His name has caused him grief in the past, but Bolivia’s veteran playmaker deserves to be hailed in his own right as a truly special football player
He is Bolivia’s adopted hero, adored by fans and the closest thing the nation has to a Lionel Messi figure. Pablo Escobar may have a name that automatically reminds readers of a more malevolent figure, but on Thursday his intentions will be all good as The Strongest bid to grab a spot in this year’s Copa Libertadores.
The first time that Escobar truly saw the impact his name carried came back in 2006. The Paraguay-born Bolivia international was playing for Cerro Porteno as the Asuncion club fought in that year’s Libertadores, drawn in a tough group that included Argentina’s Rosario Central and Palmeiras of Sao Paulo.
A win and a draw against those big-hitting opponents set the stage for the third encounter, away to Atletico Nacional. There was one small problem for Escobar, however: the tie took place in Medellin, the city notorious for having been the stronghold of his infamous namesake, the late Colombian cocaine kingpin.
“I went through immigration and when giving me back my passport, a man asked if it was the first time I had been in Colombia,” Escobar laughed in a recent interview with Chilean newspaper La Tercera .
“He asked if I knew anyone here, if I had family here. I was detained for a while to one side. I had to call the club’s directors, more people from immigration came over and it was all resolved. I have nothing to do with that character who did nothing good at all for humanity.”
And with a timing of phrase just as acute as the passes he threads through for his La Paz club, the 38-year-old Escobar adds his own sign-off, playing off the Medellin native’s alter-ego as the Patron of Evil: “Take it easy, I am the Patron of Good, or of Goals!”
Fans of The Strongest, the curiously named Bolivian giants based in the country’s largest city, would certainly agree. Players from South America’s lowland regions notoriously struggle in the altitude of La Paz, 3,600 metres above sea level. But Escobar is that rarest of creatures: the Asuncion native not only thrived amongst the clouds, but adopted the city as his home, additionally taking on Bolivian citizenship and playing, to date, 23 times for the Verde.
Indeed, the veteran is seldom seen outside of La Paz these days, as his club prefer to save him for home matches where the altitude make them a doubly potent threat to unwary visitors. Having masterminded the Bolivians’ 4-0 victory over Uruguay’s Wanderers that sent them into a final Libertadores preliminary prior to the group stages, he will look for a repeat on Thursday as Union Espanola of Chile scale the Andes, with the tie poised at 1-1.
Escobar played the first leg in Santiago, dropping back to wide on the left. In Bolivia, however, he will play in the hole behind principal striker Matias Alonso. His intricate passing and Alonso’s finishing are two-thirds of the equation in explaining The Strongest’s success. The diagram is completed by Alejandro Chumacero, whose tireless running in midfield and bursts forward have earned him the nickname ‘Chumasteiger’ in deference to the World Cup-winning German.
Bolivian teams prevailing on home turf is nothing surprising in South America. But The Strongest have negotiated two tough away matches already without tasting defeat, a feat rarely seen from a nation whose club football ranks near the bottom of the continent.
It is testament to the work carried out by Cesar Farias, the Venezuelan coach who previously helped his home nation go from perpetual whipping boys to respectable opposition in just a few short years.
And in Escobar, his lieutenant and veteran on the pitch, Farias has the perfect sidekick. The playmaker has been at the club since 2011, his third spell, winning five national titles in as many years as The Strongest have come to dominate Bolivian football. Perhaps the proudest moment for the club, however, came last year, when Sao Paulo were downed by a single goal from Alonso to mark the first-ever time a Bolivian side had won in Brazil.
With his 39th birthday coming in 2017, this might be Escobar’s last Libertadores. Or perhaps not: his masterful passing, vision and effortless ease on the ball show no sign of diminishing even as he nears his fifth decade on this planet, as two assists to destroy Wanderers earlier this month proved.
A wandering career took the Paraguayan to Argentina and a host of Brazilian clubs before he finally found his spiritual home in La Paz, and it is there Union Espanola await nervously the prospect of another masterclass from the ageless Patron of Goals.
Victory over the Chileans would be just reward for what has been a fantastic The Strongest campaign so far, and would offer another priceless opportunity for South America to watch the man who has reinvented the continent’s most infamous name into a force for beauty and good on the football pitch.