Top 10 iconic moments in International Football: No. 2
Andres Escobar‘s own goal at the 1994 World Cup, and subsequent killing.
Sometimes, the line between right and wrong, and good and evil, is a skewed one.
Two people who were distinctive in every sense of the word, were connected only by their last names, and their great love for football. They both encountered a great rise, before plummeting into an even greater fall, and while life did not end on a high for either, the story of Andres and Pablo Escobar makes one of football’s most captivating stories of all time.
It was the early 1980s. The cocaine trade in Colombia was gaining pace, and the person right at the helm of it all was Pablo Escobar. Yet, in his hometown of Medellin, as well as the rest of the country, for all the claims of bribery, murder and drug-trafficking against his name, he was seen by the majority of the large lower-class as a Robin Hood figure.
Escobar, who had a poor upbringing himself, had dedicated a lot of his millions for the benefit of the impoverished, building homes, schools, hospitals, churches and football fields, the latter because of his immense love for the sport. It were those football fields that handed opportunities to many of the precocious talents around the country, leading to Colombia’s emergence as a footballing nation, while also giving many others some solace, an escape from their destituteness.
His rise also coincided with the growing stock of a young footballer from Medellin with the same last name as him. Andres Escobar was making waves as a young centre-back, using the local tournaments organised on Pablo’s grounds to assert himself as one of the country’s leading talents.
Their paths met once again when Pablo Escobar took over Atletico Nacional, the club Andres used to play for, in turn making them continental superpowers within the blink of an eye. Laundering money in order to legalise the millions that he made off the drug trade, Escobar not only had the finances to keep the club’s best players, but also had enough and more in the bank to attract world-class talent from abroad.
It wasn’t long then, before the team reaped the benefits of that investment, becoming the first side from Colombia to lift the Copa Libertadores (for the layman, the Champions League of South America) in 1989, with Andres Escobar a vital cog in their success.
Andres Escobar, known to be a devout Catholic and called ‘The Gentleman of Football’, did not involve himself into Pablo Escobar’s world of narcotics like many other footballers did, but did spend time in the company of the drug baron, who treated his players more like friends than employees.
Elsewhere, domestic success led to national glory as well, as Colombia’s golden generation helped the country romp to World Cup qualification, earning them an entry into the world’s premier footballing event for only the third time in their history.
The icing on the cake was their 5-0 humbling of the Diego Maradona-led Argentina, which ensured that the ones who had chosen to question their credibilities were sure to sit up and took notice. Andres Escobar’s individual career was soaring as well, the player signing a contract to join Italian giants AC Milan after the 1994 World Cup.
On the contrary, the other Escobar suffered a slump in fortunes, as Pablo breathed his last during a shootout with the Colombian police. The drug baron’s death led to an increase in violence around the country, with many individuals vying to take over the mantle as the leader of Colombia’s biggest cartel.
The countdown to the 1994 World Cup, to be played in the US for the first time, was on, and Colombia was going into the competition with heightened expectations. Understandably so, as the team’s last 26 games before the event had yielded just one loss, with even Brazil great Pele picking them as his favourites to lift the cup.
However, as preparations for the competition were in full force, the country’s dark side reared its ugly head again, as it came to light that Colombia’s betting syndicates and drug cartels were exercising their influence over the squad, and had spent a lot of their fortunes on bets over the World Cup games.
The team was hit with withdrawals as well, as legendary goalkeeper Rene Higuita, one of the stars of their qualifying campaign (also credited as the inventor of the ‘Scorpion Kick‘), was jailed before the tournament, with many basing the arrest on his close relations with Pablo Escobar.
The start of their sojourn was not an auspicious one, as the unassuming Romania, led by legendary attacking midfielder Gheorghe Hagi, scored an massive 3-1 upset win over the Colombians in the teams’ opening fixture at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena.
Instead of a sense of calm that many hoped would ensue after the shock loss, havoc was wreaked in the Colombians’ camp. The loss led to a massive psychological breakdown within the squad, with players constantly reminded of the repercussions if they lost their upcoming games.
And as if the pressure on them to perform was heightened enough, the contingent had other matters to worry about as well. The coaching staff were informed that Barrabas Gomez, a key player for the Colombians, was to play no further part in the competition, failing which the whole team would be killed, while regular right-back Chonto Herrera found out in the hours before their game against USA that his brother had been killed.
Needing a result against the Americans to give themselves any chance of qualifying for the next round, the Colombians stepped onto the field, clearly not in the right frame of mind. Despite looking the stronger of the two sides, the jitters were clear to see, and their worst fears were realised around the half-hour mark, when the incident occurred.
Stretching to clear a low cross from US midfielder John Harkes, Escobar only managed to get a touch fainter than he would have liked, the ball deflecting off his outstretched boot and wrong-footing goalkeeper Oscar Cordoba before trickling into the net. A majority of the partisan home crowd leapt in joy, while the Colombians in presence were stunned into silence. A team that was talked up as one of the best in the world, destined to reach the latter stages of the tournament, was staring down the barrel.
Heads dropped, and the same players who were wowing the world with their panache in the games leading up to the tournament, struggled to string passes together. Soon enough, another American shot hit the back of the net, and it was curtains for the Colombians.
“Go on, take the ball out of the net, get going.”
- Escobar, to goalkeeper Cordoba, after putting it past his own net
The side’s 2-0 victory over Switzerland in their last group encounter mattered scantly, as the side, weighed down by the colossal expectations on them during the tournament, and now fearful of the backlash back home, trudged back to Colombia.
Many suggested that Escobar stay in the US to see a bit of the country till tempers abated, warnings that the defender did not heed to. He believed in his people; believed that cowardice was no way to face failure. He wanted to face the people who he had angered.
In hindsight however, he probably should have known better than to trust the streets of Medellin.
In the car park of a nightclub in Medellin, ten days after the own goal, Escobar was confronted by two men who mocked him for his own goal, insulting him and his family, to which Escobar could only offer an apology, insisting that THE goal was just an honest mistake. However, with tempers fraying, there was no time for reason, something Escobar soon found out, as the gunmen put six bullets through the footballer, imitating South American commentators and shouting ¡Gol!” while shooting the player.
The country wept again for the death of another of its famous sons. ‘The Gentleman of Football’ was no more.
While many considered the shooting to be retribution for the losses that Colombia’s biggest drug cartels made in bets during the World Cup, an alternative line of thought is that Escobar’s death was just another number in the country’s ever-growing random crime rate, at a time when homicide was the biggest cause of death in the country.
The shooters’ escape vehicle was found to be registered to the Gallon brothers, well-known drug-traffickers who were seen to have struck up a conversation with Escobar. Yet, given the pervasive grip that the underworld had over the legislating bodies of the country, it did not come as a surprise that the kingpins walked scot-free after a trial, while their bodyguard took the fall for the killing.
Friends of Pablo Escobar insist that had ‘El Senor’ still been alive, then his godfatherly-hand would have kept any footballer from harm, knowing the man’s avid interest in the sport and his strong friendships within the national team. According to them, Pablo had rules. The country, now, had none.
The drug cartels of the country had scored one over the country’s revered sport, the incident a parable of the clutch that football had in South America. However, a country ravaged by war and poverty, and struggling to stay on its feet, was given hope for one last time by Andres Escobar. The defender, an inspiration for many throughout his life, handed the world his last telling contribution while writing in a newspaper column just before his death:
“No matter how difficult, we must stand back up. We have to go on. Life doesn’t end here.”