the owner of the club, Gustavo Adolfo Upegui. As mentioned, he was a friend of Pablo Escobar and then an ally of David Murillo, Escobar’s successor. On July 3rd 2006, Upegui was kidnapped and tortured to death by a group of people who pretended to be from the Colombian police. One of the prisoners in the United States who served the cartel in the past has said that the person behind the execution of the murder was Daniel Mejia, the boss of “La Oficina de Envigado”. “Danielito”, as he was called, murdered Upegui because he saw him accumulate power and knowledge and because there were no criminal procedures against him. After his murder, his relatives demanded from the media to fix the information which connected him to the mafia because he was a decent businessman, according to them.

After the murder and when the investigation of the United States became deeper, Juan Pablo Upegui was determined to defend his parent's name and the club that he just inherited. Beyond Envigado Futbol Club, Juan Pablo had the obligation to defend on other family business which were also included in Clinton’s list. On November 19th 2014, Envigado FC entered the list and the club was affected by the act immediately. They suffered from an economic crisis and had to play without sponsors on their shirts - which was very similar to what happened with America Cali for 17 years. No sponsors means no money.

As I wrote at the beginning, Envigado has one of the best youth academies in Colombia, if not the best one. And they have a wonderful resume. They don’t have fancy facilities or even good conditions to practice. The capacity of their stadium is 14,000 and the stadium itself looks more like a training ground. They also have a coach named Ruben Bedoya, who was in charge for many years of their youth department and then moved to coach the senior squad (until he was removed from this job due to poor performances). The most famous player who is the academy's product is Bayern Munich midfielder, James Rodriguez. When the team was relegated back in 2006, James was included in the squad of the team who played in the second division, won the title, and got promoted again. James wasn’t even 15 years old when he showed his great potential. The team who gambled on James at the young age of 17, was Argentine side, Banfield, whom James led to the Argentine title for the first time ever. In the same Envigado squad, he played with famous names such as Giovanni Moreno and Dorlan Pabon.

Other famous players who started their football career in the Academy of the "Naranja" (orange) are Juan Fernando Quintero, Frank Fabra, Freddy Guarin, Jhon Cordoba, Andres Tello and Mauricio Molina. However, there are many other talented players who left their mark in South America, even though they are less famous around the world. A part of Envigado's success to raise so many talented footballers is the fact that the club gives them a chance to play professional football at such a young age. In fact, in most cases, Envigado has the youngest average squad age among the first division teams. By the way, because of the sanctions that were given to the club due to Clinton's list, the club was in financial problems, couldn't purchase new players and had to trust their youth academy to perform as best as they can. There is a reason why the club's nickname is also "Cantera de los heroes", which means the "youth academy heroes". Unfortunately for Envigado's fans, they almost never have the chance to enjoy the fruit of their academy since all the talented players are being snapped by the major clubs of the country or abroad before they even complete one year with the senior team.

The good news has arrived in May this year when after almost 4 years, Envigado Futbol Club was released from Clinton's list. According to Sigal Mandelker, the under Secretary of the Treasury for terrorism and financial intelligence, the Colombian government and Envigado FC were obligated to make an effort and cut the connection of the club with "La Oficina". The rest of Upegui's companies, however, are still being included for now in Clinton's list. The main part of saving Envigado was 55% of the club stocks which were purchased by ProFutbol. ProFutbol is a private foundation and its policy is to purchase stocks of companies which their main goal is to develop sports activities organized as a football club. It's the first and only foundation in Colombia, which invests in assets related to sports activities. Just like they did in Envigado, to promote plans of public and social interests.

Envigado is the only club which didn't make a single change in the transfer window and the same squad who played in the first semester started the second one as well. The club continues to trust its academy players. President Ramiro Ruiz said:" Our budget comes mainly from selling our youth talents. Around 50-60% of the incomes. Because of Clinton's list, we also didn’t have any sponsors and now we are inducting them all over again. Our main goal is to keep and embellish new talents for the Colombian football but we also try to achieve our goal as a competitive team. We hope to achieve it with our academy players." Who knows, now when the bad times are gone, Envigado can surprise the country and win the title for the first time. With the league system, and with a bunch of talented youngsters, everything is possible.


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