This feature is part of The Fleeting Fraternity
FOOTBALL IS A GAME that can be summed up in two words: ‘what if?’ As if the fates conspired – as they tend to do at World Cups – two scripts for the same act had been written. One version would favour the team that was supposed to dominate and win. The other version had the United States, hosting its first World Cup, deploying a national team clad in denim-washed jerseys comprised of 15 players contracted to the United States Soccer Federation, as Major League Soccer was still two years from kicking off, and a handful of players who plied their trade abroad in Europe and Mexico, representing a nation not yet sold on the sport, defeating a Colombia team considered to be more talented and expected to make a strong run to the knockout stages having defeated Argentina 5-0 in World Cup qualifying.
In the late 1980s, Colombian football was on such an insane rise both on the pitch and behind the scenes as something new had been injected into the country’s domestic game: money. At the time, Colombia battled class divisions and an economic industry built on the production, export and sale of cocaine, money laundering, and organised crime networks that found a way into football and bathed in the blood of all who crossed them. Figures like Pablo Escobar and local cartel bosses held influence on the nation’s politics, economy, its footballers, and threshold for violent and organised crime. Football, however, was a symbol of national pride at this time and the country’s morale hinged upon how the national team performed when it mattered most – the World Cup.
For generations, Colombia was kept in the shadows of international and continental club football by the dominance of the continent’s historic and perennial powerhouses, namely Brazil, Uruguay and Argentina, and due to the proclivity for Colombian players to leave the country to play abroad. Up until the late-1980s, the tournament had been dominated by clubs like Argentina’s Independiente, Boca Juniors, Argentinos Juniors, Racing and River Plate. Brazilian clubs Santos, Cruzeiro, Grêmio and Flamengo held titles as did Uruguay’s Club Atlético Peñarol and Nacional.
Then, in 1989, Colombian side Atlético Nacional, with key players like the enigmatic goalkeeper René Higuita, defensive midfield stalwart Leonel Álvarez, Albeiro Usuriaga at striker, and a humble centre-back named Andrés Escobar came from behind to defeat Paraguayan club Olimpia in a penalty shootout to capture the first Copa Libertadores title for Colombian football.
Escobar’s introduction to football was simple; playing as many recreational games as he could with the type of zeal and love for the game that cannot be coached into players. As a young boy, he seemed to reject the temptations that surrounded him, opting instead to wear his emotions on his sleeve and do things the right way. In an unprecedented era of Colombian football, Escobar embraced being a role player at a young age.
By the time Nacional – and later the Colombia national team – manager Francisco Maturana plucked Escobar from the reserves and thrust him into the cauldron of Nacional’s ascension, Colombian club football was defined largely by city and regional rivalries and incentivised players, coaches and even referees collecting performance bonuses bankrolled by cartel bosses. Furthermore, cartel-infused financial boosts aided in player retention and attracted talents to Colombia, instead of pulling them away.
Andrés Escobar was born in Medellín, a sprawling Colombian cityscape that was the capital of the international cocaine trade and a city that averaged 80 murders a week. Growing up middle-class in such a crime-ridden city such as Medellín put Andrés at odds with fate itself. Unlike many around him, he had a formal education and a family with sustainable sources of income, and when the choice came for Andrés to make the decision to continue his education to gain employment or to embark on a career in football, he chose the bold move and went for his dream in the midst of the collision of two worlds: crime and football.
Escobar’s rise to footballing excellence coincided with an era marred by the millions of dollars resulting from narcotics industry that not only affected football, but literally funded the sport. In an unnerving almost fatalistic way, the man responsible for much of this shared the footballer’s last name, Pablo Escobar, or more appropriately, “El Patrón”.
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In many ways, Andrés represented the honesty, loyalty and dutifulness of the impoverished Colombian people. His play at centre-back for Nacional was a large part of the success the club experienced before the 1994 World Cup. The Nacional-Independiente rivalry was as much about the football as it was the city’s cocaine-fuelled organised crime syndicates. As corruption snaked its way into local derbies, ‘the game within the game’ threatened to not only derail the brilliance on the field but to harm anyone who lost money for the betting cartel leaders.
Figures like Pablo Escobar, the world’s most powerful international cocaine trafficker, maintained prominence, power and prestige by punishing any and all who interfered with their operations, which extended to match fixing. When Nacional players were invited to Pablo Escobar’s ranch to attend parties and receive bonuses, it was the humble Andrés who rebuffed offers and gifts – knowing full well that the cash was blood money and the relationship between football and organised crime was a dangerous one.
Players, more specifically defenders, like Escobar are constructed of an almost ironclad set of personal values and bold sense of principles. It was evident in his play for Nacional and Colombia that Andrés could produce consistent and calm performances game after game even when the world around him was a cacophony of gunshots, screams and devilish bribes spoken in hushed tones yet intentionally audible enough to send warnings to all. Colombia’s number 2, the rock of their defence, made his international debut for his country in 1988 at the Rous Cup where he scored his first goal against England.
A 22-year-old Escober featured in Colombia’s 1989 Copa América tournament and he continued to excel at the anchor of the Colombian backline through the 1990 World Cup qualifiers and the tournament in Italy. In 1991, he played in all seven of Colombia’s Copa América matches en route to a respectable fourth place finish.
By the time Colombia was ready for the 1994 World Cup, Escobar was the side’s captain. The team itself featured six players from Nacional, the club that the infamous cartel boss Pablo Escobar owned and operated until his death in 1993. The death of El Patrón left Medellín in chaos as the cocaine industry was essentially a free-for-all and the protection that Pablo Escobar afforded his favourite club’s players was in jeopardy. After a disappointing group stage performance, Colombia simply had to beat the United States to have a chance of advancing in the tournament. The pressure of the situation was palpable.
On 22 June 1994, the United States vs Colombia match at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena was a fixture drenched in excitement and Southern Californian sunshine. The painted faces beamed off exhilaration as streamers and confetti enveloped all 93,869 fans, which I was a part of that day. I remember telling my older sister not to paint our faces with the Stars and Stripes and at nine-years-old, felt completely overwhelmed, almost nervous to be surrounded by so many people.
A small tinge of childish hubris overcame me when I pointed out the paint melting off my cheeks and forehead. I resigned to using my shirt to wipe as much paint off as possible before the players emerged from the tunnel near our seats. The American players looked nervous yet energetic. The Colombians looked emotionless, almost pallid – very businesslike.
The play leading up to the own goal doesn’t seem dramatic – even to this day. I watched John Harkes dribble about 30 yards from Óscar Córdoba’s goal and almost pass the ball to the wing, but instead opted to deliver a deep service that an outstretched Escobar turned into his own net. I couldn’t see the anguish on the Colombian players’ faces, but I celebrated with the masses.
Read | Pablo Escobar and the narco-fútbol years
In real-time, the cross itself looked more like a low shot, hit with pace and had Escobar not intervened the ball would likely have been smashed into the back of the net by the advancing Earnie Stewart who was goal-side and ball-side of the other Colombian defender. Some say fault could be placed on the goalkeeper’s positioning and the fact that Harkes was allowed to get his service into the box, but analysing such a play seems wrong because this is football – a game that hinges on fate, luck and errors.
The match is not remembered for all 90 minutes, nor is it remembered for Ernie Stewart’s 52nd-minute goal or Adolfo Valencia’s 90th-minute consolation strike – everyone remembers a few pivotal and tragic seconds around minute 35, seconds that proved to be the matter of life and death for Colombia’s Andrés Escobar. In the fallout after the own goal and Colombia’s subsequent elimination after defeating Switzerland in their third game, most of the Colombian players refused to return home – instead opting to let the situation cool down.
Again, defiant and proud, Andrés refused to sulk and play into the world of misery that Colombia’s press, football pundits, people and organized crime syndicates created. The player even took it upon himself to write an editorial in the Bogotá newspaper, El Tiempo, admitting fault, expressing his sincere apologies, and acknowledging his and the team’s responsibility for underperforming. He cryptically ended the piece with the sentence: “See you soon, because life doesn’t end here.”
As a player, Andrés Escobar never shirked from responsibility, and as a man, he was no different. Unwilling to let the salacious mob beat him down for what they considered the egregious error, Andrés encapsulated the gravitas of the doomed World Cup – the team failed over the course of three games. Colombia, a footballing nation with a loaded roster, should have done better and although everyone knew this to be fact, society has a way of creating in footballers the ultimate scapegoats.
After going out with his friends to a Medellín nightclub, partly to celebrate a move to AC Milan and say goodbye, he was confronted by an aggressive group that teased and taunted him for own goal. Reports indicate that Andrés was lured out of the nightclub after being confronted about the own goal and walked to the parking lot to drive home. There, three men and a woman approached him and although he again admitted his own goal had been a mistake, two of the men used their handguns and shot him six times. Andrés Escobar was pronounced dead at a nearby hospital 45 minutes later.
Escobar’s funeral was attended by over 120,000 people and his murder motivated many players to quit the national team, with some retiring from football out of fear. Darío Escobar, Andrés’ father later said: “He was dedicated to the sport – he never caused anyone any problems. Then, they killed him for nothing.”
The murder of Andrés Escobar still one of the most tragic stories in football. Rather than talk about the murderers who committed the crime, it’s better to preserve the legacy and memory of the man who walked by a tight sense of principles and refused to let the throng of madness envelope him. Tough in the tackle, steady on the pitch and brave to the end, Andrés Escobar is remembered in the hearts and minds of those who watched him play, especially for a nine-year-old boy who watched a defender play his heart out when Faustino Asprilla, Carlos Valderamma and the rest of the Colombian players couldn’t be bothered to play with the passion of their center back – and for that, Colombia’s immortal number 2 is a legend gone too soon.