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Andrés Escobar: The Tragedy of Colombian Football

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Andres Escobar – a Colombian hero

In the heart of Medellin, Colombia, a statue of one of the nation’s most celebrated sportsmen stands tall. Fondly nicknamed by Colombian fans as ‘The Gentleman of Football’, Andrés Escobar represented virtue and honesty in a country torn apart by violence, illicit drug trade and war.

He was part of the Atlético Nacional team that made history by becoming the first Colombian team to win the Copa Libertadores in 1989, drawing both the envy and admiration of South American footballers and football fans alike. However, the unveiling of the statue to honour him as a statesman of the game was preceded by dismal circumstances.

Bloody murder

Andrés Escobar was shot 6 times by three armed mobsters and left bleeding in his car, outside a pub on the 2nd of July 1994, at 3:30 in the morning. Escobar died within 45 minutes of reaching the hospital. Colombia’s dire image in the international community was further tarnished, and its dreadful reputation for crime and murder worsened.

In 1994, Colombia was touted as potential winners of the World Cup, with flamboyant, blonde haired Carlos Valderrama in midfield, Faustino Asprilla leading the line and Andrés Escobar at the heart of the defence. Pelé had predicted that Colombia would at least reach the semi-finals of the World Cup, and not many had disagreed with him.

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Crowds mourn the death of Escobar

After ruthlessly brushing aside Argentina in the last game of the qualifying stages with a 5-0 victory, Colombian football fans were undoubtedly optimistic about their country’s chances at winning the World Cup. They finished top of their group, unbeaten after 6 games, doing the double against both Argentina and Peru. They were subsequently placed in Group A, along with USA, Switzerland and Romania, countries they were expected to perform well against.

Also read: Pablo Escobar and the rise of 'narco-football' in Colombia

Disappointing World Cup

However, as is expected of the violence-torn and politically unstable country Colombia was in the 90s, criminal motivation inevitably found its way into the workings of football. The players and management were rattled by death threats from powerful gangsters and rumours of Colombian drug cartels attempting to influence games were circulating amongst the public.

Defender Chonta Herrera’s brother was killed in a suspicious car accident and head coach Mataruna was getting unsolicited instructions from dangerous cartel leaders on team selection. There was an enormous amount of money placed on bets, by both cartels in the USA and Colombia, and neither side was willing to lose what they had risked.

Regardless of how accurate the rumours were, the Colombian side was visibly shaken and succumbed to an uninspired 3-1 defeat to Romania in their first match of the World Cup. This was followed by a game against USA, in which Escobar scored his first and only own goal after attempting to block a cross, eventually prodding the ball past his own goalkeeper.

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Despite winning the last game of the group stage against Switzerland 2-0, Romania’s shock win against USA confirmed Colombia’s unceremonious exit from the World Cup. According to his teammates, Andrés never watched the replay of his own goal. He was understandably devastated.

Cartel involvement

Five days after the elimination, Andrés Escobar visited a local nightclub in Medellin called "El Indio" with his friends, in an attempt to forget about his World Cup miseries. He was allegedly taunted about his own goal at the nightclub and was later found alone in his car at approximately 3:30 in the morning, after his friends had split up.

Confronted by three men, who continually harassed him, Andrés insisted that it was an honest mistake and apologised before he was shot by a .38 calibre pistol 6 times, by one of the three men. With each shot, the gunman shouted ‘Goooool!’, mimicking South American football commentators, and left in a Toyota pickup truck with the other two while Escobar bled to his death.

The murderer Humberto Castro Muñoz was arrested the next evening, and it was revealed that he was the driver for Santiago Gallón, a powerful cartel member who had lost heavily after betting on the game. Humberto Muñoz was sentenced to 43 years in prison, but was eventually released after 11 years on account of good behaviour.

Fall and subsequent rise of Colombian football

Around 120,000 people took to the streets to witness Andrés Escobar’s funeral, and an entire nation collectively mourned the loss of a great, and humble sportsman. It is often suggested that had Pablo Escobar been alive at the time, the murder would never have happened due to his intense love and admiration for the Colombian football team.

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People mourn Escobar’s death

Many of the important people linked with the football network in the country left the game for the safety of their family and themselves. Colombia’s star players Valderrama and Asprilla refused to play for them and the national team became merely a weak shadow of what it once was before. The aftermath of this incident spelt impending doom for Colombian football.

Their following World Cup qualification attempts failed four times before ultimately succeeding in 2014. Despite Colombia’s football structure becoming a lot more stable now, and fans recently becoming delighted by the way their team is playing, this barbaric incident will always remain in the back of every Colombian’s mind as a black mark, an embarrassment for their country. It will remain as a bitter after-image of a violent narco-war that had gone too far.

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The Colombian who will never be forgotten

"Life doesn't end here. We have to go on. Life cannot end here. No matter how difficult, we must stand back up. We only have two options: either allow anger to paralyse us and the violence continues, or we overcome and try our best to help others. It's our choice. Let us please maintain respect. My warmest regards to everyone. It's been a most amazing and rare experience. We'll see each other again soon because life does not end here" - Colombia captain, Andrés Escobar, following Colombia’s elimination from the 1994 World Cup.

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Edited by Staff Editor
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