The tragedy of Luis Escobar, Peruvian football’s Duncan Edwards

The tragedy of Luis Escobar, Peruvian football’s Duncan Edwards

THE NAME LUIS ESCOBAR stimulates discussion and inspires nostalgia all over his native Peru. He has reached near-mythical status, with stories of his legendary talent having been passed down by generations of football fans. Having set Peruvian football on fire long before his 18th birthday, tragedy struck before the rest of the world could witness the extent of his talent.

Luis Escobar was born in Lima in June 1969, raised by his mother in the city’s Barrios Altos neighbourhood. He was signed as a youth player for Alianza Lima, Peru’s biggest club, who, along with Universitario and Sporting Cristal, were responsible for producing many of the national team’s players.

A gifted left winger, famous for using both feet, Escobar began scoring goals and winning championships as part of the youth team, becoming known for zigzagging past defenders down the wing. Indeed, he did so with such proficiency that he was summoned to play for both the under-16 side and the senior side, becoming the only player in Peru’s history to play for all three age groups at the same time. Though various legends have surrounded the player’s true date of birth, he made his professional debut for the club at the recorded age of 14, in May 1984.

Allianza finished third that season, now seven years without the title, losing out to Sport Boys from the port city of Callao. But Escobar, unmistakable for the white anklets he sported, was already generating hope and hype for the club’s future.

Escobar was incredibly confident in his own ability. In March 1985 he made a bet with his friend José Zegarra that he would score the winner in the Clásico against Universitario, the team that boasted the national team’s goalkeeper, Ramón Quiroga. “We told him he would lose, but we went to see the game and he left Quiroga standing still with a bullet header. In the last minutes, Escobar got back to defend, not only the lead, but also his bet – it was unbearable,” recalls Zegarra. This was the first of his 50 goals for the club, and climbing on the backs of much taller men to score headers would become a trademark of Escobar’s.

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But for the young man who had been christened El Potrillo (The Pony) for his elegant running style, that season would end in tears as his crucial penalty was saved by Quiroga in a semi-final shootout. Escobar swore revenge against Universitario, who went on to win the championship, and Zegarra said that from that moment on, Allanza defenders struggled to handle his new-found intensity in training.

The next season, under the management of Brazilian World Cup winner Didi, Alianza produced football considered by the Peruvian press to be some of the greatest the country had ever seen, reminiscent of the great side of the late 70s who won the title three times in four years. Escobar scored in a 4-0 thrashing of Universitario and notched another two when Alianza beat the same opponents 5-1 just four months later, the latter a rocket from 25 yards. Reports say that Escobar played like a man possessed, exacting revenge in style.

This Alianza team was filled with players who were tipped to form a new golden generation, which would allow the nation to return to the Copa America-winning success of 1975, having failed to qualify for Mexico 86. Escobar was going to be the star, filling the vacuum left by Teófilo Cubillas, a Peruvian footballing God whom Pelé had labelled his successor.

Escobar remained unfazed, cocky and self-assured by his new status. In an oft-quoted anecdote, in response to hearing that 20,000 people had turned out in Caesar’s palace to watch Sugar Ray Leonard, Escobar remarked that 40,000 had turned out to watch him play in the Clásico, and jokingly announced: “I’m bigger than Sugar.”

Having dominated both the regional league and the Primera División, Alianza qualified for that year’s championship final. But adding insult to last year’s injury, the season would again end in heartbreak for Escobar, as they lost to San Agustín, who won their first-ever title. But Allianza remained confident that, with the same core group of players, including an even hungrier Escobar and two young but established Peruvian internationals, it was now only a matter of time until their title drought ended. Inspired by Escobar’s nickname, the team were dubbed El Potrillos (The Colts).

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Alianza were now under the management of Marcos Calderón, a hero in Peru who had coached multiple title-winning sides and even managed the country to its 1975 Copa America success. He led them through five derbies unbeaten, with Escobar in scintillating form, and the club were favourites to win the Primera. Having just won away at Deportivo Pucallpa, Alianza were now top of the table. Overjoyed, the players, staff and crew boarded the plane back to Lima, an exuberant 18-year-old Escobar amongst them.

Six and a half miles short of its destination, the aircraft crashed into the Pacific Ocean.

The pilot was the only person to survive out of the 44 passengers. Speculation and conspiracy theories surrounded the incident for almost two decades, until a 2006 investigation revealed that the pilot was inexperienced at flying at night, that he had failed a training course testing his ability to work under high pressure in times of distress, and finally, that the aircraft was in poor mechanical condition before the flight.

Peru had lost its biggest and brightest team in one night, a side that was producing some of the most entertaining football the country had ever seen, and which was spearheaded by the most exciting player the country had ever produced. Gripped by the tragedy, Peru went into mourning. Citizens attended public grievances and participated in pilgrimages that began in the players’ neighbourhoods, stopped at the club’s stadium, and ended at Lima’s general cemetery.

Luis Escobar’s body was never found, but his name is often at the centre of any narrative on the Alianza Lima Air Disaster as a symbol of the talent, youth and expectation of a side that was meant to achieve so much. Alianza finished off the season thanks to their youth team and the voluntary services of the legendary Cubillas and César Cueto, but it would be another 11 years before they finally won the title.

Escobar’s mother still lives in the same alley where she raised her son, poor and unable to collect the minimum pension that the state allocated for mourning relatives. On principal alone, she no longer attends the pilgrimages or the masses held by the club, and instead goes alone to Lima’s Sanctuary of Nazarenas. She is resigned never to know how her son really died, but says that other mothers suffered more for always believing that their children were still alive.

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When a young footballer’s life is cut short, we can only speculate about what they could have achieved. When such a player was already so unbelievably good, not only do we mourn for them and their loved ones, but their unrealised success which we had so wanted to see, and are now devastated to miss out on.

Hazy and indistinct YouTube videos are the only remaining evidence of the greatness of Luis Escobar, but Peruvians have a much clearer memory of the most promising player in the country’s history. In the same way that Duncan Edwards was tipped to bring glory to Manchester United and England, Escobar too carried the hopes of a nation. Had Peruvian football had the same international status as the English league, perhaps he would have joined Edwards as a player thought capable of joining the ranks of Pelé and Diego Maradona.

But it is easy to be romantic about the unfulfilled legacies of young players whose time was cut short. Their deaths leave unanswered questions to which we are more than happy to fill in the blanks, and it suits both us and the fairy-tale to say that they could have been the best. However, when a nation mourns for someone’s ability, it will never be felt as deeply as the family that mourns for their loved one, that feels great sorrow regardless of their talent.

For the rest of us, lucky enough to have no familial attachments to such disasters, the legacy of player’s like Edwards and Escobar still generate massive excitement and debate when discussed by pundits and fans alike. It’s certainly comforting to imagine what could have happened, as though it really did.

In the UK, we ally ourselves to Edwards’ talent because he was British, and because we know people who witnessed his flair in the flesh and wax-lyrical about this match or that. Storytelling perpetuates his legend, but on the other side of the Atlantic, in a nation that may never have heard Edwards’ name, they tell wonderful stories about one of their own. 

By Frederick Clayton  

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