May 31 1989 is a special day for Atletico Nacional. This year they will celebrate their 30th anniversary of their first ever Copa Libertadores title. It wasn’t only the club’s first continental title, it was also the first ever Copa Libertadores title won by a Colombian club.
As time goes by, there is one person that people still think had a part in this game. His name is Pablo Escobar.
Until the early 80’s, Colombian football was not considered as one of the best in South America. The change was made when the local drug cartels decided to use football for their own business. There were two significant cartels – the Medellin cartel, led by Pablo Escobar and José Gonzalo Rodríguez Gacha, and Cali cartel, led by the brothers Gilberto and Miguel Rodríguez Orejuela. The leaders were not only drug lords and murderers, but they were also football fanatics. Cali’s leaders invested in America de Cali, while Pablo Escobar decided to invest in Atletico Nacional.
Although his son, Juan Pablo Escobar, revealed later that his father was a fan of Independiente Medellin, there was no surprise in that decision. Escobar loved power, and he wanted to be the best in everything. He decided to use football to promote his business, and there was no better platform than Atletico Nacional, Colombia’s most popular club. Escobar was never presented officially as the club’s director or president, but everyone knew that he is the one who invested money. The goal was clear - winning the Copa Libertadores.
To do that, he believed in the tradition of Atletico Nacional, “Puros Criollos”. He wanted to keep the club’s ideology of using only Colombian players. He brought some of the best Colombian players to the club, including René Higuita, Andrés Escobar and Albeiro Usuriaga. The connection of Pablo Escobar with the club was strong, and some of the players even visited him in La Catedral, his luxurious private prison.
Atletico Nacional’s path to the Copa Libertadores final was not easy. They started their campaign with four matches without a win. In the end, they barely qualified after two wins in the last two games. After eliminating Racing Club in the round of 16, Atletico Nacional has been drawn for an all-Colombian clash against Millonarios. They won 1-0 at home and made a 1-1 draw in Bogota, but Millonarios claimed that it wasn’t a fair match. It was rumored that the referees preferred to call more in favour of Atletico Nacional because their fear of Pablo Escobar. In the next round, they played against Danubio, made a goalless draw away and thrashed them 6-0 in Medellin.
Everything was ready for the final against Olimpia. In the first leg in Asuncion, Olimpia won 2-0 and came calm to the return leg in Colombia. Due to CONMEBOL regulations, Atletico Nacional had to host them match in Bogota instead of playing in Medellin. Atletico Nacional managed to win 2-0, and the tie was decided by penalty shootouts. Leonel Alvarez scored the winning penalty and made history for his club and Colombian football.
A few years later, doubts started to pop up. Juan Bava, one of the referees that officiated the second leg of Atletico Nacional and Danubio, was interviewed in an Argentine TV show. He said that one of Pablo’s men entered to the referees’ locker room before the match with a suitcase and said: “Here is the money, make sure that Nacional wins”.
Threats on referees were not something that Escobar has not done before. In November 1989, Escobar’s hitmen murdered Alvaro Ortega after he disallowed a goal for Independiente Medellin against America de Cali. This story was revealed by Jhon Jairo Velasquez, nicknamed “Popeye”, who was part of Medellin cartel. When Velasquez was asked about the journey of Atletico Nacional, he said that Escobar didn’t threaten anyone or tried to buy a match. He said that if he wanted to but the title, Nacional would win the final in an easier way than recovering from an away defeat and winning a penalty shootout.
The rumours about what happened in 1989 are still part of Colombian football. Rival fans always chant toward Nacional’s fans “Pablito te la compro” - “Pablo bought it to you”. Nevertheless, it’s more than that. The winning squad was composed by players that were part of the best Colombian generations ever. Since then, Atletico Nacional became more dominant in domestic football and made more achievements in international competition, like winning the 2016 Copa Libertadores. Yet, the 30-years-old questions are not going to fade away soon.