Once a murder capital of the world, Columbia slowly rose to become one of the safest tourist spots on the globe. The country had seen its fair share of problems as drug cartels once instilled fear among the locals while the government officials were bribed or assassinated to cater to the will of the drug lords.

In order to clean their money earned through illegal means, the drug mafias started investing in football and contributed to bringing the Colombian football at the international stage. An own goal against USA in the 1994 FIFA World Cup was enough for the drug cartels to assassinate Colombia’s captain Andres Escobar.

During these turbulent times, James Rodriguez, an attacking midfielder came into the picture as a heroic performance in the 2014 FIFA World Cup introduced his talent to the entire world. But his rise to fame had a secret attached with Columbia’s most notorious drug lord Pablo Escobar’s personal favourite, Gustavo Upegui.

Upegui once spoke about his bond with Escobar stating that: “In the 60’s, when my family moved to the neighbourhood of La Paz (in Envigado), diagonal to my residence lived the family of Mr Abel Escobar and Mrs Hermilda Gaviria. Pablo was a member of this family (…) In that childhood, we shared a passion for cycling and football. My family moved in 1971 and I did not see Pablo again until 1980, when we participated in political and cultural activities, such as civility on the move and lighting of sports venues.”

Gustavo reportedly played a big role in helping Pablo setting up many fronts for his criminal activities and while he was serving his sentence, it was Gustavo who handled all of Pablo’s business.

Gustavo’s first foray into the football business was buying a local football club named, Envigado FC. This club went on to become an epitome of developing home-grown Columbian talents and slowly turned into the hub for youth development. During one of his visits to scout talent and train them, Gustavo spotted a certain 11-year-old James Rodriguez who scored two goals directly from a corner.

James was then representing Academia Tolimense and without any further ado, Gustavo made an offer for the youngster. The club hesitated at first but finally allowed the teen prodigy to leave with Gustavo.

James got his big break at the tender age of 14 when Gustavo told Envigado FC’s manager to hand him a number 10 shirt as well as give him his debut. Sadly, for the club, Gustavo was assassinated only a month after James made his debut. James’ two years tenure with Envigado FC was more than fruitful as he led the club to play in Columbia’s first division.

Argentinian club Banfield eventually came calling and offered £250,000 for James. Winning the league at the mere age of 17, James also became the youngest foreigner to score a goal in Argentina. After two-and-a-half successful years with Banfield, James was signed by Porto for €5.1 million. His stint at Porto led to many offers from the big guns of European football. James ended up with Real Madrid in 2014 and has been one of the most prominent footballers of modern times.

Feature image courtesy: AFP / Raul Arboleda