Passing fancy

If England managers have a hard time, they still get off lightly compared to their counterparts in Colombia, as Richard Sanders reports 

As the new manager of Colombia, 40-year-old Javier Alvarez, steps gingerly into the post, he could be for­given a little trepidation, and perhaps the odd glance over his shoulder. His two predecessors received repeated death threats and one saw his centre-half mur­dered by disgruntled gamblers.

Strange,really, that the job receives any applicants at all. But Alvarez appears to be relishing the challenge and his appointment has raised at least faint hopes that a new era might be about to dawn. A quietly spoken man with deep blue eyes, Alvarez is from the city of Medellín – like both of his predecessors. For many he is a surprise appointment. He had an undistinguished playing career and has had only one season managing at the top level. But in that year he took Once Caldas, a mid-sized team from the city of Manizales, to within a whisker of their first championship in almost 50 years, playing the type of elegant, passing football that remains dear to Colombian hearts.

If he represents a fresh start it’s one Colombian football desperately needs. Despite much hype the national team has consistently failed at the top level. And it’s an open secret that for many years the coun­try’s top clubs have been little more than playthings of the country’s drug lords. In this macho, violent world Alvarez is an incongruous figure. A university graduate, he speaks both French and Eng­lish and brings a philosophical app­roach to the game.

“Football is played by human beings,” he said. “Yes, you have to understand football – the technical side, the tactical side, the strategic side. But you also have to know how human beings think, how we feel, how we behave. Otherwise you can’t communicate with your team.” He takes the en­tire team to church every Sun­day and the players indulge in lengthy bonding sessions after training and before each match. In fact the atmosphere at Once Caldas is positively touchy-feely.

But is obligatory hugging really the way to rid Colombian football of the poison of narco-corruption? The Colombian public could be for­given a certain scepticism. After all the appointment of Alvarez is, in many ways, a case of history repeating itself. Twelve years ago Pacho Maturana was also app­ointed national team coach following a single successful season at Once Caldas. He too placed great emphasis on the human side of the game and on moral values. He went on to oversee the debacle of the 1994 World Cup – following which the centre-back Andres Escobar was murdered – and is today being investigated for drug links.

The Public Prosecutor’s office has discovered che­ques written out to him by the bosses of the Cali drug cartel. Given it was public knowledge the cartel boss, Miguel Rodriguez Orejuela, ran America de Cali, where Maturana was manager in the early 1990s, this is scarcely surprising. When I interviewed him for a Channel 4 documentary a couple of years ago he made little effort to deny his drug connections. “When I went to America de Cali Horesto Sangiovani was president of the club,” he said. “But the whole country, all of Cali, all the institutions, knew the real boss was Miguel Rodriguez Orejuela. He was in hiding. But it was he who decided which players to buy and sell. When it was time to be paid it was him you got in touch with if your money hadn’t come through. We all had a very high opinion of him as a director. His private life? It’s not ours to question.”

As for Alvarez, he shows no inclination to tackle the drug issue head-on, replying with the normal, contradictory line “it was never true” and “in any case, it’s all changed now”. For the most part he takes refuge in platitudes. “Colombian society is evolving, growing. I think people will see we are representing them well and that sort of thing won’t happen again,” he said. But he may have stepped into the job at the right moment.

There is evidence the drug lords are pulling out of the game. Most games now have the feel of promotions for the big beer companies, although the way some clubs appear to be defying gravity in keeping afloat has led to speculation there may be continuing pockets of drug funding. Football proved not quite as profitable as the “narcos” had hoped and, in any case, the Public Prosecutor’s office has now laun­ched an investigation into the finances of the game. The cartel lawyers and acc­oun­t­ants would probably have little trouble concealing narco-involvement. But the attitude seems to be, why bother? There are plenty of other areas of the Colombian economy ripe to be screwed over.

So having sucked the game dry the cartels are now moving on to greener pastures – leaving behind them a trail of corpses. Andres Escobar was only the best known victim of the wave of violence which engulfed the game in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Ultimately, though, Colombians care litt­le where the money in the game comes from. They’ll judge Alvarez by performances on the pitch. And here the signs are not good. The departure of the drug cartels leaves the game in Colombia in a state of financial crisis, compounded by the team’s poor performance in France. Attendances are well down and, most worryingly for Alvarez, there is little sign of fresh talent coming through which can compare with the glittering team which disappointed so badly in the USA in 1994.

A tendency to over-elaborate remains the great flaw in the Colombian game. Alvarez’s description of his own approach is characteristically philosophical. “Football reflects the capitalist system,” he said. “It’s ever more efficient and productive. But the best foot­ball is a mixture – a mixture of capitalist efficiency and beauty, aesthetics.” At heart, though, you sense he’s a Colombian traditionalist. He’s polite rather than enthusiastic about Hamilton Ricard, whose combination of power and technique has briefly impressed at Middlesbrough. But at the mention of Faustino Asp­rilla he goes positively misty eyed. “There are players who have sound tech­nique. But then there are those who have that some­thing extra, that bit of magic which turns a game,” he said, gazing into the middle distance.

The Colombian press can be as vicious as any in the world. Under Alvarez’s immediate predecessor, Her­nan Dario Gomez, relations reached an all-time low. Gomez was once caught threatening to kill a journalist, muttering obscenities into a microphone he thought had been switched off at a press conference. “Feed Gomez to the hooligans,” read the graffiti in Bogotá after Colombia’s World Cup defeat by England. For now Alvarez is the golden boy – for not being Gomez if nothing else. But he knows all that can change. “Maturana and Gomez also had a great rapport with the press at first,” says Rodolpho Bello, the main football writer on the Bogotá daily El Tiempo. “But it can just take a couple of bad results and suddenly things can turn very nasty.” If it all goes pear-shaped the sort of treatment meted out to Glenn Hoddle will seem like a tea party.

From WSC 146 April 1999. What was happening this month