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IN DEPTH | Footballer to Criminal: Julio Colombo: The ex-French youth international facing drug trafficking offences

Champion of the world in 2001 with the U-17 French team, Julio Colombo had his career come to a halt at just 26. A dizzying fall to the depths of hell has led him to a prison sentence on an international drug trafficking charge, in a story first revealed by L’Équipe last week.

It was a few thousand nautical miles away from his home, but only a few hours’ boat ride from his native Guadeloupe. In that summer of 2001, in Trinidad and Tobago, Julio Colombo was thinking of a glittering future, after his World Championship triumph with the U-17 French team with his friends he grew up with, like Anthony Le Tallec, Florent Sinama-Pongolle and Jacques Faty.

His path seemed to be mapped out and the summit was where he was heading. 14 years later, his story dramatically changed in the Antilles – in Martinique to be exact – for far murkier reasons, a world far away from football.

In the small hours of a day in June, 2015, Colombo was questioned on the island, along with around 15 people in Nice, Montpellier, Marseille and along the French-Spanish border.

Having had his phone tapped and been followed for a number of months, they were all suspected of being involved in international drug trafficking. A number of them were supposed to be affiliated to the “’Ndràngheta”, a mafia organisation operating out of Calabria, Southern Italy. An enormous operation was exposed thanks to collaboration between French and Italian police.

After being brought back immediately to France and incarcerated at Villeneuve- ès-Maguelone, in Hérault, Southern France, Colombo risks getting 10 years in prison for drug trafficking, importing of goods within an organised gang, conspiracy and money laundering. “He has acknowledged the facts, he acted as an intermediary between the Antilles and (mainland) France,” explains his lawyer, Pierre Lumbroso. “He has earned a lot of money but he has lost a lot too. He was in an extremely depressed state because his career did not reach the level that he was expecting. He pointed to things spiralling out of control and, in this kind of backdrop, getting out is impossible.” His trial will begin at the Marseille Criminal Court on the 6 February. An epilogue to a story worthy of ending a crime novel.

At 17 years old, he was courted by Juventus.

The news of his arrest had a seismic shock in his family, for his close ones and his former teammates, stunned to learn of his involvement in the affair.  Looking back 15 years ago, a situation that no-one could have imagined after such a perfect start to his career. First spotted as part of a scouting exercise in Guadeloupe, he joined Montpellier when still a teenager. “The club president (Louis Nicollin) had an affiliate company in the Antilles and someone from there let us know about Julio. He was well above the others,” remembers Serge Delmas, the academy director at the time.

Around the year 2000, foreign clubs were only just starting to seek out the young talent in France. Two players from the 1984 generation already got their heads turned: Mourad Meghni and Mickaël Fabre joined Bologna. Colombo was another target but for the big European teams: Juventus courted him insistently. “He was one of the most promising players around”, says Jérémy Berthod, who has passed through Lyon and Auxerre. “Julio was solid, reliable, and already very mature for his age. And he had an extra quality: he had such elegance, always able to anticipate things.”

But he chose another direction and signed his first pro contract with Montpellier.  Delmas speaks about “a kid without any problems, always polite, always very calm.” He was a lad who was very close to his family, who decided to stay in Guadeloupe. As the ‘baby’ of the three siblings, Colombo is fiercely protected by them, notably by his eldest sister who is very involved in his defence still today. The ritual is the same every year: his parents come to visit him at Christmas and his does the reverse journey in the summer holidays.

The central defender started as a pro in January 2003, under the supervision of Gérard Bernardet. He fondly remembers his first call-ups in the U21s for the Toulon tournament in 2004 by Raymond Domenech, the coach at the time. “He wasn’t called up by chance; he wasn’t a world champion by chance either,” asserts Delmas.

But after such a promising outset things started to fade away over time. That summer, the arrival of the new coach Jean-Francois Domergue at Montpellier, caused an initial crack. “He was a quite timid guy who had real difficulties opening up in a discussion,” remembers the European Champion in 1984. “He was always calm, never annoyed, never upset. Everything always seemed OK.”

At the time, he got friendly with Ludovic Clément, who was originally from the Antilles like him, Alexis Ngambi, Jimmy Mainfroi and Abdoulaye Cissé, with whom he shared his room in any down time. Roommates with these teammates in the changing room, he gave silent treatment to others. He was difficult to work out from the view of technical training staff. He started to play less and less. “He always had these little worries yet you were expecting to see an assured player who’d go on, right to the top level,” says an incredulous Domergue. “He was certainly subject to stresses, which could bring about little injuries, little niggles.”

“While training, he looked like a troubled, pained soul,” Rolland Courbis.

The central defender picked up successive injuries and a recurring thrombosis condition prevented him settling in the team.  At the mentioning of his name, Rolland Courbis hesitated, a little troubled to visualise who the player was in question. The former coach of Montpellier comes back from his reflections, like suddenly recognising a familiar face: “Oh yes! While training, he looked like a troubled, pained soul. Someone said that he was a good guy but unusual, very reserved. I hardly remember any of his matches.”

And no wonder: under Courbis (May 2007 – June 2009), Colombo barely played, with just 13 appearances in total. He went between stints in the infirmary to games with the reserves in CFA (an amateur league competition in the French fourth tier of football.)

His path back into the team blocked by Bruno Carotti, Nenad Dzodic et Mapou Yanga-Mbiwa, the only solution seemed realistically for him was to leave. But he was so attached to his club and town. “Montpellier became his home,” stresses Ludovic Clément. And he hardly got any interest from other clubs, such was his severe lack of playing time.

Montpellier’s promotion to Ligue 1, in the spring of 2009, prolonged the illusion of getting back on the pitch. His contract ended in June that year but the option of an extra season was automatically triggered because Montpellier were back in the top division. A new coach arrived (René Girard); could this have been a fresh start? No.

Colombo was on the periphery, a bit disheartened, according to a few players who he was around at that time. On a daily basis he was his normal, unassuming self, but that did not mean he would not let people take liberties with him, the proof being a coming to blows with Fodé Koïta, a young attacker who was just starting out.

After some over the top and ill-timed banter, it ended with a smack in the face. Even when he was injured a lot and isolated from the group, Colombo did not want to become the scapegoat in the changing room. He was well aware of the cruel game football can be for those who are not – or no longer – playing. He kept going, but without giving the impression or belief that he could.

Restaurant owner, night bar boss, associate agent.

His contract came to an end in June 2010 and with that, so too did his career. Clermont, in Ligue 2, showed a bit of interest. But with no follow-up. He hung up his boots at 26 years old, without announcing it or even without his teammates’ knowledge.

He already had plans for life post-football by buying several apartments in Guadeloupe. Before retiring, he had opened a restaurant in Castelnau-le-Lez, near Montpellier – le Pitaya –from the name of the exotic fruit also called “dragon fruit.”

He served speciality dishes from the Antilles. Some of his former colleagues went to eat there and the medical staff from the club even organised an end of year meal. But he had to close the restaurant after a few years due to insufficient turnover.

Some failings were due to bad management; others down to being fleeced by a business associate. So he then took on an Antilles-themed night bar, in Lattes, in the South of Montpellier, without much more success. At a similar time, French tax authorities had caught up with him and issued him a €130,000 bill, a penalty for having failed to declare an insurance premium gained at the point of retiring.

At the end of each month, things were becoming unbearable. He was reluctant to speak to his family in Guadeloupe about it, due to pride, perhaps shame too, who had seen him as the personification of social success. He could have opened up to certain people close to him, like his uncle, who has one of Antilles’ largest companies for importing bananas.

He did not say anything. In July 2013, Colombo’s bar was finally forced to go into administration. He was banned from directing, managing, administering or controlling any commercial, artisanal, agricultural activity or corporation for seven years and was declared bankrupt. In Montpellier, his wife returned to employment and became a waitress at Hippopotamus.

He withdrew more into himself, his life becoming impossible but he never let his emotions get the better of him. Like always. His past as a player offered him yet one last chance to bounce back that he will not know how to play to his advantage.

Colombo got a foothold back in the world of football by liaising with players’ agents based in Lyon. As a Sporting Manager, he approached young footballers, used his network, and went along to matches at Mosson (Montpellier’s home ground) where he came across people who gave himself a chance, like Serge Delmas.

In March 2015, he was invited to the celebrations of the club turning 40 years old, at the club president Louis Nicollin’s exclusive Mas Saint-Gabriel but he turned down the offer, not quite at ease with this kind of event and still slightly bitter towards the club where he learned his trade. He remained still discreet, faithful to his temperament, secretive still too. He managed to disappear for several weeks without letting his colleagues know. Colombo had made a few round trips to Antilles, where his oldest daughter lives, from a first marriage, where he bought some land. The last trip was in that spring of 2015.

180 kilos of cannabis for 90 kilos of cocaine.

Taken in for questioning in June, Colombo had appeared on police radars a few months before. The investigation started in September 2014, further to information provided by an anti-organised crime division in Genoa, Italy. Namely that two brothers in their 60s – Antonio and Rocco Magnoli – brought to the attention of French authorities for regular visits over the border, were suspected of representing the interests of the Mole de Gioa Tauro group, affiliated to ‘Ndràngheta‘, on the Côte d’Azur.

After several months of telephone tapping and tailing, the investigators succeeded in discovering an enormous trade which sent alarm bells ringing: 180 kilos of cannabis resin was to be exchanged for 90 kilos of cocaine in Martinique. Colombo was alleged to be involved in the operation almost by chance, after having met an individual known to the police during the endless card game nights in a Montpellier bar. “He put his hands into a wasp’s nest,” admits his lawyer.

But what role did he play, exactly? Charged with “assembling a team” in Martinique, for the receiving of the cannabis – transported from Morocco on a sailing boat called le Relambi – Colombo is alleged to have been working on getting the cocaine in Martinique, the Antilles being a turntable for global drug trafficking.

This was yet an undertaking in the realms of the extraordinary, since there was a lack of collateral to buy the “merchandise” and an absence of real contact with South-American drug traffickers. In the end, according to local street sellers, the gang were supposed to have hit upon the island with already-cut cocaine.

The product got loaded on to le Relambi, heading for Europe. It would never arrive. On 8 June 2015, at 4 am, the boat got searched by the navy off the coast of Saint-Martin which was manned by the skipper alone who was subsequently charged for having transported the drug. On board, 79 packets of cocaine (representing 89 kilos) were discovered. The net closed in on the 15 individuals suspected of being involved in the operation.

Arrested and incarcerated as a result, Julio Colombo has not sought to deny what happened, on the contrary to what most other people would have thought. These are confessions which would have had some people concluding that he had “snitched” during police quizzing. “He didn’t know the identity let alone the existence of the majority of the gang members,” replies his lawyer. “He didn’t know who was financially backing the operation.”

He is said to have received death threats after direct confrontations were organised by the justice department, in March 2016, when there were attempts to determine the role played by all of the suspects. For his protection, he has been placed in isolation in Villeneuve-lès-Maguelone prison. His wife and two-year old daughter were quickly extracted from Montpellier. The ex-defender is now preparing his own defence at his trial. It will be the toughest test in his life.

P.K.

 

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