The second collected volume of ESPN Films’ brilliant 30 for 30 sports-themed documentaries is in stores today, and offers a couple of football tales, from the downfall of SMU’s program in Pony Excess to the untapped potential of Marcus Dupree in The Best That Never Was. Football is one of the biggest sports in America, but for the rest of the world, it’s all about soccer — or what much of that rest of the world calls “football.” That is at the heart and soul of a powerful movie in the collection, The Two Escobars, directed by brothers Jeff and Michael Zimbalist. The documentarians, whose father was a Latin-American economist, take a look at the lives and deaths of two Colombians and their ties to soccer: national-team icon Andres Escobar and infamous drug lord Pablo Escobar. Both were symbols of their country, and both were gunned down in the streets of their homeland. Andres Escobar’s murder in 1994, following a World Cup appearance where the Colombians were shockingly upset by the Americans (in a match when he put the ball into his own goal), was particularly hard for some — he represented a hope that Columbia could turn around the negative stereotypes that the drug trade had given the country, as its main sport was funded for years by the sale of cocaine (leading it to be known as “narco-soccer”). Read below for an interview with the Zimbalist brothers — who are developing an HBO series that follows the working poor in the United States — about The Two Escobars, and check out this trailer for the documentary.
Photos courtesy of ESPN Films
What’s striking in the film is how much Andres’ death affected everybody, from his countrymen to fellow teammates who didn’t want to play soccer anymore afterward.
Michael: That’s absolutely right. His death really packed a wallop, and not just too the sports world but to the whole country. Part of our objective in telling this story was to bring across just how important he was as an icon, as an idol and of course as the centerpiece to this massive public relations campaign that was being waged by the government of Colombia and President Cesar Gaviria at that time. He was actually working with a PR firm here in the U.S. to change Colombia’s image on the international stage. And Andres was one of the main spokespeople. So many people in Colombia looked up to him for that objective of changing the country’s image but also as a real role model for somebody who had spoken out against the corrupt dollars that were invading not just soccer but all of Colombia’s institutions at that time. It really was the last grain of hope, so it took quite a long time for society to recuperate from that. Many of the players in the film, including Carlos Valderrama, talk about quitting after Andreas death, and then many of then came back to play. Valderrama was a couple of years later, and then he went on to have great success in Major League Soccer here in the U.S. But it took them a long time to get back up on their feet. It’s a major tragedy, yet part of what came through during the filming process was that so many people who were close to Andres, as the years went on, came to feel that his death wasn’t in vain, in spite of that huge negative impact.
Jeff: We didn’t want our documentary to extend all these negative stereotypes and common associations with Colombia. Obviously it deals with narco and it deals with a lot of corruption and illicit forces that we so often hear about associated with Colombia, but it was important toward the end of the film that we also portray the Colombia that we’d come to love. That’s the Colombia that Andreas was trying, through soccer, to show the world.
You tell Andres’ and Pablo’s stories and how they’re both tied to soccer. Because of Pablo’s dealings with cocaine and crime, was it easier to find people who would talk openly about Andres?
Jeff: There was hesitance on both sides. We interviewed people from the government, from the soccer institutions, from sports as well as from the criminal underground. There was hesitance for a variety of reasons form all parties. In general, even though Pablo Escobar died 17 years ago, he did polarize society, and there are those who lost innocent loved ones as victims of his random terrorism in the streets, and then there are those who were given homes and schooling and food by Pablo Escobar. People are still a little bit careful and cautious about what they say to whom because you never know what side of that division people fall on. On the soccer side, there is a lot of the same caution but there’s also a lot of shame. Like Mike said, this was supposed to be the answer for Colombia, to transform Colombia’s image toward the positive, and in fact it just propagated a lot of the negative portrayals and associations with Colombia. Through developing friendships and relationships with people and offering them the opportunity to engage with our project as they would like, rather than as we dictated, slowly people came forth and said they would like to speak with us. Sometimes they would come with the caveat that they would sit down with us but they would only talk about soccer and not narco for example. And within 10 minutes of us asking questions purely about soccer, they’d say, “You know what? Screw it, we’re going to talk about all of it.” You can’t talk about soccer during that time period without talking about narco. People found once they did start talking about these subjects that it was cathartic — that it was great to revisit and open and express a lot of what had been bottled away.
When you make a movie like this, with so much emotion and history involved, does it affect you?
Michael: It’s such a hard question to answer. We were so engrossed during the process. We were fortunate to have worked in Colombia before we started The Two Escobars in a number of senses. In the one sense, the more concrete level, we had a network of contacts and a familiarity with the subject matter. That was really helpful in understanding the safety parameters and a certain protocol and a production methodology and reaching out to people and be able to speak with them on a detailed level about the country and society at that time. On a personal level, it was fairly important to us because we had fallen in love with the people and the country in the previous projects we had worked on. It was really important to us that if we were going to tackle a story that did have such tragic elements and did touch upon the corruption and drugs and violence that has so tainted the image of Colombia, that there be something else — something that was more prescriptive and did bring across our own experience with the people and the country. A lot of the energy for us emotionally was in that ballpark. As we spoke to people and weren’t sure where that portrayal was going to come across, there was a certain energy and relief when, through the interviews themselves, we started to hear this portrayal. It’s been really gratifying as we’ve been showing the film to hear of course from Colombians who speak about the film, but more particularly from non-Colombians who speak about having a certain intimacy with the characters and the interviews in the film and getting a portrait of Colombia where the vast majority of the people, even at that time, were hard-working, peace-loving citizens who were struggling with these dark forces and these ethical questions. It’s changed these audience members’ perspectives of the Colombians and their own lives, and a surprising number of them have said that they’ve now reached out to various Colombian colleagues and friends to talk about that and to say they understand now why the way Colombia is portrayed internationally and why the negative stereotypes are so harmful.
Jeff: It also affected us in terms of fear. The project that I had done prior to this [Favela Rising] was in the favelas of Rio and that danger there was very tangible: It was masked teenage gunmen running around shooting, and you had to avoid the bullet. But in Colombia, the only guns we saw were the guns of security guards. There wasn’t that tangible, in-your-face danger, yet in our imaginations, I think we were quite afraid. There was a real physiological experience there of feeling on edge while we worked on this project, even though the events that we were exploring and investigating took place a decade ago. Often, the imagination is more frightening than the literal.
Soccer is the be-all, end-all in many parts of the world. Does anything in America sports-wise come anywhere close to the way soccer was an integral part of Colombia?
Jeff: No, I don’t think there’s a good comparison. The uniformity of what it stood for during that time period in Colombia, the desperation of the country and the singularity of that answer — which was soccer — is unlike anything I can think of in recent history in the United States. This wasn’t just sport — the playing field was an extension of the offices and streets of society. This was a country’s identity on the line. They were trying to redefine who they were in the eyes of the world, so that runs much deeper. What’s played out is a pride of a people rather than the athletic prowess of a team.
Michael: It was not just the international image that soccer was helping to change, but also a sense of identity and self-worth internally within the country during this time of unthinkable violence. So many people went to the stadiums as a certain escape from that, a way to both vent their energies from outside as well as to take on this new identity and watch their team beat other countries. It was the only thing they were sort of winning at.