Liverpool manager Bill Shankly famously said, “Some people believe football is a matter of life and death, I am very disappointed with that attitude. I can assure you it is much, much more important than that.” This is often misquoted and referred to glibly, but the game of football really can mean death for some. The numerous football tragedies involving spectators have been well-documented, but what of those killed for winning or losing a game?
Columbian defender Andrés Escobar Saldarriaga was shot dead in 1994 in Medellín in a pre-meditated ‘hit’ by Humberto Castro Muñoz, bodyguard to members of the Medellín drugs cartel, and two other men. ‘Thanks for the own goal,’ one said to Escobar, according to witnesses.
It’s a widely held belief that Escobar was targeted because of his own goal in the 1994 World Cup against the United States, which reportedly led to massive gambling losses by several powerful Columbian drug lords who had bet that Los Cafeteros (The Coffee Growers) would beat the USA in a game that they should have won easily on paper, but the stakes were high for both a Columbia and USA win. Big money, both American and Colombian, had been placed on a US win at long odds, but the Medellín police said that a lot of Colombian money, including cocaine funds, was riding on a Coffee Growers win.
Stretching to cut out a pass from American midfielder John Harkes, Escobar deflected the ball into his own net. USA went on to win the game 2–1. There was intense speculation that mobsters from either the United States or Colombia had tried to fix the US-Colombia match, with the Colombian coach, Francisco Maturana, stating that several players were said to have received death threats before the game. Columbian midfielder Gabriel Gomez refused to play. The Colombian team as a unit played well below their collective abilities throughout the match, with stars such as Carlos ‘the Kid’ Valderrama unable to pass straight and Faustino Asprilla, once of Newcastle United, “wasn’t even trying” according to the man who marked him in the match, USA defender Fernando Clavijo.
Escobar was not solely to blame for Columbia losing, but he seems to have been made the ultimate scapegoat for the defeat. However, given the pre-match intimidation of the Columbia players, who can say how many other deaths would have occured if Los Cafeteros had actually played to their best abilities and won?
The following is an extract from John O’Sullivan’s excellent piece for issue 2 of The Football Pink, “Death, Despots and Dinamo: Beria and The Beautiful Game” (http://footballpink.net/2013/11/03/excerpt-from-the-football-pink-issue-2/), which highlights Lavrenty Beria (the former chief of the NKVD, a forerunner to the KGB), his passion for football and the extraordinary lengths he would go to fix matches in favour of his side, Dinamo Moscow:
“The final whistle blew at last; exhausted the victorious players of Spartak Moscow fell to their knees. They had triumphed against all the odds; they had beaten Dinamo Tbilisi, 3-2, in the semi final of the Russian Cup. In the stands Nikolai Starostin – one of Spartaks founding members – received the accolades of the people around him; but amid the handshakes and the backslapping a solitary figure caught Starostin’s eye, the toadish, bespectacled little man in the expensive overcoat regarded him with a look of pure hatred before turning away. Starostin’s stomach jumped into his throat, the man was Lavrenty Beria chief of the NKVD, Nikolai knew that his fate was sealed; he would be going on a long trip.”
Staying behind the Iron Curtain, Romania’s Steaua Bucharest went 119 domestic matches without defeat between June 1986 and September 1989, under the alleged patronage of Nicolae Ceausescu. Ceausescu supported the club and enabled the enforced transfer of players, including Gheorghe Hagi and Gheorghe Popescu, to the club without either the player’s or original club’s agreement. Play or face arrest, torture and potential death for you and your family seem to have been the contractual terms.
This is from the Cult Football article, “Dictators and Soccer: Nicolae Ceaușescu, Genius of the Carpathians” (http://cultfootball.com/2012/11/dictators-and-soccer-nicolae-ceausescu-genius-of-the-carpathians/):
“Romania had a fixed soccer duopoly in Dinamo Bucharest and Steaua Bucharest, supported and financed by the secret police and army, respectively. They had an “arrangement” between them known as the cooperativa. Whenever one needed a win or a specific scoreline in a head to head, the other complied. This arrangement itself transpired against a backdrop of deeply entrenched match fixing elsewhere in the league. Money needn’t exchange hands. If you played one of the top dogs, you obediently lost, or faced the consequences. Needless to say, neither came close to relegation during the ‘60s, ‘70s or ‘80s. Several sources speak of a phenomenon in which teams playing either of the Bucharest teams would concede goal after goal until the manager stepped from the dugout and raised his hand, signaling that the opposition could actually start going for goal.
Threats, intimidation and payoffs ensured that Steaua and Dinamo stayed top. But since the country as a whole was strapped for cash, intimidation of other club owners, managers, players and referees usually did the trick, and at an undeniably cut rate.”
Defender Dan Coe was one of several Romanian internationals who tried to escape from the communist regime, defecting in the early 1970s. He spent two years in the Jupiler League with Royal Antwerp in Belgium, then agreed to return to Romania if his safety there was guaranteed. Still only 31, the defender wanted to rejoin his former club Rapid Bucharest but was rejected for being “too old”. That was the official line he was given. Unofficially, an olive branch and decent professional football opportunities were never going to be handed out to an individual who had gone against the regime. In 1980 Coe had requested and was granted a short-term travel permit to Belgium under the pretext of visiting his old Antwerp colleagues. This was simply a ruse to escape again and upon arrival in Belgium he travelled on to West Germany to settle in Cologne as a political refugee. Coe was last seen and heard of giving an interview on Radio Free Europe that criticised Ceausescu and the Romanian state. He was subsequently found dead in his apartment in Cologne on 19 October 1981 by his wife and daughter. He was discovered hanging with his legs and hands cuffed. With no reason to commit suicide, and being restrained execution-style, it was obvious that Coe did not take his own life. The circumstances and cause of death pointed to him having been murdered by agents of the Romanian Securitate, who were operating unchecked in western Europe at the time eliminating enemies of the state.
Another extract from the peerless Cult Football (as far as coverage of dictators and football goes), and Rob Kirby again in “Dictators and Soccer: Kim Jong-il and North Korea (or Football, Famine and Giant Rabbits)”:
“[North Korea qualified for the] 2010 World Cup, for which Kim Jong-il banned any live broadcast of the country’s matches. For its group stage, North Korea [got] the worst draw possible: they faced Brazil, Portugal and the Ivory Coast in the proverbial Group of Death. Portugal had reached the semi-finals in both the 2006 World Cup and the 2008 Euros, Brazil had won the tournament a record five times, and the power-packed Ivory Coast squad represented the foremost hope of an African team winning on African soil. The North Korean dictator didn’t want to open himself up to embarrassment, and with good reason.
“However, after a respectable 2-1 loss to Brazil in the opening match, in a moment of glorious optimism, Kim relaxed the restrictions and allowed broadcast of the next match against Portugal, the first sports event ever broadcast live in the country. Cristiano Ronaldo & Co. slaughtered the team 7-0. The state recoiled from the blow by reflexive ceasing of all further broadcasts to stanch the blood flow, although the damage had been done. North Koreans merely missed seeing the subsequent 3-0 loss to the Ivory Coast.
“In addition to the scoreline, North Koreans may have puzzled at the North Korean rent-a-fans pictured in the stands at the 2010 World Cup. The “North Koreans” were Chinese actors paid to attend the North Korea games in South Africa. FIFA had granted North Korea 17,000 tickets for the matches, but actual North Koreans posed far too obvious a defection flight risk, so Kim hired Chinese extras to represent by proxy with their best North Korean impressions. The roles of their careers, right there on the world stage. Too bad they sucked at acting, and as a result the news spread like tabloid wildfire. In addition to all the goals scored by Brazil, Portugal and the Ivory Coast, North Korea scored another great big own goal on itself.
“All together, North Korea conceded the most goals of the tournament, though their total of 12 failed to equal the conceded goal tally of Zaire’s 1974 squad (14). Like the 1974 Zaire squad, however, there was hell to pay upon reentry home. Summoned to Pyongyang and placed on a stage of shame at the People’s Palace of Culture, the squad got pummeled by a torrent of glares, disappointment and betrayed looks, pilloried by 400 students, government lackeys and others for six hours, charged with “betraying the trust of Kim Jong-un.” (Kim Jong-il, heartbreakingly paternal, taught by example and perfectly demonstrated the art of passing the buck to his heir.) A wounded look from Jong-Il hurt more than 1000 deaths, went the rationale. After phase one of the public scolding, each of the players was ordered to reprimand the coach individually in turn. The state then reportedly sentenced Kim Jong-hun to hard labour for the team’s failings. It’s not certain that any nonverbal torture transpired after the theatrically staged rebuke and the inconsolable disappointment of the Kims, but neither can anyone entirely rule it out.”
The third and final extract from Cult Football, and Rob Kirby’s “Dictators and Soccer: Mobutu Sésé Seko of Zaïre” (http://cultfootball.com/2012/10/dictators-and-soccer-mobutu-sese-seko-of-zaire/):
“In 1974 the ex-colonial and newly named Zaïre played its first World Cup in West Germany. The country’s diminutive strongman Mobutu Sésé Seko, famous for his trademark leopard-print pillbox hat, had rechristened the Lions the Leopards. (Consistency is key in propaganda.) He had convinced himself that Zaïrean soccer could further elevate his own stature…
“… Mobutu demanded greatness in the 1974 World Cup. Zaïre had just won the 1974 African Cup of Nations, they were sub-Saharan Africa’s celebrity squad and greatness seemed within their grasp. Only it didn’t quite work out that way for the first all-black African team in the tournament.
“In the first group stage match, Zaïre lost to Scotland 2-0. No catastrophe there. The 9-0 mauling from Yugoslavia the next match smarted somewhat more. The night before its third match versus reigning champions Brazil, Mobutu sent presidential guards to threaten the players, saying if they lost 4-0, there would be hell to pay. Forget 4-0, a double-digit scoreline seemed more likely—even without Pelé, Brazil was still Brazil, and the team packed legends such as Rivelino, Jairzinho and Edu. Fortunately, Zaïre escaped with merely a 3-0 hiding. Bizarrely, as Rivelino lined up to take a Brazil free kick 30 yards from the Zaïre goal with five minutes to go, one of the Zaïreans burst from the defensive wall and hoofed it downfield. He got a yellow card. He probably preferred West German jail time with some remote possibility of defection.
“Zero goals scored, 14 conceded, [plus] one of the weirdest free kick moments ever. The players understandably did not relish their homecoming. Mobutu may have looked playfully cartoonish in his leopard print, but in his daily dictatorship duties, coldblooded cruelty defined his persona much more accurately…
“…The rumour mill says that Mobutu dressed down the players in no uncertain terms the following day, and everyone not wearing a leopard-skin hat slunk off with a sort of bad omen clinging to them that more than a few would have interpreted as of premonition of death. The country’s best players like Mwepu were forbidden to seek out pastures new in other countries, toiling away in the country’s barely remunerative home league. This included all the recently repatriated Belgian Congo-born players playing in Belgium that Mobutu hoodwinked into returning home. The country withdrew from 1978 World Cup qualification and Mobutu washed his hands of the miserable affair.”
Staying in Africa, when Burundi’s Pierre Nkurunziza isn’t ruling his country he likes nothing better than to play for his own team, Haleluyah FC. When I was a kid, if it was your ball everyone was playing with then it was your rules or you’d take the ball home and sulk. When it’s your country then your name is first on the team sheet, and woe betide anyone who tackles you as it could lead to a different type of ball game altogether!
Thanks to Craig M, @BeyondTLM, for the Dan Coe suggestion and source material.
- Excerpt from The Football Pink: Issue 2 (footballpink.net)
- Bucharest | Authorities charge 35 Romanian communist-era individuals with genocide (thejournalist.ie)
- Rodman says he met North Korean leader again (bigstory.ap.org)
- Gray Men in Gray Suits – The Long Lives of Communist Leaders (europebetweeneastandwest.wordpress.com)
- Scary blue pencil of lifelong editor and leader of Soviet Union in the mid 20th century, Joseph Stalin (warhistoryonline.com)
- ‘Steaua Bucharest are low on confidence and prone to costly errors’ – our guide to Chelsea’s Champions League opponents (standard.co.uk)
- A lost city: Photos of Bucharest’s past (forobserve.wordpress.com)
- How To Get Ahead In Romanian Politics – Analysis (eurasiareview.com)
- A lost city captured on film (bbc.co.uk)