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World Cup Play Helps Colombian Team Shed Bad Reputation


Colombia's national men's soccer team is heading to the quarter-finals of the World Cup. That's a first. And as John Otis reports, the team's winning streak is helping the Colombian soccer emerge from a history of disappointment and also drug-fueled violence.

JOHN OTIS, BYLINE: Colombia has handily won all four of its World Cup games.


UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER: (Shouting in foreign language).

OTIS: Against Uruguay, Columbia midfielder, James Rodriguez, scored one of the prettiest goals of the tournament. With his back to the net, Rodriguez caught a pass with his chest, twisted around and blasted a long-distance shot that banged in off the crossbar.


UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER: (Shouting in foreign language).

OTIS: For now, his five goals make Rodriguez the World Cup's top scorer, ahead of Argentina's Lionel Messi and Brazil's Neymar. The Colombian team has also found glory on the sidelines with its choreographed salsa dances to celebrate goals. Their best moves have been compiled and set to music on YouTube.


UNIDENTIFIED SINGER: (Signing in foreign language).

OTIS: This outpouring of joy contrasts with Colombian soccer's painful past. In the 1980s and '90s, drug cartels financed several of the country's professional teams as a way to launder money. Cartels and gambling syndicates often leaned on players and referees to throw matches. Colombia's 1989 professional soccer season was canceled following the murder of a referee. Then came the infamous 1994 World Cup - several players received death threats. In a loss to the U.S., defender Andres Escobar accidentally knocked the ball into Columbia's net for an own goal.


UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER: Own goal. What a tragedy for the Colombian defense - Escobar own goal.

OTIS: Colombia was eliminated and a week later Escobar was shot dead in his hometown of Medellin. The motive remains unclear but many believe the murder was ordered by drug lords who had bet heavily on Columbia to advance at the World Cup.


CHORUS: Andres, Andres.

OTIS: Thousands attended Escobar's funeral. It was a low point for the sport and for Columbia, where violence was consuming the country.


ANDRES ESCOBAR: (Spanish spoken).

OTIS: In this documentary, filmed shortly afterwards, Escobar's father called the killing a national disgrace. But over the past two decades, the biggest cartels have been dismantled. In addition, the government is holding peace talks to end Columbia's 50-year guerrilla war. All this had led to a steep drop in violent crime. Soccer is also on the mend. Investigators say that pro-teams have largely cut their ties to the underworld. Meanwhile, a new generation of talent has brought Columbia back to the World Cup for the first time in 16 years.

ALVARO BARRERO: (Spanish spoken).

OTIS: As he celebrates Colombia's latest victory, law student Alvaro Barrero says soccer used to be rife with dirty money, but that's no longer the case. Columbia has changed a lot for the better. Another fan, Esteban Martinez, agrees.

ESTEBAN MARTINEZ: (Spanish spoken).

OTIS: Colombians have woken up, he tells me. Now we're saying, no more violence. Well, not entirely. After Columbia defeated Greece in its World Cup opener, drunken revelers were involved in 3,000 fights that left nine people dead. That prompted authorities to ban alcohol sales in some cities, when Columbia plays. So how long will the party last? On Friday, Columbia plays host nation Brazil, which has won the World Cup a record five times. But Columbia is playing so well that some oddsmakers are now predicting an upset. For NPR News, I'm John Otis in Bogota, Colombia.

MONTAGNE: This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.