Navigating Global Football Cartels: Lessons From The Colombian Drug Trade

Recently, Indian news media has been a medley of drugs and Bollywood against a backdrop of NCB crackdowns. This made us think of the Netflix show Narcos, and how the cocaine trade accelerated under the aegis of druglord Pablo Escobar, and his love for football – and investment in Atlético Nacional – brought us back full circle to the world of sports. Even amidst the pandemic, soccer clubs have made multi-million dollar transfers, and though many expected the transfer bubble to burst, it has done anything but that. Sure, business has been slower, and fans haven’t been to stadiums, but overall, it hasn’t been the crash that people expected or spoke about in hushed tones. Indeed, a lot of the top teams have only invested and strengthened. In the digital age, sport is a commodity, clubs are run like football cartels, and if the beautiful game is to tread into the future, it should learn lessons from its more nefarious cousins, drug cartels, before it too crumbles under its own weight.

The Drug Trade

Columbia became synonymous with the drugs with the rise of the Medellin cartel heralded by Pablo Escobar in the ’80s. Soon, the country’s football clubs were embroiled in the trade too, as they were used by various mob bosses to funnel money. It also helped that some of them had a deep love for the beautiful game. But the fall of the druglords and the murder of Colombian centre-back and captain Andrés Escobar after the country’s early exit from the 1994 World Cup led to disarray and tarnishing of their global image from which they were only able to recover in 2014, after the heroics of one Mr James Rodríguez at the 2014 FIFA World Cup.

But let’s go back to the beginning:

See, Pablo Escobar was only able to set up the cartel after he discovered the extremely profitable nature of cocaine as an easily distributable commodity. The upsides were high, a global trade soon followed, leaving laws and ethics by the wayside. It was the forbidden fruit, and once you got a bite of it, you were smitten.

Governance, monitoring, legislation, health concerns, all of them became irrelevant, as drug consumption boomed. It wasn’t easy, but even politicians, lawmakers and enforcers were susceptible to the lure of drugs and the money to be made. Bribery, corruption and cheating followed in the chase for thrill and money.

Sounds familiar?

Well, that’s because you find all of those factors in global sport as well, and once again, they’re becoming all too common.

Arsenal's Head of Football, Raul Sanhieli, had to unceremoniously depart the club after an internal investigation into transfer deals led by a special fixer sent by American Club Owner Stan Kroenke.
Arsenal‘s Head of Football, Raul Sanhieli, had to unceremoniously depart the club after an internal investigation into transfer deals led by a special fixer sent by American Club Owner Stan Kroenke.

You could look at the way gambling, drugs and football intersected in Colombia with the explosive financial success of the Medellin and Cali cartels and draw a parallel between the modern monetary boom across sporting industries.

At its peak, the Medellín cartel employed more people than FedEx, Domino's, and Google… combined.
Narcos on Twitter: At its peak, the Medellín cartel employed more people than FedEx, Domino’s, and Google… combined.

In its heyday, the Medellin Cartel was trading over 400 million dollars a week.

It isn’t difficult to see shades of the drug trade in the behaviour of the transfer market, which often behaves like a ginormous, interconnected, global football cartel.

In an increasingly digital era, the sport is just part of the package. Gambling isn’t restricted to match results. Today, you can bet on player signings. The transfer market is an entire sub-product unto itself, with fans tracking flights and social media posts like hawks, and getting a big name player is not less than winning a small trophy.

Bets are even placed on first-scorer, top-scorer, fouls, among a number of other things. Thus, you have multiple avenues of monetization, either legal or illegal. Bribes can be paid to ensure success in these smaller aspects of the game, manipulating events without obviously throwing away matches. Easy to avoid authorities – or even prevent suspicion.

Everything is part of the product, everything sells.

We’re sold emotions. The desire to be attractive, to gain reflected glory and social acceptance is a powerful one.

Drugs were mind-blowing products, world-class sport offers an equal amount of emotional gratification, and its easier to understand. Every creature on the planet understands ‘Us versus Them’ on a visceral level. It’s seen in politics, it’s seen in cultural differences, but nowhere is it as obvious as on the green field of grass.

While the drug lords of South America formed cheap production and quick distribution strategies for efficient consumption of their product and profit-making, the sports world has unlocked digital production and distribution of competitions at a near-instantaneous level. With the advent of dig bata and superior editing, the final product can be chopped and diced in real-time, adding in advertising, and creating a litany of byte-sized products for 24/7 consumption across digital media channels.

The Power Game

For the Drug lords, it wasn’t just about the money. Or rather, after a point, it wasn’t only about the money. Through bribes and corruption, they brought power and sought to build an empire for themselves. The spiders at the heart of a global web. Wealth was just a means to an end, to express themselves.

To matter.

Narcissism? Maybe. But the urge for dominance while also gaining societal acceptance is a powerful emotional stimulant.

It is the same need which drives oligarchs from Russia, Sheikhs from the Middle-East and Billionaires from the Americas to purchase football club. It isn’t cocaine, but it fulfils the same purpose. You get a seat at the only table that matters, and you play for the highest of stakes, putting your money and your pride on the line as tension lines your stomach.

It’s all about power and image.

Which is exactly why Neymar had such a hard time when he tried to leave PSG so soon after his transfer. Despite all that is said about Player Power, Brazil’s most famous player couldn’t leave his gilded cage. After all, PSG is bankrolled by the Qatari nation, and after they had danced through multiple loopholes to make him the most expensive signing in football history, the country could hardly afford such a blow to their pride right in the middle of their preparations to host the 2022 FIFA World Cup.

Drug barons got their power by bribing government officials and law enforcement to retain their hold on the marketplace, in the world of football, we see similar practices being carried out right under the nose of Financial Fair Play, with laws being flouted and loopholes being exploited with impudency.

All for the drug that is power.

What Next?

Is the bubble finally about to burst? Are football cartels going to go the way of the drug cartels and come crashing down? If yes, how do we stop such a future from occurring? How do we save the beautiful game?

The obvious answer is trust in sport governance, but is that enough in itself? Do those making the laws have not only the skills but also the morals and ethics to combat the powers that want to exploit sport towards their own ends? Especially when FIFA itself was embroiled in a corruption scandal which spanned over a decade and claimed the careers of several high-ranking officials, including the then President of FIFA, Sepp Blatter – a scandal which like a multi-headed Hydra resurfaced even in 2020 when the current President of the organization, Gianni Infantino, came under a criminal investigation?

How then can the integrity and spirit of sport be maintained?

The dismantling of the Colombian cartels required cross-organizational partnerships across governments and countries. A similar global compact can be formed between sports federations on certain moral, ethical, legal guidelines and business principles so that trade can not only be regulated but also facilitated. Various agencies can work in tandem, working as partners, while also providing oversight and offering checks and balances on each other. With technological advancements happening at breakneck speed, it is essential to have people who not only understand a world which is constantly in flux, but who also have strong moral fibre, for which the teaching of ethics is essential in classrooms where the leaders of the future study, while also taking it into consideration during hiring.

Business, governments, educational organizations, society, all of these need to come and work with one another to ensure that the beautiful game stops running like football cartels and works for the community.

The Sport Integrity Global Alliance is one such organization bringing these separate verticals together under one roof. More need to follow.

People need to be assured that sport is real. That it remains a contest of skill and not another casino where gambling reigns supreme and the dollar is almighty. It is the unpredictable nature of football that draws viewers to it. The hope that David can beat Goliath with a 94th-minute stunner into the top corner. A battle fought not with swords, and not on killing fields, but on green grass with a rubber ball.

In a world where fake news dominates and reality is distorted, lies and false promises may get you success in the short-term, but in the long-term, it is a strategy doomed to failure.

In a tarnished world, the beautiful game needs to rise above and show that it can be better, that humans can rise above and do better.

Pritesh Patil

Purveyor of stories, hope and rebellions. Often found exploring the nooks and crannies of the city searching for adventures and gaps between worlds. You can find him on Twitter as @TheQuillseeker.

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