Playing soccer with Pablo Escobar

Oscar Pareja, coach of the Colorado Rapids of the MLS, once played two games in which «sudden death» was much more than sports lingo.
To make Oscar Pareja laugh, tell him that he’ll be coaching a «tense» game this weekend for the Colorado Rapids of the MLS.
Pareja knows what tense is, and you’re not within 10 stadiums of it.
Twenty years ago, Oscar Pareja was the star and captain of Independiente Medellin in Colombia, in the time when murderous drug czar Pablo Escobar terrorized the country.

One day in 1991, Pareja got a message. Escobar would like him and six of his Independiente teammates to come to Escobar’s one-man, government-built luxury prison — La Catedral — and play a game. Escobar wouldn’t be watching. He’d be playing against them.

What happened next Pareja has never shared with any of his three kids, nor any of the players he’s coached, nor any reporters.
He went. He had to. Declining Escobar’s invitation would be tantamount to signing his death certificate. Escobar had ordered the murder of thousands — police captains, business owners and judges. The year before, he had ordered the executions of no less than three Colombian presidential candidates for not seeing things his way.

So Pareja said yes, even though it was the middle of the season. «Coach said practice was canceled,» remembers Pareja, now 43. What else could the coach do? «For all we knew, we were partly owned by him (Escobar).»

La Catedral hung over Medellin like Olympus. It sat on a cool hill and was lavish — with jacuzzis, a gym and a fully lit soccer field. From it, Escobar continued to carry on his billion-dollar cocaine business.

Pareja and his teammates were escorted into an ornate sitting room, where they waited, nervously, for the bloodiest man in Colombian history.

«There were fine couches in there,» remembers Pareja. «And TVs. And they gave us snacks to eat. And then a bunch of bodyguards came into the room, and then (Escobar). And it made me wonder, ‘Who, exactly, is the prisoner here today?'»

Escobar, then 42, took a seat on the couch next to Pareja. He treated Pareja like a visiting god, calling him by his nickname, El Guapo.

«That day I can’t forget,» says Pareja, 20 years younger than his host. «He sat next to me talking about (soccer) with great passion and knowledge, for an hour. He knew everything. He said to me, ‘Why do you yell at the refs so much, Guapo? We pay them. This does no good.'»

Eventually, the players were escorted to the prison soccer field, which was lit for the night. Escobar came out in sweat pants and a soccer jersey, and played left midfielder, «even though he was right-footed.»

Pareja’s teammate, Carlos Alvarez, had to guard him, a most delicate job. Guard him too lightly, and Escobar would feel disrespected. Guard him too closely, and Escobar would feel humiliated. Either way, it could mean his neck.

«Don’t kick me,» Escobar told Alvarez with a grin, «because (if you do) you will stay here with us.»

«Carlos only pretended to guard him,» Pareja remembers. «He never got the ball from him once.»

There was only one ref — Escobar.

«He could actually play pretty well,» says Pareja. «His guards, too.»

The game lasted an hour and a half. The pros won, but the game was kept fairly close.

They were thanked and escorted out. They were invited back one more time for another game, also won by the pros, and without bloodshed.

«I think back now and consider all the things that could’ve happened to us inside those walls,» says Pareja. «There were no police. No control. Anything could’ve happened. But it didn’t.»

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AP Photo
Pablo Escobar, head of the Medellin drug cartel, was also a rabid soccer fan.
It would soon enough. The next year, Escobar summoned four of his top lieutenants to La Catedral, where they were tortured and killed. That caused the Colombian government to insist Escobar be put in a regular prison. Instead, Escobar escaped.
«Not surprising,» Pareja remembers. «All the guards were his people. It looked to me like he had easy access anywhere he wanted to go.»

On Dec. 2, 1993, the now-fugitive Escobar was fleeing on a roof in a Medellin neighborhood, talking to his son on a cellphone, when he was shot dead by Colombian National Police. They say he was wearing soccer shoes.

One of Pareja’s teammates from his Independiente days would become involved with the drug cartels and wind up dead, too. Another teammate of Pareja’s on the Colombian national team, Andres Escobar (no relation), was murdered in 1994 by drug czars after making an own goal against the U.S. that knocked Colombia out of the World Cup.

Pareja, though, made his own escape. He eventually signed with the Dallas Burn of the MLS, where he starred and then coached. He became the Rapids’ coach in January.

He is 20 years from those days, and yet they haunt him to this day.

«We were numb to what was going on around us,» he admits. «We didn’t know. … We would win a game and suddenly there would be $8,000 bonus money for us. From who? We didn’t know. We didn’t ask. … I sat on a couch next to a man who did so, so much damage to my country. I sat with him … we were so naive.»

Someday, when his MLS career is done, Pareja wants to go home to Medellin and cattle ranch with his father.

«I want to bring my American friends back and show them, ‘Here is the country I want you to see. We’re not drugs and killers. We are good people from a beautiful land. The bad days are over.»

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