René Higuita: the dribbles, the flair, the controversy and the scorpion

René Higuita: the dribbles, the flair, the controversy and the scorpion

MANY FOOTBALL FANS around the globe associate René Higuita’s name with one moment at Wembley in 1995, which is a great shame. The Colombian’s goalkeeping career consisted of so much more than flamboyant saves and that audacious scorpion kick, and most Colombians consider him to be one of the most technically gifted goalkeepers – some even suggest players in general – the country has ever produced. Despite playing just one season of club football outside the Americas, his name is known across the world and he has provided a platform for the modern ball-playing goalkeeper.

Higuita’s long, frizzy hair and bushy moustache characterised his unconventional and heart-racing style of play. Even if he was the man between the sticks, in many a game he was the most talented footballer on the pitch – and he wasn’t afraid to show it. He combined a sweeping role with flair, becoming a national hero for the way he played the game with such joy and adventure; so much joy and adventure that he rewrote the role of a goalkeeper and remains unique to this day for his mazy dribbles past opposition players, his one-twos with teammates and his scoring record that betters that of most defenders.

Over the course of his unorthodox career, Higuita scored over 40 goals, including three for Colombia, being the designated free-kick taker for most of the teams that were lucky enough to include him. In the mid-20th century, Colombia’s era of barbarism and hatred earned them a violent identity but Higuita was providing the life and exuberance the country desperately needed.

Millonarios, a Colombian team set against the gun-patrolled backdrop of the nation’s capital Bogotá, gave Higuita his first chance to show the footballing world what he was about to do. Unsurprisingly, he started his career as a striker before being forced to play a game in goal, but he took all those outfield qualities with him. His impressive form saw Atlético Nacional, the biggest club in his hometown of Medellín, swoop in for his services, and that’s where Higuita made his name.

In 1989, his talents helped El Verde to their first Copa Libertadores triumph and he was instrumental in the second leg penalty shoot-out victory in the final. With Olimpia of Peru 4-3 ahead going into the final penalty, it was down to Higuita to keep his team in the final. He lashed his strike down the middle to take the shoot-out into sudden death, where he would perform yet more heroics.

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In remarkable circumstances, Higuita saved the next three Olimpia penalties only to see his teammates squander the chance to win the game from the following spot-kick. Vidal Sanabria blazed his effort high and wide of Higuita’s goal frame and Nacional had their fourth chance to win the game. This time, Leonel Álvarez made no mistake. The Colombian midfielder may have scored the winning penalty but there was no doubt that the hero of the day was the man in between the sticks.

Nacional and Higuita went on to win the Copa Interamericana, a trophy contested by the triumphant team of the North and South American continental tournaments. Unlike the tense and testing final against Olimpia a few weeks before, a more routine 6-1 aggregate victory brought the cup back to Colombia.

After conquering South America with Nacional, Higuita ventured on to the world stage with Colombia as he played a starring role in their 1990 World Cup campaign in Italy. However, the risks that he took on the field were about to come back to bite him as his mistake against Cameroon in the last 16 ended up costing he and his country dearly.

Colombia progressed through their group along with West Germany and Yugoslavia with the help of a 23-year-old Higuita. The Nacional hero quickly became a national icon back home with his adventurous style of play that baffled and wowed World Cup fans – they’d never seen a goalkeeper play with such freedom. He often found himself weaving his way through the opposing team with stunning close control, and his physicality allowed him to keep possession of the ball far longer than any opposition player, manager or supporter thought he was able to. However, the Colombian population knew exactly what Higuita was all about, but even they saw something new at this tournament – what happens when all this unorthodox flamboyancy goes horribly wrong.

Colombia came up against a Cameroon team led by the veteran Roger Milla, who himself was changing the way the sport was celebrated by, well, celebrating. Naples was basking in not only sunshine but in the expressive nature of these two fantastic, pioneering footballers. Milla got the better of Higuita that day as his two goals in extra time were enough to see Cameroon progress into the quarter-finals, but his second came as a direct consequence of Higuita’s showmanship.

The goalkeeper found himself with the ball at his feet 40 yards from goal with Milla closing down on him. With one heavy touch, the 38-year-old striker nipped in and tucked the ball into an open goal. Suddenly, this flair and originality from Higuita had turned into stupidity after a lapse in concentration that lasted no more than a second. Bernardo Redín managed to pull one back to partially save Higuita’s blushes but Colombia’s World Cup dreams were over, with Cameroon progressing to play England in the quarter-finals. Higuita would have his chance to perform against football’s founders a few years later.

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After showing the world what René Higuita was all about, he earned himself a move to Europe, and to Real Valladolid in particular, but lasted under a year in Spain before returning to Nacional to win two league titles before events off the field began to take their toll on not only Higuita, but the country itself.

Trust Higuita to somehow get involved in Pablo Escobar’s drug cartel in 1993. You certainly won’t see many other footballers going into business with one of the world’s most wanted crime lords. Higuita became well-acquainted with Escobar during his career and found himself paying a ransom of $300,000 to Escobar on the behalf of Carlos Molina, one of Escobar’s main competitors in the cocaine market. That duty earnt Higuita a payment of $64,000 but, since profiting from kidnapping is illegal in Colombia, one of football’s great entertainers spent the next few months behind bars.

As a result of his time in jail, Higuita wasn’t fit enough to play in the 1994 World Cup in the United States and Colombia went without him. Higuita had played alongside Colombian defender Andrés Escobar for many years, the forming a relationship where they knew exactly what each other would do on the football pitch – a relationship of trust that allowed Higuita to express himself in the way that he did. However, as a result of what happened at that World Cup, they never played with each other again.

After suffering a defeat at the hands of Gheorghe Hagi’s Romania in their opening game, Colombia’s next fixture, against the hosts USA, become imperative for the much-fancied South Americas;  literally a matter of life or death. After Higuita had helped Colombia win over their fans at the last World Cup in Italy, expectations were higher than ever from those watching back home.

Midway through the first half, Escobar diverted a cross into his own net to give the US the lead while also sealing his own fate. Earnie Stewart added a second for the hosts while Adolfo Valencia grabbed a late consolation as Colombia were knocked out after just their second game. The look on Escobar’s face after he’d converted into his own net said it all – it was like the kiss of death. From the moment that ball hit the net, what happened next seemed almost inevitable.

Escobar was murdered upon arriving back in his home country. No one outside Colombia could quite believe the barbaric reaction – it was as if Gabriel García Márquez had written this part of the story. Colombia were again exposed as the violent country that had been rocked by decades of civil unrest and war.

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A year later, Higuita was filling the country with joy again through the game of football. His acrobatic scorpion kick at Wembley from Jamie Redknapp’s effort has cemented the goalkeeper a place in football folklore. Redknapp swung in a ball from deep but it soared towards Higuita’s goal, the crowd expecting an easy take for the Colombian goalkeeper. But this was René Higuita.

He hardly moved as the ball came flying towards him and, just as it reached, Higuita jumped, flicking both of his feet up in the air behind him and kicked the ball clear of danger. The sharp intake of breath from the Wembley crowd was quickly followed by sheer delirium and astonishment at what they had just witnessed. The same reaction occurred in living rooms across the world as commentators struggled to sustain a sentence of superlatives about the obscenity of it all.

Now, over 20 years later, Higuita’s magical move is still being talked about and Colombia cherish it as one of their finest sporting moments. Since that friendly in 1995, El Loco hasn’t stayed out of the spotlight, especially in Latin America. Higuita left Nacional in 1997 and played for a total of nine teams from Colombia, Mexico, Ecuador and Venezuela before hanging up his famous boots in 2010 at the age of 43.

The fact that his footballing roadshow spanned three decades demonstrates how much he gave to football and how he paved the way for the ball-playing goalkeepers of South America today. Since retiring, Higuita has become involved in Colombian politics. Running with the ball turned into running for mayor of a municipality near his hometown of íMedelln, but nothing came to fruition. FARC reportedly gave Higuita the chance to represent them at the 2018 Colombian Presidential Elections but once again, he opted not to get involved. Nowadays he is a goalkeeping coach back at Nacional, handing down his eccentric style of play to the upcoming generation.

Beyond coaching, his legacy lives on in Colombia and the wider world. He redefined a position that many didn’t think needed redefining and for that, football will always be grateful. If you watch the World Cup this summer, when you see a goalkeeper playing as though they haven’t got gloves on and a goal behind them, like the Edersons of this world, that is Higuita’s most enduring legacy.

By Billy Munday  

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