Football, « Smurf » and cocaine: end of the game for the former Colombian football star


Bogota (AFP)

When the riflemen put him in handcuffs at the exit of a café in Naples, he wore the red jersey of the America of Cali, the Colombian football team of which he was the star.

The arrest for drug trafficking in Italy of Anthony de Avila, alias the « Smurf », caused a stir in Colombia, where the 58-year-old ex-footballer remains an unforgettable football star.

El « Pitufo » (the « Smurf » in Spanish), nicknamed because of his 1.57 m, was arrested on September 20 in the center of Naples.

« The police had received information indicating the presence in the city of South Americans come to meet » figures of the Neapolitan underworld, explains to AFP a local police official, Davide Della Cioppa.

« When he was arrested, de Avila only had with him a Colombian identity card dating from 1981 » and « claimed to be a tourist ».

– Wine and pizzeria –

At the station, the suspicious agents « then discovered that he had been the subject » in 2004 of a conviction by the Italian justice to 12 years in prison « for criminal conspiracy linked to drug trafficking », adds Mr. Della Copia.

« At the time of his arrest, he was wearing a T-shirt with Cali’s America’s colors and crest. But he never told officers he was a former football player. »

And what a player! A center-forward for the famous Colombian club in the 80s and 90s, de Avila is a legend in Cali, where he remains the all-time top scorer with 208 goals, and a figure in national football.

The joy of the forwards of the club América de Cali, Anthony de Avila and Wilmar Cabrera, after the victory, 1-0 against River Plate, in the final of the Copa Libertadores, June 20, 1996 in Cali
The joy of the forwards of the club América de Cali, Anthony de Avila and Wilmar Cabrera, after the victory, 1-0 against River Plate, in the final of the Copa Libertadores, June 20, 1996 in Cali Pedro UGARTE AFP / Archives

His arrest made headlines in Colombia, where everyone had apparently forgotten about that old Italian conviction.

The former attacker « claims his innocence and did not know that he was condemned and wanted », assures his lawyer, Fabrizio de Maio, who admits that it will be « mission impossible » to make him avoid his 12 years in prison.

Arrested at the time on Italian territory, the footballer was finally able to return home, mysteriously free as the air, to resume his business and his retraining. As a researcher of young talents for his favorite team, at the head of a pizzeria, as a seller of swimsuits, or even promoter of his own brand of wine.

« He was the best to score goals, but for business it was not that … », remembers, sorry, one of his childhood friends quoted by the weekly Semana.

– « Laundry » –

« We are all surprised (…) Last I heard, he was with two promising young » footballers looking for a European team.

According to his relatives, quoted by the daily El Tiempo, the « Smurf » was also traveling for a construction company operating in Italy.

His itinerary remains unclear: Italy, Spain, France. It is established that he stayed at the beginning of August in the Netherlands, where the ex-footballer posted a video on Facebook, from Amsterdam, « sitting on a sidewalk in the Burmester shopping district ».

« We are nothing in life. Millions, cars, women are of no use, only human beings have value », he philosophized, taken with a sudden inspiration, in his red jersey .

According to the press, he was spotted precisely in Amsterdam for his contacts with Dutch traffickers.

This is not the first time that a footballer from the country which produces the most cocaine in the world has found himself in the legal nets for drug trafficking: Edwin Congo (former Real Madrid), Jhon Viáfara, Diego Leon Osorio , Luis Alfonso « Bendito », Wilson Pérez … the list goes on.

It’s not just the players. In Colombia, drug money is infiltrating everywhere … and of course in football, the king of sport in the country.

In the years 1980/1990, having a football team « was an asset », a tool of popularity for certain narcos, recalls the journalist Ignacio Gomez, co-author of the reference book « Masters of the game ».

« It was a natural laundry » for an environment with piles of cash. Of sixteen first division clubs, fifteen were linked to the drug industry, explains Mr. Gomez.

– « Not alone ! » –

Each great team then had its « capo »: the Millonarios of Bogota with Gonzalo Rodriguez Gacha called the « Mexican »; the Nacional and the Independiente of Medellin with the famous Pablo Escobar; and the America of Cali with the Cali cartel of the Rodriguez Orejuela brothers.

« Pitufo », the lightning center forward, played for America between 1982 and 1996, America’s most glorious time. A golden age that coincides with the influence on the club’s board of directors of brothers Miguel and Gilberto Rodriguez Orejuela, leaders of the Cali cartel, captured in 1995, then extradited and sentenced to the United States where they are still serving their sentence.

In 1997, during the qualifications for the Mondial-98 in France, the « Smurf », author of the goal of victory (1-0) of the national team on Ecuador, had paid a vibrant tribute to the Orejuela brothers,  » deprived of their liberty « .

Colombian forward Anthony de Avila dribbles past England defender Sol Campbell, in front of midfielder Carlos Valderrama, during the 1998 World Cup group match on June 27, 1998 in Lens
Colombian forward Anthony de Avila dribbles past England defender Sol Campbell, in front of midfielder Carlos Valderrama, during the 1998 World Cup group match on June 27, 1998 in Lens Olivier MORIN AFP / Archives

Today, « the important thing is that he pray to God and that he solve this case », comments one of his former footballer friends, Elkin Congote.

In his Italian cell, de Avila « is not alone », wants to believe El Pais, newspaper of Cali. « We will not let him die in prison, » assured Tulio Gomez, America de Cali’s main shareholder.

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