Taking part in the World Cup is the pinnacle for most players, at least in the international scene. The world’s most popular sport is watched by billions every 4 years as expectations from fans and players is sky high. The best teams in the world take part in the competition and just being a part of this festivity is something players take pride in, it is a story which gets passed down generations – “I represented my country in a World Cup”.
USA 1994: Colombia’s chance
The World Cup in the United States in 1994 was supposed to be remembered for another country winning the trophy and becoming World Champions, what it got was a story so shocking it changed the way we looked at football and how big one small mistake can be for a player.
Andres Escobar was a defender for a very talented Colombia side who was set to join one of the Milan sides post the World Cup. In fact many pundits were expecting Columbia to do very well in the competition; some had even picked them out as winners for this edition of the World Cup. Even though people have made fun of Pele for his predictions, his prediction of Columbia making at least the semis in ’94 was something that people expected to happen.
The Colombian team was filled with some of the best players in the world at that time. The legendary Carlos Valderrama and Faustino Asprilla were part of this squad. This team had lost just one of their last 26 games before USA 1994. In fact in their last qualifier against Argentina, the home team needed to win to ensure qualification, Columbia hammered 5 past the Argentinians and left Buenos Ares to a standing ovation, they were that good.
The Colombians were placed in Group A with Romania, Switzerland and the host nation, the United States of America. The group should have been an easy one to progress out off for the team from South America, what unfolded was something that no Colombian fan would have ever imagined.
The group of death
Their first game was against Romania where the team lost 3-1 to a Gheorghe Hagi inspired team and that is when trouble started to brew. Colombia at that time was a country heavily linked with drug cartels and the country was marred with a lot of drug related violence. A lot of pitches and clubs were funded by various drug cartels and heavy betting was involved in almost all the games. It is believed that a lot of money was lost by gamblers and drug cartels in the loss against Romania.
Death threats started flooding in at the team hotel and in one of the pre match meetings with his players, the team manager cried. Maturana said he had been warned not to select midfielder Gabriel Gomez, and that if he did, the entire team would be killed. Things were not ideal leading to the next game against the United States.
The team was nervous from the onset; Colombia came out all guns blazing but just could not break the U.S. defense. Then in the 22nd minute, it happened. A low cross from the American John Harkes was sent into the Colombian penalty box and Escobar made contact with it sending it past his own goal keeper Cordoba. The scene after that provided a glimpse of what was to happen, Escobar laid flat on his back with his head in his hands. He has just scored his first own goal of his professional career. The repercussion of this was going to be huge. The United States went on to win the game 2-1 and even a final match day win for the Colombians was not enough to take them through to the next round as they finished bottom of their group and were out of the World Cup.
Not so sweet home
Escobar decided to go back to Colombia and six days after Colombia’s exit from the World Cup, he went out to a nightclub in Medellin. He was advised to stay low and not go out by his manager and also by friend Chonto Herrera. According to reports, Escobar had a few drinks but then a few people recognized him. They started jeering him and made fun of his error against the Americans, this is when trouble started to brew.
A group of 3 allegedly followed Escobar and confronted him at 3 A.M. in a parking lot, Escobar was in his car when he was confronted by the 3, and they shot him 6 times. The player was taken to hospital but was pronounced dead 45 minutes later.
This was thought to be punishment for the own goal which Escobar had scored. Humberto Castro Munoz was arrested on the night of July 2nd 1994 and he confessed to the killing of Escobar the day after. Munoz was also a driver for the Gallon brothers, Pedro and Juan who were drug traffickers and had bet a lot of money during the World Cup and were upset that the team had lost.
It is still unclear as to who really killed Escobar; Munoz was sentenced to 43 years in prison but was released 11 years later while the Gallon brothers were cleared of any wrongdoing.
The nation was in complete shock at the killing of a loved son. At his funeral more than 100,000 Colombians filed up past the body of the murdered player. The body laid in a wooden casket, draped with a green and white Nacional club flag, the club he was playing for at that time. Fans threw flowers in the path of the hearse which was carrying Escobar and there were close to 15,000 more people at the cemetery ground where Escobar’s coffin was lowered.
Escobar would have been 47 if he were alive today. He is now known as the player who was killed for scoring an own goal, that unfortunately remains linked with his name now. In his last column which he wrote for Bogota’s El Tiempe newspaper after the team’s elimination from the World Cup, he addressed the nation:
“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. “
Unfortunately for him, life did end. Andres Escobar, killed for scoring an own goal.