The revelation that Bogota soccer club Millonarios may relinquish two titles won while the club was in the hands of criminals spurred fierce reactions as it may have huge consequences for the history and the future of the game in Colombia.
The announcement on Tuesday has opened a whole can of worms relating to drug criminals and their influences on soccer teams over the last 30 years.
President of the Bogota based giants revealed that the club may disregard two titles won in the late 80s because the club was at that time partly in the hands of the drug lord Gonzalo Rodriguez Gacha, alias “The Mexican.”
Felipe Gaitan said the proposal was made by the new transparent management of the club and he hoped that it would send out “many positive messages”
If indeed Millonarios do relinquish the titles it begs the question to which, if any, other teams will follow suit.
Ever since the late 70s Colombian soccer has been blighted with mobster involvement, which in turn has produced a long list of kidnapping, corruption, money laundering and even murder cases.
One of the first reported incidents of criminal involvement in the game came in 1981 when the?then Atletico Nacional president Hernan Botero Moreno, who himself was later extradited to the U.S on drug trafficking charges, waved a wad of cash at the referee during a game indicating that he had been bribed.
Colombia’s most infamous drug lord Pablo Escobar was also known to be heavily involved in Nacional, who won the Copa Libertadores in 1989, and its Medellin city rivals Independiente, although details of his exact involvement were never revealed.
Brothers Gilberto and Miguel Rodriguez, who ran the Cali drug cartel, were majority shareholders in the hugely successful America de Cali for over 15 years.
Deportivo Pereira was owned by notorious criminal Octavio Piedrahita before he was killed in 1988, while Independiente Santa Fe are also known to have had links with former Cali Cartel leader Phanor Arizabaleta Arzayus, who was extradited to the U.S. last year on drug trafficking charges.
It is these connections between millionaire criminals and soccer clubs which has not only brought into doubt the legitimacy of many titles but also bled violence and corruption into the game for over three decades.
In 1989 the Colombian top division was suspended after the assassination of a referee.
Alvaro Ortega was murdered after officiating a match in Medellin, later an anonymous caller said he and his bosses “had lost a lot of money” as a result of Ortega’s decisions during the game.
Probably the most high profile incident occurred after the US World Cup 1994 when former Colombian defender Andres Escobar was gunned down outside a nightclub. This is widely believed to be a consequence of his own goal during the tournament which caused huge gambling losses.
Although the murder hasn’t been attributed to criminal gangs in Colombia it drew worldwide awareness of the criminal influences in soccer in the country.
It is impossible to gauge exactly how much influence these criminals have had on soccer clubs since the late 70s, although in the case of Gacha and Millonarios it is reported that it was his money which was used to pay salaries and recruit players.
This however, doesn’t seem enough for some people to be convinced that giving back titles which were tainted by drug money is the answer.
Director of American Cali Javier Fernandez, labeled the idea “absurd” and questioned its legality.
Meanwhile former Millonarios player Mario Alberto Gamero Vanemerak said the idea was “nonsense”, adding that if “Millonarios return the titles, so must all the other teams.”
The Colombian government, not surprisingly, have taken the opposite stance with the Interior Minister Fernando Carrillo Florez announcing “it is a great lesson from Millonarios. Let’s see who will aim to follow in the historic gesture.”
It remains to be seen whether the proposal will bear fruit, but one thing is for sure the light is once again shining on the criminal influence which has tainted Colombian soccer for so long.