Andres Escobar: The World Cup Own Goal That Killed the Colombia Defender

The hysterical nature of football can sometimes lead to hyperbolic statements about the levels of importance certain occasions can pertain. One phrase that gets bounded about far too often is ‘a matter of life or death’. Obviously, this is never the case when it comes to such trivial things as football. Except, that is, in the Narco dominated days of Colombia in 1994. Andres Escobar was 27 years old and the captain of his country, when he was fatally shot six times in the car park of a Medellin nightclub. All supposedly because of an own goal he had conceded just 10 days earlier. The day in question, June 22nd 1994, was a typically scorching occasion inside California’s Rose Bowl Stadium – a veritable modern day coliseum if ever there was one. And, some would say that it was inside this coliseum that Colombia’s captain was sentenced for execution.  In truth, the reasons for Escobar’s untimely death are far more convoluted than could be simply attributed to footballing matters.  Indeed, Escobar’s coach for his club side Atletico Nacional, and the national team in 1994, Franciso Maturana has remarked in the proceeding years: “Our society believed that soccer killed Andrés…Andrés was a soccer player killed by society.” As ESPN explored in their acclaimed documentary ‘The Two Escobars’, it is hard to separate the namesakes, though no blood relation exists between them. For Pablo, who probably needs no introduction these days, was not just a billionaire drug cartel overseer – he was also an avid football fan. In his fledgling days as a drug trafficker, the Medellin native had invested much of his blood tainted cash into grassroots football inside the city’s slums. As a result, many of Colombia’s celebrated 1994 side had honed their talents on pitches fashioned by Escobar.  Further down the line, when the sheer volume of money he possessed became an issue, he again chose football as a solution, as he became the owner of his namesake’s club side Atletico Nacional.  Pablo’s ingenious money laundering scheme sparked the Narco-soccer revolution in Colombia, as his rivals followed suit in acquiring clubs of their own – another stage upon which to wage war. Alas, war in this case was not a metaphor. As you can imagine, having become accustomed to fighting off adversary using instant violence, the Narco way of life quickly infiltrated its way into Colombian soccer.  Referee’s were paid off, then subsequently killed. Players were now pawns in the hands of a select group of killing machines. And, with no viable alternative, and a sudden increase in funding and infrastructure (and therefore talent), they played the game.  The game, it turned out, wasn’t always for the fans. There were countless occasions where teams were flown in on private jets to square up against each other within the confines of a cartel casa, for the sole amusement of their observing owners – their own personal amphitheatres for which to watch their Gladiators do battle. While almost all players were roped into this world, some were more reticent than others. For every Rene Higuita – who ultimately lost his place in the national team for fraternising too closely with Escobar, even visiting him in prison – there was an Andres. In the documentary, his sister explained that he would often tell her of his concerns, but also of his fear of the alternative.  “Maria, I don’t want to go but I have no choice,” he would muse.  However, as alluded to, a byproduct of these unnervingly corrupt times was the injection of capital into a hitherto ailing league, and its subsequent and drastic amelioration. It was duly these resources that allowed the National Team to blossom and grow into a team of genuine World Cup contenders. Even Pele had backed them as outright winners.  And then, on the 2nd of December, 1993, Pablo Escobar was murdered, and all of the organised chaos that had come with him fell into purely the latter – chaos.  As Pablo’s cousin, Jaime Gavira, decreed in ‘The Two Escobars’: “When Pablo died, the city spun out of control. The boss was dead, so everyone became their own boss.” “Pablo had prohibited kidnappings. He ran the underworld with complete order. Anything illegal, you asked for Pablo’s permission.” It was in this world altering period of post-Escobar Colombia, a place suddenly bereft of its all-seeing emperor, that Andres’ squad left for America in their quest to lift football’s most coveted prize. All of the unexpected unease which now gripped the country was replicated within the national side. Amidst a torrent of threats, bets and bribery, Colombia crumbled. After surrendering 3-1 to archetypal minnows Romania in their opening fixture, players were greeted with a series of menacing warnings on their hotel room television sets, manifested by some wily hackers. The renegades were seemingly displeased with the considerable amount of money they had lost in backing their nation. While Medellin was descending further and further into apocalyptic anarchy, Andres and his team were forced to prep themselves for their must win clash with Pablo’s erstwhile cash cow, America.  Their ‘preparation’ predominantly consisted of coaxing players out of retreating back home, or otherwise eloping elsewhere, whilst simultaneously being extorted over team selection. Coach Maturana was seen crying one day before one of his team talks, after being informed that if he did not exclude Gabriel ‘Barrabas’ Gómez from the starting XI for the USA clash, his entire squad would be murdered.  With all this mind, USA’s pre-match condition as severe underdogs was overwhelmingly inaccurate. And yet, even with their afflictions, Colombia were still a quality outfit. Despairingly though, as if their off-field concerns weren’t punishment enough, there would be no respite for them on it.  Despite dominating the early stages, they fell behind in the 35th minute thanks to Escobar’s botched attempt at blocking an incoming cross from John Harkes. Harrowingly, while Andres attempted brush off his erroneous error, his nine year old nephew back home was already predicting his demise. Spoken like a child who’d had the eternal misfortune of growing up at such a time, he reportedly said, as quoted by Escobar’s sister in the documentary: “‘Mommy, they’re going to kill Andrés’. I replied: ‘No sweetheart, people aren’t killed for mistakes. Everyone in Colombia loves Andrés’.” Earnie Stewart doubled the host’s lead in the 52nd minute, after converting from a covertly slick passing move, to stick the less than proverbial dagger into the heart of the Colombian team. Whilst a speckle of dignity was restored by Adolfo Valencia in the 90th minute, the dye had been cast.  Though they did win their final group stage game with Switzerland, Romania’s triumph over the US in their final game meant qualification was impossible. The Colombians had crashed out of the tournament.  At the time, Escobar admitted: “It’s a very trying moment. Not only because of the error I committed, but also because in these games, our team could not fulfil our expectations.” Tragically, and perhaps in part due to his own involvement in the debacle, Escobar turned down a chance to stay in the United States for the rest of the competition to work in broadcasting, instead opting to return home immediately. Upon his return, he was inspired by a journalist friend of his to compress his feelings into a column for El Tiempo newspaper, with the intention of bringing the country back together. This now infamous column is one of the most distressing and poignant things you will read in the milieu of sport. An extract from it reads: “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.” The morbid reiteration that life is not over depicts a man all too aware of the recklessness and readiness of his compatriots to jump to violence as their default response. Days later, he was a victim of such a response, having been goaded by several young men inside a nightclub, with the own goal cited as the catalyst for the dispute. In between his initial efforts to reason with the group and his subsequent attempts to flee in his car, Andres Escobar was killed. Naturally, considering the climate of the Colombian justice system, the suspected perpetrators (Pedro and Juan Gallon, a couple of known Narco henchmen), whose vehicle was identified at the scene of the crime, were removed from the investigation thanks to a $3m pay-off.  Their expected motive? Some niggling gambling debts following Colombia’s World Cup exit.  Andres Escobar’s funeral was similar in scale and stature to that of his namesake – a paradoxically accurate thermometer of just how beloved the footballer was. Over 100,000 grieving fans queued to observe his coffin at a local Basketball arena, with another 15,000 waiting to safeguard his burial at the Medellin cemetery. While legacies are another thing that, from time to time, can be over-egged and over-sold, Escobar’s place as the eternal Gentlemen of Colombian football is not. His mark was truly indelible.  During Colombia’s famed run in the 2014 World Cup, which coincided with the 20th anniversary of Andres’ death, former Colombian defender Jorge Bermudez was quoted as saying: “We will never stop thinking about him or feeling that he is one of our own. Every Colombia triumph will also be, in some way, his.”

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