'Two Escobars' Chronicles Sporting Scandal

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If you like cocaine and soccer and the perils of celebrity, and aren't Diego Maradona, then "The Two Escobars" might be a good prospect for an otherwise dull week at the cinema. Playing at the Sundance Kabuki Cinemas in San Francisco's Japantown, the documentary is a clean break from the summer action movie graveyard that is late August. To be sure, there is plenty of violence and drama in the film, but it's more sobering than mind-numbing.

Directed by Jeff and Michael Zimbalist, "Escobars" explores the ties between Colombian organized crime and the country's soccer teams in the late '80s and early '90s. The Zimbalists use the fraternization and linked deaths of two major players in Colombian national life to expose these connections. The titular "Two Escobars" are Pablo and Andres, stars of their respective industries. Pablo is the infamous leader of the Medellin cartel; Andres is the star defender of the Colombian national team. The pair share not only a name but a common Horatio Alger story.

The film begins in medias res with Andres scoring against his own team in the 1994 World Cup and flashes back to his youth. As he develops from schoolboy player to world-class prodigy, we also see Pablo Escobar getting his first sniff of success in the cocaine business. As Pablo's money swells he decides to invest it back into his first love: Soccer. With Medellin and other cartel money flushing a previously poor league, Colombian soccer begins to harvest some serious talent. The national team shoots up in the world rankings and soon Andres and the other players are celebrating victories at Pablo's estate.

The downfall of this marriage between drugs and sport is predictable yet still full of deep sadness. The Zimbalists interview cartel bigwigs, friends and family who alternately hail the achievements of the soccer team and weep over its cost. Yet it is the players themselves who provide the best parts of the feature. As the filmmakers play highlights of the team's victories, players wistfully recall the tackles, sidesteps and goals of each match with all the tender nostalgia of sport's best old boys. But when they speak of the parties with Pablo they sound like French collaborators, still scared and still ashamed. It's a rare moment of vulnerability: When fear replaces the machismo of alpha males.

"The Two Escobars" takes an unflinching look at the collision between sports and the "real world." It is a terrific piece of filmmaking. But perhaps I'm biased, I've seen it before.

See, here's the rub: "The Two Escobars" was produced by ESPN Films for a series on that network called "30 for 30." And it debuted in June.

So now it's playing at the swanky Sundance Kabuki in San Francisco. Do you think San Franciscans would like the film any less if they knew it came on channel 38 right after NASCAR? The idea that some distributor is betting that San Franciscans will be willing to pay 12 dollars to see something seen on TV three months ago is hilarious and sad. Also, what makes this particular episode more worthy of a billing than, say, "Run Ricky Run," about an NFL player walking away from millions to meditate and practice yoga, or "The U," which details the racism of the University of Miami football team? Perhaps it's the inclusion of the hip-cosmopolitan signifier of soccer, the "real world" problems and the subtitles that make this an attractive, albeit recycled, product for the Sundance Cinemas.

If those things sound attractive to you and you have disposable income, go see "The Two Escobars." Otherwise there are 18 episodes of relatively equal quality on ESPN currently and 12 more to come. Save your money.

Catch some NASCAR on channel 38 with Derek at [email protected]

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