BOGOTA, COLOMBIA — (TC BOGOTA, Colombia -- Whenever Colombia played a game at this summer's World Cup soccer tournament in Italy, the country came to a halt. It was the first time in a decade Colombia had qualified for the world event, and it provided a respite for Colombians preoccupied for months by terrorism and violence by drug gangs.
In the last 10 years, soccer has become an issue of national pride in Colombia, as the country's teams have gained international stature. But that pride was deeply hurt this summer when South American referees and teams refused to play any games in Colombia for the regional championship.
The boycott was invoked after a referee declared that Colombian gunmen had threatened to kill him if he didn't fix a game between Colombia and Brazil.
The game between Atletico Nacional and Brazil's Vasco de Gama was won by Colombia Aug. 29. But because of the accusation by the Uruguayan referee, Juan Daniel Cardellino, the Colombians had to replay the game in Chile a few days later.
Soccer violence, a problem that has afflicted national tournaments for some time, had finally crossed international borders.
Colombians were forced to face the fact that drug gangs had infiltrated soccer clubs, using them to launder money and, as a consequence, corrupting aspects of the game.
The list of violent incidents involving national soccer teams and local tournaments is long, including the killings of referees and the presidents of soccer clubs. At least three local soccer clubs have been rumored to be run by drug mobsters.
"Colombian soccer became good through hard work. No one wanted to soil it by bringing out the problems we had with dirty money," said one fan.
"It is a hard fact to face for the plain soccer fan," said Andres Davila, a sociologist and avid fan.
But the threat against the referee forced the government to look into the problem.
President Cesar Gaviria said there were irregularities in the game, suggesting it was time to clean it up. Congress held a hearing to explore the question.
"Colombians must do some soul-searching. Something serious is happening to our soccer," said Congressman Emilio Lebolo, speaking out on an issue few have spoken of publicly before.
In fact, the last national figure to address the issue was Justice Minister Rodrigo Lara Bonilla, who was slain in 1984 by killers paid by drug traffickers.
"There aren't only threats against referees, but also shady contracts with players, violations in money exchange deals and the presence of people with money of dubious origins," Mr. Lebolo said.
With all the public clamor, sports analysts hope the new government campaign is more effective than previous ones have been.
"The government has to make the game more profitable, to entice good investors to come in," said one sports analyst. Income from soccer is limited by archaic laws that do not allow clubs to charge radio stations and television networks fees for transmitting the games. Similarly, the government takes most of the income produced from the games in taxes.
"Games in the United States and Europe remain profitable because the teams make lots of money in unrelated items such as endorsements," said one sports observer.
Last year the national championship was suspended by the government after a referee was killed. Soccer club owners were ordered to present police records and disclose teams' financial records. But apparently, little was done.
The history of soccer in the last 10 years has been harsh.
In 1986, the presidents of two soccer clubs in Colombia were shot to death. Last week, German Gomez Garcia, a former president of the Caldas team, was shot as he left his home.
In 1984, Hernan Botero, president of the Medellin soccer club, Atletico Nacional, was extradited to the United States on charges of money laundering.
This summer, Swiss police detained Edgar Garcia Montilla, vice president of America de Cali, a club that has been linked to the Cali drug cartel, on charges of money laundering, according to the daily El Espectador.
"It is hard to understand how our game improved while it also lost some of its moral qualities," sociologist Andres Davila said. "But you have to understand that for corrupt investors, there was a golden opportunity of investing in a product that was increasing in value. Unfortunately, they ended up affecting the image of our game."