Dangerous Play (2022) - Jugada Peligrosa

Narco-fútbol made refereeing a ‘Dangerous Play’ (2022)

Bit by bit, HBO Max has gotten onto the fútbol bandwagon, and so far, they have put some very entertaining productions online. If you are a student of refereeing, narco-fútbol, or sports corruption, you will especially enjoy the documentary Dangerous Play (original title is Jugada Peligrosa) by Director Matías Gueilburt.

In 1989, Atlético Nacional became the first Colombian club to win South America’s biggest championship, the Copa Libertadores. The victory and the subsequent rise of the Colombian National Team put the country towards the top of world football. But 30 years later, in 2020, referees who had worked the semi-final and final games in Colombia told how they had been threatened and offered bribes before the matches by underlings of the Medellín drug lord Pablo Escobar.

The Story

In this documentary, Director Gueilburt lays out a compelling story with snippets of the violent times, interviews of the referees who are now in their mid to late 70s, reconstructed scenes depicting the threats (which may have been headed by Escobar’s infamous hitman Popeye), and highlights of the games. While that might sound like a run-of-the-mill approach, Gueilburt brings out the character of the referees, journalists explain what Colombia was like at that time, and player interviews convey the excitement of some very unusual games.

It is the referees that make this film fascinating. Both of the referee crews for the semi-final and final games in Colombia are from Argentina. It appears they were unprepared for the threats. They talk about the fears for their lives, and how they realize that their only course of action is to work their game. At the same time, they do what referees are trained to do: be a team, be brave, be fair, and be ready for anything. And so, they walk onto the pitch and do their jobs.

The soccer

1989 Copa Libertadores shootout
1989 Copa Libertadores shootout

To me, the most remarkable aspect of the Copa Libertadores 1989 Final is the fact that I had never heard about this game before. Nacional had lost the first leg 0-2 to Olimpia Asuncion in Paraguay. In the return leg in Colombia, Nacional tied up the score on aggregate, and the game went to penalty kicks. The shoot-out was tied at 4:4 and went to sudden death. At that point, 7 players either missed or their shots were blocked. Seven! Finally, Nacional player Leonel Alvarez put his PK into the net, and the game was over. The highlight of this shootout is remarkable. See the CONMEBOL clip below.

What to believe?

As far as the play, 2 things are suspicious. First of all, 7 footballers in a row missing a PK is difficult to believe. Secondly, the documentary highlights from all the Nacional games in the tournament seem to show, well, like the GKs could have stopped quite a few of those Nacional goals. It made me feel like Nacional’s whole progression in the tournament was suspect, and that bribes and/or threats against players and/or referees could have preceded every game.

I found it difficult to accept that the Argentine referees for the Final (led by Center referee Juan Carlos Loustau) were unaware of the threats against the Argentine referee team for the Semi-Final (led by Carlos Alfonso Esposito). In the film, Esposito’s team say they filed no report on the incident. But in 2020, Esposito said he reported the threats to Julio Grondona, head of the Argentine Federation. The return leg for the Final was subsequently moved from Medellin to Bogota at Grondona’s behest.

Whether or not it is true that Grondona knew, it seems natural that Esposito would have warned Loustau about the risks of refereeing the Final in Colombia. Referees are a tight group, and they share information about teams and environments. If Loustau had not been warned, wouldn’t he have been suspicious when the game was moved 260 miles away to Bogota? Would he have accepted the move was simply for a bigger stadium and higher altitude?

Argentina itself had only exited a brutal military dictatorship just 6 years prior. I am still quite paranoid after 4 years of the Trump administration. It is also worth considering that the documentary’s creators are all Argentine. So I am a little skeptical of this small part of the story, but I do accept Loustau at his word that his team resolved to referee as they always did. I found the story of the character of these 6 referees to be believable and admirable and recommend this film to every referee.

This documentary caused me to watch the 2022 Netflix 6-episode series Goles en Contra (The Final Score). If you only want to watch a little narco-soccer, limit yourself to Dangerous Play or The Two Escobars and skip all the bloodshed.

9 Soccer Movie Mom Rating = 9