Colombia’s James Rodriguez, now a renowned soccer player for Spanish club Real Madrid, was first scouted and trained by a crime lord and former partner of Pablo Escobar.
Today James is one of the highest earning soccer players worldwide, which was perhaps made possible due to the keen eye of organized crime lord Gustavo Upegui who was the first to spot the players’ talent.
According to a report by Las 2 Orillas, Upegui, the man responsible for Rodriguez’s success at such a young age, was renowned in the 1990s as chief of the Office of Envigado, an enforcement arm of Escobar’s Medellin Cartel.
As was the fashion among other infamous drug lords at the time, Upegui decided to buy the Envigado soccer club, a modest second division Colombian team next to Medellin. His plan was to scout for young talent who he could then bring onboard to revitalize the club.
Out of the players who were scouted, Rodriguez was the most significant, however, others included Fredy Guarin, Juan Fernando Quintero and Dorlan Parbon.
The 24-year-old mid-fielder James was born in the northeastern Colombian city of Cucuta. Upegui first saw James play, however, in the 2003 Pony Championships, soccer competition for under 13-year-old youths in Medellin. The 11-year-old James was snapped up by Upegui as soon as the game he was playing in ended, but not before a deal was made with his parents.
Maria del Pilar Rubio, Rodriguez’s mother, and stepfather Juan Carlos, agreed that Upegui could train their son at Independiente Medellin to then try him as a professional soccer player for the Envigado club, but on the condition that the capo would move the family from Ibague, where they were living at the time, to Medellin.
Upegui met their requests, and then some. The family were put up in a “good apartment,” right next door to the El Dorado soccer field where the team practiced, and Rubio and Restrepo were sorted out with jobs.
Although it was clear that the young boy had talent, Independiente Medellin were concerned that his small stature would be a hindrance, so gave up on him, leaving Upegui as the owner of the player’s rights.
Upegui was not discouraged by the teen’s small stature because he had already thought of the solution: steroids.
While 14-year-old Rodriguez was becoming a dedicated player, committed to his training, with big aspirations keeping him focused, Upegui was getting more and more entangled in the Office of Envigado world of kidnapping and extortion. At one point he became so powerful, be became known as the “Mayor of Envigado.”
In 2006, 14-year-old James was ready to debut his professional career. Under the firm instruction of Upegui, coach Hugh Gallego handed over the orange, number 10 shirt in January of that year, where the player launched his successful professional career playing a match against his birth city’s Cucuta Deportivo team.
While Rodriguez’s career grew by leaps and bounds, Upegui’s met its end in a way that was typical to his career choice.
In February 2006, the crime boss and soccer club owner was shot dead by 8 assassins dressed as policemen who “raided” his home. Daniel Mejia, his rival in the Office of Envigado, met the same fate 2 months later for making the decision without the approval of the cartel.
Following the demise of Upegui, under the supervision of his mother, Rodriguez flew to Buenos Aires to try his luck, where he ended up playing for Bansfield, where, at the age of 18, he lifted the Argentinian Football Association trophy.
In a recent publication, Restrepo, Rodriguez’s step father recognized that “the only one to believe in us was Don Gustavo Upegui.”