The Lost Weekend
Spending two days with Faustino Asprilla on his ranch in rural Colombia
“I don’t know why there’s so many traffic lights, this is Tulua, not New York!” grumbles Faustino Asprilla as he simultaneously jumps a red and sends a text while drunkenly driving my hire car around the streets of the small Colombian town he has always called home.
Despite having re-scheduled and re-confirmed my request to come and spend a weekend as Tino’s guest numerous times, he seems surprised when I do finally arrive at the ranch at 4pm on Friday. “I’m supposed to be in Barranquilla tonight at a party for my friend’s mother. I’m going to get killed for this story!” he complains before leaving my photographer and translator, Juan Felipe, and me in his kitchen with his bodyguard and personal friend, John.
John was ex-army and had seen a lot of active service. He had the demeanour of Rambo at the start of the movie: brooding restlessness. Apparently he was de-mobbed after an over-zealous revenge killing of a jungle guerrilla unit. I ask about Tino’s gun collection and he hushes his tone before reeling off a list of weapons that would make Snoop Doggy Dogg swoon. Tino later told me that he no longer kept his collection at the ranch and that John had left the army after stealing a horse. I never found out where the truth lay with regards to Rambo; he seemed to prefer it that way.
Ice-breaker required. I spy empty bottles of aguardiente (literal translation: ‘fire water’), Colombia’s national tipple. “I love aguardiente,” I lie enthusiastically as Tino returns. “But I haven’t seen this Blanco brand before.” Tino smiles (a relief for me): “It’s a speciality of the valley, would you like one?”
Tulua is home to Tino’s sprawling ranch and lies in a vast, flat valley. The ranch itself is big: eight bedrooms, pool and poker areas and various TV rooms. Outside are a swimming pool, sauna, games room and a pool-side disco equipped with a booming sound system which I soon learn provides the constant salsa soundtrack to Tino’s life.
This complex is surrounded by football pitches, stables, grazing paddocks, a training ring for his dancing horses and field upon field of sugar cane – farming is the family business. It’s a beautiful, relaxing place to be and Tulua is hot, bloody hot, the type of place a man could develop a permanent thirst.
It certainly has that effect on Tino, who pours us both a large measure of firewater. I down the noxious aniseed-flavoured spirit in one and Tino looks impressed. “You play pool?” he asks and with that the ice definitely begins to crack. Tino shouts to a maid who promptly arrives with three cold Poker beers, another local brand: Tino’s home town obviously holds a special place in his heart, and as I later discover, he keeps his cards pretty close to it too.
He enjoys kicking my arse three times on the bounce and impressing us with his collection of English swear words, recited in a Cockney, rather than the expected Geordie accent. “Keith Gillespie was one of the best pool players I ever knew,” he reveals. “Did you see him when you went back to Newcastle last month?” I punt. “No, but I was with Sir Les [Ferdinand] and Shearer. I didn’t get to Manchester to see Falcão either, but we talk on Skype and we’ll make a documentary together next year on Colombian players in England, he will be a big success at United.” He disappears upstairs, leaving me and Juan Felipe grinning across the table at each other like excited schoolboys.
Tino built the ranch, Santino, immediately after leaving Newcastle United in 1997 and it feels as though it hasn’t changed since. There are many family photos hanging on the walls, including one of his son, Santiago, whose room in particular looks as though it hasn’t been disturbed for a decade. There are also many photos of Tino throughout his career, but most eye-catching is an oil painting of a smiling Tino and his mother. The importance his family play in his life is plain to see.
Horses too feature prominently in life and décor: in gold on the front gates and in a mosaic on the house’s exterior wall facing the pool. Tino soon has us outside for a display of some pint-sized dancing ponies which he skilfully encourages to prance and canter around him, tethered by a rope which he twirls around his head.
It’s all very impressive, but that firewater has definitely kicked in and I suspect the best way to overcome it is to request another. Tino approves and we knock back a few more before heading into Tulua and Tino’s local, the Poker Club. “I’ll drive,” he insists. “Only I know the way.” And with that he takes possession of my car keys for the weekend. Here it’s Tino’s rules, just accept a fresh beer and enjoy the ride.
Cards, insults and poker chips are flying around the table. Tino has a freshly shaved head and the joke is that the trim is actually the result of a vicious parrot attack. “Gonorrhoea!” he shouts, making use of a popular Colombian expletive, before switching to one of his favourite English expressions: “Fuck off, you wankers!” These are Tino’s people: loud, macho, competitive and very funny. Tino and I are both wiped out and we depart to a chorus of horse impressions from his friends – something I later learn means “losers”.
It’s time to hit the local salsa club. We are greeted by infectious Latin rhythms and a sea of beautiful bodies, black, white, brown, all moving to the music. My head is spinning as Tino hooks up with a crew of guys by the dance floor and two more bottles of firewater appear.
I’m debating with myself whether I should approach a woman standing close by for a dance lesson, when I feel Tino’s hand on my shoulder: “There’s a girl of mine here. She knows I have another girl waiting at the ranch, so we must leave now.”
The drive home is a blur. Reports about Tino’s past car crashes spin through my mind and my stomach churns as he swerves around the dirt track leading to his home. “I have a convertible BMW, but I lent it to a friend who drove it into a pothole and set off the air bags which got jammed in the roof,” he explains as we finally go through the gates to his ranch. He immediately retires to his room to attend the guest waiting in his bed. I collapse onto mine and the first night with Señor Asprilla is well and truly over for me, though I suspect his is just beginning.
Saturday dawns and I run to the bathroom, where I sink to my knees, vomit violently, hold my head in my hands and question the meaning of life. After a couple more hours in bed, I stroll through the ranch toward the spiral staircase leading to the kitchen, coffee and redemption. I pass Tino’s closed bedroom door en route and am distracted by a jaw-dropping sight. There, to my left, smoking over the balcony adjoining Tino’s room is a woman wearing a G-string that reveals a huge, surgically enhanced bottom. The bottom and its owner soon join us for breakfast. She seems a trifle annoyed and I guess her and Tino have had an argument. Shortly after, Tino appears in his usual shorts and designer T-shirt to announce, “Just taking the car to run a few errands.” And with that he promptly disappears for six hours.
The day is baking hot. I grab my trunks and thrust my carcass into the cold water of the swimming pool. By the time I haul it out again a couple of lengths later, the woman arrives poolside. She is drinking a large glass of the single malt whiskey I’d given to Tino the night before and smoking a joint of pure creepi (Colombian skunk). She seems dangerous and I’m relieved when Felipe arrives shortly after our conversation begins. “Have you been Tino’s girlfriend for long?” I ask, taking an immediately mind-numbing hit and passing the pure rolled blunt back to her. “I’m not his girlfriend. Tino has girls everywhere!”
Before we know it, it’s 4.30pm and the sun will soon be fading. There’s no alternative but to call Tino: it was imperative that we get some portraits done before sundown.
“Relax, I’ll be there in five minutes,” says Tino and, thank God, he is as good as his word. “I have to get rid of this chick, there’s a party here tonight!” he adds as we bundle him back into the car as soon as he arrives, taking his replica of the Uefa Cup with us and heading to a nearby football pitch, cut into the midst of a huge plantation of sugar cane.
The photos are done in an hour and a half and we manage to incorporate a kickabout. First Tino hits a few crosses to me and laughs at my attempted Mark Hughes-style diving headers and then we switch roles and I get my weekend highlight: hitting crosses to the legend. I’m swinging balls over to the far post and Asprilla is banging them home! I’m no longer 38 years old: I’m 14 again and in football heaven – could life get any better? “Fancy a penalty shootout?” I dare to ask. “Why not?” replies Faustino Asprilla, and life just did get better.
I managed to save one penalty but Tino won easily. I shake him by the hand. He can’t resist selling me one final dummy and gestures to swap shirts before waving me away with a hand and a smile. “Who would believe this fatty scored a hat-trick against Barcelona, eh?”
Most of the poker crew had been witness to my valiant penalty defeat and now more people began to arrive for the party. Tino was keen to get rid of yesterday’s woman and get the gambling underway. Soon the place is packed full of friends and family, the women in the kitchen and around the barbecue and the men around the pool table.
Eventually I am summoned for another poker game and I start surprisingly well. After 40 minutes or so, I pull off a master bluff and amass quite a tidy pile of chips. Tino looks at me with a subtle wink, “You play good,” he says and I feel so proud I suspect that I blush. Not long afterwards I am flat broke again. It’s well into the wee hours and despite the temptations of the dance floor I head up the spiral staircase to the safety of my bed, a chorus of whinnying ringing in my ears. The poker boys are not impressed.
Sunday morning comes and goes and Tino eventually surfaces mid-afternoon. Today’s girl is young and beautiful, but I have little time to admire her as I still have one final request to make. “Do you still have the coat you wore when you arrived at St. James’ Park? We have to get a photo if you do.” He laughs: he is in a good mood and I’m not surprised. “The Newcastle boys love that coat. Sir Les was always asking me about it! I’ll eat and we’ll go to get it from my sister’s.”
Back at Santino we are introduced to more family members before getting a real treat as Tino’s dad saunters down the staircase to join us in the lounge. He is clutching a huge bundle of shirts Tino has collected for him. This inspires Tino’s sister to grab some magazines featuring her brother, including a Full Monty on the cover of Colombia’s biggest-selling magazine, Soho. A sly joke about Photoshop manipulation causes the whole family to fall about in laughter. Tino is as full frontal in the photos as he is in real life.
Tino decides that this is an opportune moment for departure as he is keen to show us the Río Frío (‘Cold River’), one of his favourite childhood haunts. Tino’s on fine form; driving, eating corn, selecting photos of hot girls on his Blackberry all while simultaneously scouting for any eye-popping bottoms he might spy. It’s a fun drive to the riverbank as Tino sings along to the radio between conversations. Chicago’s “Making Love Out Of Nothing At All”is a particular highlight.
The water is fast-flowing but shallow and Colombians are out in force, sunning themselves, picnicking and playing in the rapids. Tino is immediately recognised and people begin to flock to him, bumping knuckles and waving camera phones. The two of us go for a refreshing paddle and he tells me of his previous camping trips in the BMW packed with women and followed by car-loads of friends and family.
We accept an offer of a few shots of firewater and hit the road together for the last time. The conversation soon switches back to women. I ask, “What’s the most extravagant thing you ever did for a woman?” and he tells of how he once requested to leave the Colombian World Cup training camp in order to spend time with Lady Norriega, a famous actress/model/singer with whom he had a high-profile relationship in the nineties. “Risking national football for a woman is big!” he adds.
He expresses a preference for Newcastle lasses before handing the World Cup to the Brazilians. Best player of all time award goes the same way, as he names Pelé despite my putting forward a strong case for Maradona, Tino sums up neatly, “No player will ever again play in four World Cups and win three of them.”
I can’t resist asking him about his new range of fruit-flavoured condoms that he has just launched and has been busily promoting in Medellín. “As a poor Catholic country, Colombia has many problems with teenage pregnancy. I wanted to promote safe sex and my own range of condoms seemed the perfect way. The fruit flavours are sexy. I particularly recommend the guava flavour. We had a guava tree in my garden when I was a child. I had many good times in that garden and always found the smell of the fruit romantic.” There’s a discernible twinkle in his eye. I wonder if he ever worries that he is a sex addict? “No, not at all, sex is just a part of life,” he says, shaking his head before retorting with his own question “Why did you not fuck anyone at the party last night?” I tell him that the reason is because I love my girlfriend in Bogotá and don’t want to be unfaithful which makes him laugh and shout, “Fuck off, you wanker!” He amuses himself, and us, each time he delivers that line. “Are you ever faithful?” is the best comeback I can muster. “For me it is not possible,” he admits, grinning.
I smile too. If I’ve learned anything about Tino Asprilla this weekend it has been that he is, at heart, a man of simple pleasures. Most Colombians maximise any opportunity for enjoyment and Tino is no exception. Under Tino’s rules, all you can do is grab a cold beer and enjoy the ride.