Monday, May 9, 2011

The Clinton List

Last year, in the runup to the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, we explored one of the many facets of how soccer and politics have been intertwined over the years. Despite all efforts from FIFA to prevent it, politics, both domestic and global, have more of an effect on soccer than in any other sport. There's simply too much civic and national pride at stake and too much of the world involved at every social level for politics not to pop up in multiple forms.

Take the case of Colombian club America de Cali.

For a long time, the Red Devils operated under that most malicious of sports tropes, the anti-title curse. (Us Chicago Cubs fans know a little about those.) Their curse came way back when the club decided to convert from amateur status to professionalism in 1948. Benjamin Urrea, a fan known as Garabato, was extremely disillusioned by this, to the point where he said that if America went pro, they would never be champion. That curse, it's widely believed, was broken in 1979, 31 years later, when America claimed its first league title.

Key phrase, widely believed. A funny thing about soccer is that 'being champion' has more than one meaning. Soccer doesn't work like most sports in North America. For teams in the NFL, NHL, NBA or MLB, victory really only means winning their respective league titles. In soccer, though, being champion can mean not only the league title, but also being champion of lower tiers of play, or champion of a knockout cup competition of some sort, or champion of a larger competition a club gains access to through quality performance in their league, or even champion of some random invitational tournament that pops up from time to time. It is this quirk of the sport that leads some America fans to believe the curse is still alive until such time as the club wins the South American continental competition, the Copa Libertadores.

Enter Bill Clinton.

On October 21, 1995, then-President Clinton signed Executive Order 12978. The order dealt with drug trafficking in Colombia, freezing the American assets of any entity connected with local drug cartels and preventing anyone that does business with American citizens from also doing business with those entities. This is otherwise known as the "Clinton List".

America de Cali was one of those entities. Two high-ranking members of the Cali drug cartel, Gilberto and Miguel Rodriguez Orejuela, were America fans and used some of their drug money to support the club. Convicted in 1998 and placed into a Colombian prison that barely even slowed them down, their involvement landed the Red Devils on the Clinton List that same year along with any other business that involved the brothers.

In a way, the Curse of Garabato had manifested itself: if it couldn't prevent league titles, it could force the club to do without professionalism's benefits. Not only would no sponsor touch America, but they could no longer win prize money from any competition that involved American clubs. That came up in 1999, when the Red Devils won the Copa Merconorte, a competition involving American clubs, and missed out on $200,000.

With no way to make money other than gate receipts and merchandise sales, America's financial situation became dire. All they could afford to pay players was $3,000 a month, or $36,000 a year. There are not many quality soccer players that will take that kind of pay. In fact, you personally quite possibly make more than that yourself, even if you're not an athlete. The club's debt promptly ballooned, and as long as the Rodriguez brothers maintained control of the club, in fact as long as America de Cali remained a business in their current form, getting off the Clinton List was impossible.

Despite this, on the pitch, the Red Devils did surprisingly well. For one thing, they still exist as a soccer club. For another, they racked up five more league titles in 1997, 2000, 2001, 2002 and 2008 (the last two after Colombia converted to a split-season format known in Latin America as Apertura/Clausura). A more familiar way to illustrate different measures of success from team to team is the fact that America considers this a subpar showing.

In 2010, America finally escaped from the Clinton List by restructuring the club to be run by the city of Cali; the Rodriguez brothers had been extradited to the United States in 2004 and no longer had any control- Gilberto to Pennsylvania; Miguel to Kentucky. It just took several more years to wrestle control from the rest of the Rodriguez family. The Red Devils are free, but not without accruing $2 million in debt that they now have to try and pay off.

And while sports curses only hamper one club, the political world has no such restriction. For while America de Cali has freed itself of its drug-addled past, another Colombian club, Santa Fe, has found itself under suspicion of being financed by another trafficker, Bogota kingpin Daniel "El Loco" Barrera.

The Clinton List looms once more.

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