Goal difference

YEAR IN FILM: Top 2010 doc The Two Escobars examines two sides of Colombian narco-soccer

Star defender Andrés Escobar (left) and drug kingpin Pablo Escobar


YEAR IN FILM Making a mistake on the playing field can haunt an athlete for the rest of his or her career. For Colombian soccer star Andrés Escobar, a particularly heartbreaking blunder — an own goal during the 1994 World Cup — proved fatal. Just two weeks after Colombia's first-round defeat in the tournament they'd been favored to win, team captain Escobar was shot after leaving a nightclub in his hometown of Medellín. There were rumors the killer yelled "Goal!" as he unloaded.

Presented merely as a sports-history anecdote, Escobar's demise is sad and senseless. But his murder wasn't an isolated incident, just a particularly high-profile one; it was part of an unimaginable tide of violence that swept Colombia in the 1980s and '90s. If you watched the 2010 World Cup on ESPN, you probably saw commercials for The Two Escobars, presented as part of the channel's "30 for 30" documentary series. Participants included genre pioneer Albert Maysles, whose film was about Muhammed Ali; Ice Cube, who used his own South Central childhood to reflect on the Raiders' 1982 move from Oakland to Los Angeles; and brothers Jeff and Michael Zimbalist, whose longer entry The Two Escobars sifted through years of Colombian history to trace the corresponding lives of Andrés "The Gentleman of Football" Escobar and drug kingpin Pablo Escobar.

At 32, Jeff, who lives in San Francisco, is the older brother by 17 months. In 2005, he codirected the award-winning Brazilian music doc Favela Rising. Michael, an actor and writer who ran a theater company in Mexico for several years, lives in New York City. Though they're Americans, the Zimbalists feel a strong connection to Colombian culture. They were researching another film in the country (previous endeavors included a project with Colombian superstar Shakira) when ESPN asked them to pitch an idea for "30 for 30." Though the shared last name of the unrelated Andrés and Pablo makes for a memorable title, the brothers didn't use the coincidence as a starting point.

"We didn't choose the title until really late, actually, because it felt like it was more of a portrait of a time period. It was about the hopes and dreams of the Colombian people as told through the vehicle of these two characters," Jeff says. "The choice to use the two characters came about more organically than that, too. Initially we had the assignment to go find story ideas for the ESPN series that were about the impact of sports on society, and vice versa."

After learning more about Andrés, they knew they'd found a captivating subject. They also realized that they would need to contextualize his story in order to tell it properly.

"We didn't want to make a whodunnit about who pulled the trigger," Jeff says. "It was a lot more interesting to ask the question of how an athlete gets killed for making a mistake. But in order to understand that, you need to understand what narco-soccer is. We quickly realized that hadn't been covered before. And that meant that people were very reluctant to talk about it for a number of reasons: out of fear, shame, or they didn't want to revisit a traumatic time period."

The idea of "narco-soccer" led the filmmakers directly to their other subject. "You can't really explain the whole context of narco without understanding Pablo Escobar. And it also felt unwieldy to not tie the societal story to a subject, or to a personal narrative," Jeff explains. "So using Pablo as the tool through which we could explain society, and Andres as the tool through which we could understand sports, the next challenge was finding their overlaps. They only literally overlap a number of times in their lives. So how does the story justifies the use of these two characters? It has to be thematic — and there was tons of great, thematic overlap, and parallel and contrast, between the two Escobars."

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