Colombia: Rooting for Pablo's Team
In Medellin, Atletico Nacional Stirs Passion Among Soccer Fans
By Kevin Dimetres
The modern mystique of Medellin’s Atletico Nacional Futbol Club lies in its controversial past; Nacional was the one-time play toy of Colombian cocaine kingpin Pablo Escobar.
I wasn’t sure what to expect when I visited Medellin and watched Atletico Nacional compete against crosstown rival Itagui Futbol Club. But the allure of Nacional’s illustrious tradition, Medellin’s provocative history, and the contentious stature of Escobar’s pop culture prestige were something I had to see with my own eyes.
The height of Atletico Nacional’s success in the 1980’s-- which included a Copa Cup victory in 1989-- coincided with rise of the Medellin Cartel and Escobar’s bloody ascent to the top of most wanted lists across the globe.
Nacional experienced a pop culture rebirth with the international release of “Two Escobar’s”, a documentary detailing the controversial rise of Colombian narco-soccer.
The film displays spellbinding images of the vibrant and vivacious Nacional fans engrossed in a surreal soccer experience unlike any sporting event I had witnessed back in the States.
Pablo Escobar's Gravesite
A pregame meal of barbequed corn and guarapo, a deliciously refreshing sugar cane drink sold on the streets of Medellin, put me at ease before a polemical excursion prior to the game- the unsettling pilgrimage to the grave of Pablo Escobar.
Located near the outskirts of Medellin in Itagui’s scenic Cemetario Jardins Montesacro, Escobar’s grave has evolved into something of a cultural mecca.
Idolization of the former billionaire don of the Medellin Cartel manifests itself as a Robin Hood type of heroic vigilante, while detractors dismiss his proclivity for domestic terrorism and Machiavellian tactics as the sinister conduct of a bombastic thug. He remains a polarizing figure for both locals and travelers nearly a generation after his death.
Escobar’s grave emanated a respectful silence despite the spectrum of emotions displayed in the eyes of fellow onlookers; some exhibited a state of wondrous awe, others were unable to disguise their tortured disdain.
His tombstone, set in a green block of marbled granite glossed with white accents, provokes a subtle connection to the glory days of Escobar’s favorite futbol club.
Persevering through the demise of the Medellin Cartel during the height of the Colombian narco-wars, Atletico Nacional severed all ties to Escobar after his death in 1993.
In the last decade, Nacional has reemerged as a national powerhouse to capture seven Catergoria Primera A championships in Colombia’s highest professional soccer classification. The teams’ revival has coincided with the rebirth of modern Medellin as a world class city and up-and-coming tourist destination.
Traversing the city en route to Botero Plaza, the downtown square showcasing the rotund figures of renowned local artist Fernando Botero, I found myself immersed in a flurry of passerby’s donning Atletico Nacional’s iconic green & white striped jerseys.
The neighboring street vendors were quick to recognize my interest, preying on my burgeoning fandom with a bidding war of cheap prices and cheaper knockoff uniforms until I was decked out in Nacional gear.
If walls could talk, the Atanasio Girardot Stadium would have quite a few stories to tell. Conveniently located within walking distance of El Estadio metro stop, subway passengers showered me with high-fives and fist-bumps at the sight of my jersey, passionately shouting “Gana Nacional!” as we rode through the Medellin.
A blur of spirited futbol fans awaited me at the stadium gates, the mash of Atletico Nacional-themed attire blending together in a hypnotic wave of green & white stripes.
I purchased a ticket to sit in the “fan section” from the cautiously apprehensive teller in the stadium box office window, the look in his eye suggesting that this was to be an experience like none other.
The stadium corridors, dank and barren like a medieval dungeon, were devoid of any commercial trade. Neither beers, nor hot dogs, nor Atletico Nacional memorabilia was sold inside the gates.
What the stadium lacked in amenities, it made up for in pride; the inner passageways were teeming with rabid Nacional fans, submerging me in a sea of unbridled futbol hooligan lust and imperious “Gana Nacional!” ballads.
The Green and White Section
Proudly wearing my Atletico Nacional jersey as a well-intentioned gesture of peace and inclusion, I found a seat in the electrically charged, highly condensed, green & white section on the far end of the field behind the goal posts.
Directly behind the goal stood a motley crew of super fans equipped with large drums and instruments of percussion, poised to act as the unofficial rhythm and chant conductors. A palpable buzz infused the stadium; these fans were here to have a good time, and an expressive victory would not be denied.
Curiously enough, the seating sections on the long sides of the field were nearly empty. Itagui fans were compressed behind the opposite goal, the middle sections of the stadium serving as a desolate sprawl of no man’s land.
It’s also worth noting that cameras are strictly forbidden inside the stadium, a rule zealously enforced by the fans. Many questionable activities are conveniently ignored, as evidenced by looming clouds of cigar smoke and empty bottles of liquor strewn about, but the sight of a camera incites a surprisingly quick and decisive reaction.
I’d planned on sitting down and casually watching the game, but neither “sit” nor “casual” correlate with the Atletico Nacional experience. Right from the jump, Nacional fans were belligerent in their excitement, reacting to each pass, shot, and steal with a spellbinding level of gusto and braggadocio.
Thundering drum rhythms pulsated endlessly through the stadium, providing a cinematic, sonorous narrative I had never witnessed at a professional sporting event back in the States.
Instantly, I was hooked.
Fans stood throughout the duration of the game, endlessly clapping to the cadence of the drumbeats, using their seats strictly as stools for an enhanced view.
The maestros behind the drums led the fans through a catalog of songs and victorious chants dedicated to Atletico Nacional, interchanging the anthems every few minutes; as soon as I was able to memorize and recite the tunes of one chant, a new one would seemingly begin. Nevertheless, I sang the battle cries of Atletico Nacional until I could sing no more.
The never-ending standing and singing and stomping and clapping; it was exhausting being a Nacional fan.
But there was something emotionally electrifying about the experience; I felt like an extension of the game itself.
The fans, the players, the music, the gameplay- we were all connected on the same energetic wavelength, seemingly working in sync to inspire and enliven the experience as a whole.
I wasn’t simply watching a futbol match; for a moment in time, I was engaged in the spiritual epicenter of Medellin, expressed through futbol and personified by Atletico Nacional. It was easy to see why Pablo Escobar was so enchanted with his favorite team.
The sensory overload reached ethereal levels when Nacional scored a goal to take a 1-0 lead, a winning margin which they would not relinquish. The screaming and shouting, the pushing and jumping, the hysteria and elation; I let it all flow.
Atletico Nacional emerged victorious, yet I felt like we won.
I left the stadium in a disoriented haze of adrenaline and exhaustion, following a mob of fans to partake in celebratory shots of aguardiente (aka Colombian firewater) and grilled steaks from the street vendors in Medellin.
Long after the game had ended shouts of “Gana Nacional!” continued to reverberate deep in the city plazas, while the smoke from the ashes of my victory cigar slowly drifted up and away into the flawless nighttime sky.
As Escobar’s reign of terror fades into memory, Atletico Nacional and the city of Medellin continue to rise from the dying embers of their violent past to personify the rhythmic soul of Colombia’s modern day renaissance.
Kevin Dimetres is an east-coast native having lived in cities from Boston to Miami, Kevin currently works as an educator and freelance writer in the Washington, D.C. area. His stories have been published on GoNOMAD and the Washington Post.