Andrés Escobar: The Colombian Who Scored a Fatal Own Goal in 1994 World Cup

Bill Shankly once famously said: ‘Some people believe football is a matter of life and death, I am very disappointed with that attitude. I can assure you it is much, much more important than that’. This quote illustrates the effect that football has on countless people and Shankly’s quote is a belief that is shared by many football fans. However, the events that shook the world in the summer of 1994, put these words into context when Andrés Escobar was tragically killed for a genuine mistake. Football is a game of immense importance to millions of people, but it is a sport and nobody should ever be killed in the name of the beautiful game.

Andrés Escobar Saldarriaga was a Colombian defender who will forever be best known for being shot dead aged just 27,a few days after scoring an own goal at the 1994 World Cup. He grew up in Medellín, the second largest city in Colombia, to a middle-class family and progressed from school football to ultimately representing his home team Atlético Nacional as a teenager. Following a move to Young Boys, where he failed to make an appearance, he returned to Nacional and made over 200 appearances for them before the 1994 World Cup.

His strong club form had led to speculation that a move to AC Milan would follow the tournament. Off the field, he was engaged to his dentist girlfriend and they were due to marry five months after the conclusion of the 1994 World Cup. His commitment to football deserves great praise in an era of immense pressure on young men to join drug cartels and gangs. Andrés Escobar followed a football dream but his life succumbed to an end much more accustomed to gang life.

Escobar went on to make over 50 appearances for Colombia which began with scoring his only career goal in a 1-1 draw with England, in the 1988 Rous Cup. He represented his side at the 1989 Copa América where they were eliminated in the first round in Brazil, and then the 1990 World Cup in Italy where Colombia were eliminated by Cameroon in the Round of 16. He also aided Colombia to a fourth place finish in the 1991 Copa América and despite not playing in any qualifying matches, he was recalled to the 1994 World Cup squad.

Prior to the World Cup in the United States in 1994, the Colombian fans were confident that their team would do well. Their team had qualified in style, conceding only two goals and performing adeptly with a team full of quality and style. This is best illustrated with the 5-0 victory over Argentina, in Argentina, during the qualifying round for the 1994 World Cup. So impressive was this victory that the Argentinean supporters clapped the Colombians when they walked off the pitch. This victory gave their fans a hope that they could go all the way in the competition, a belief that was shared amongst the players alike.

Colombia were placed in Group A, along with Romania, Switzerland and the hosts – United States. They entered the competition losing just once in the twenty-six preceding games, with a flamboyant and star-studded side. The likes of Carlos Valderrama, Freddy Rincón, Alexis García and Faustino Asprilla were national heroes and household names, about to take their game to the world stage. The confidence that the Colombians arrived with was quickly quashed following a difficult first game.

The discouraging performance affected the self-confidence of those on and off the field as they ran out to a 3-1 loss to Romania. A fantastic finish by Gheorghe Hagi was partnered with a double by Florin Raducioiu, Adolfo Valencia had restored hope to make it 2-1 but the Colombians could not find a way back into the game. Such a disappointing defeat in the first game was crucial, it went on to shape the rest of their World Cup campaign and they did not emotionally recover from that loss.

Not only were the players having to deal with the disappointing defeat, they were receiving death threats from influential Colombian gangsters who had lost big money on the first loss. The perfect demonstration of the Colombian cartel power was that they were displaying these threats on the televisions in the hotel rooms of the Colombian players. Luis ‘Chonto’ Herrera, the Colombian defender who had previously had his son kidnapped by mobsters, was informed that his brother had been killed in a car crash. Andrés Escobar was the key reason that Herrera stayed at the World Cup, he reminded him the importance of a positive Colombian display on this stage. There is no doubt that this physiological pressure placed on the players would have had a negative impact on the field.

Next, Colombia faced the US in front of 94,000 at the Rose Bowl in Los Angeles. Pre-match build-up was again marred by cartel threats, manager Francisco Maturana informed the team that if he played midfielder Gabriel ‘Barrabas’ Gómez then the player would be murdered. The players were incapacitated by fear and they headed onto the field aware of the serious threat to their lives. Despite their crushing Romanian defeat and the ongoing home pressure, Colombia were determined to bounce back against an American side that drew their first game with Switzerland. Again, this confidence seemed misplaced as Colombia conceded a first-half own goal. It was evident that the US desperately wanted to win in front of their home fans, the own goal proved more important than just the opening goal of the game as it went on to shape the consequences.

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In what was purely an attempt to stop the John Harkes cross from entering the box, the ball struck the tip of his outstretched boot and Escobar wrong footed the goalkeeper. This was Escobar’s first own goal of his career and he was unaware of the monumental significance this would have in history. They went on to lose the game 2-1 and Escobar’s mistake proved vital. The defeat to the United States was another damning nail in Colombia’s World Cup coffin.They had again expected a positive result but failed to produce.

Andrés Escobar was a player that gave it all. He saw the ball coming and he couldn’t let it go, he had to do something with it. It is really sad that he lost his life, for what is just a game.’ -Isai Sanchez, Colombian fan

A lot of the blame for the loss was placed on 27-year-old Escobar. Following the competition Escobar wrote: ‘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’. It was a quote which was eerily proved wrong. His sentiments were correct, this was only a football match and life should indeed have continued.

Colombia were on their knees, facing the possibility that they would have to return home having lost their first two games and were determined not to make it three. Amongst all the upset, there was also a strong feeling of anger toward Escobar and his mistake. What followed was a spirited 2-0 victory over Roy Hodgson’s Switzerland; however Romania beat the US 1-0 to top the group and see Colombia out.

The Colombian squad were set to return home having failed to deliver on the biggest stage of all. In previous campaigns, Colombia had returned home with open arms but following 1994 World Cup, it was very different. There were fans present to welcome the squad home but there was a lot less pandemonium and support and it was a much more, understandably, sombre affair. Escobar decided to return to Colombia rather than meeting his relatives in Las Vegas.

Five days following their elimination, Escobar visited a bar in his home town with friends. They were out all evening and departed a nightclub at 3 am, Escobar returned alone to his car and was approached by three men. An argument began and two of the men pulled out handguns and Escobar was shot six times and the shooters reportedly shouted ‘Goal!’ with each gunshot, one shot for each time the Colombian commentator had said it following his own goal. Escobar was left on the floor until he was picked up by an ambulance and died 45 minutes later.Over 120,000 people attended his funeral and his death is marked each year with fans bringing pictures of him to games in Colombia. A statue was erected in his honour in 2002, in his home city.

Statue of Andrés Escobar in his hometown.

Colombian football has forever been intrinsically linked with drug cartels, with the dirty money involved in football in a major way. Andrés Escobar’s death can be directly linked to the growing class divisions within South America that was happening due to the huge smuggling of cocaine in the continent. The organised crime culture created vast amount of money to be circulated around the nation. Individuals with ludicrous amounts of money were being rewarded with huge power in the country’s governance and politics.

Colombia’s football was full of hope and promise before the World Cup, the antithesis of life in Colombia before and during the World Cup in 1994. Pablo Escobar had been murdered in December 1993 and Colombia was in disarray. Despite being a feared drug lord, Escobar provided employment and housing for many poor Colombians, for he was born in poverty and understood the struggles of common man.

Pablo Escobar’s love of football also led to the building of football pitches across Colombia, many that had nurtured the swashbuckling stars of the Colombia’s 1994 squad. The drug scene in Colombia vastly improved their football as many gang leaders were moving big money through football clubs.The influx of millions greatly benefitted the Colombian game. The extortionate transfer fees and wages kept Colombian players in the country and led to Atlético Nacional becoming the first Colombian team to win the Copa Libertadores in its 30th instalment, a feat that was not repeated until 2004.

This illustrates how sudden the influx of money influenced the Colombian game and why they were so optimistic for that World Cup. Pablo Escobar’s influence led to the organised murder of politicians, policemen, judges and rival cartel members. His headquarters was based in Andrés Escobar’s home town of Medellín and his influence on the national team was palpable.

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The ties with the national side were so close that Pablo Escobar enjoyed kickabouts with players who were invited to visit him in private. One such player who had close connections to Pablo Escobar was the enigmatic goalkeeper René Higuita, who came to visit Pablo in prison. Higuita was imprisoned for profiting from a kidnapping after he allegedly received nearly $65,000 for acting as a go-to in a deal between Pablo Escobar and Carlos Molina. He claimed that he was solely questioned on his relationship with Escobar before and during his time in prison. His relationship with Pablo Escobar saw him being dropped from the 1994 World Cup.

It was believed that Higuita was imprisoned due to the embarrassment that one of the most influential footballers was publicly consorting with Pablo Escobar. This embarrassment was shared by Andrés Escobar who was repeatedly left to feel uncomfortable with any association to Pablo Escobar.

The Pablo Escobar Empire disintegrated when he was killed by the Search Bloc in Colombia. If the police had believed this would calm the storm in Colombia, they were wrong. Instead it created a chasm that many were desperate to fill. This scramble for power was certainly a factor in the brutal murder of Andrés Escobar. Following the outpouring of Colombian emotion in commemoration of his life, all concentration quickly turned to finding the guilty parties.

A bodyguard for the Colombian drug cartel, Humberto Castro Muñoz, was arrested and confessed to Andrés Escobar’s murder. He was also working for Santiago Gallón who was reported to have lost money after gambling on the USA Vs Colombia game. Muñoz was found guilty and sentenced to 43 years in prison, however, he was released in 2005 and his three accomplices were acquitted. The murder of Andrés Escobar came a few months after the death of Pablo Escobar and it is widely believed that this would not have occurred if he was still alive as Pablo fervently supported the Colombian national team. It is also believed the renowned Gallón brothers bribed their way out of prison and drastically reduced Muñoz’s sentence to only 11 years, despite such a public murder.

Pablo and Andrés Escobar are complete opposites.Pablo’s life was shrouded in governing the murky criminal world with an enduring grasp. Pablo would offer gifts to Andrés’ club, an offer he continually rejected to distance himself from his notorious namesake. Following Andrés’ death, the cartel was keen to curtail their support towards his home team, Atlético Nacional. This withdrawal of cartel support would have pleased Andrés but the penalty he had to pay to establish that, is something that nobody should have to pay. Andrés spent his time in the lighter side of life, his lengthy efforts to distance Colombia’s image from the likes of Pablo Escobar were ultimately in vain.

The reaction to his death was one of great sadness.Many had attributed his mistake as a key reason to Colombia’s World Cup failures, but even they knew this reaction was unacceptable. Football is a sport, the sort that is supposed to unify a nation in powerful ways. This unity and enjoyment should never have led to anything as harrowing as a murder. The topic of Andrés Escobar remains an emotive one in Colombia to this day because as well as being a talented player, he was an influential person as well. His error which caused the own goal was completely accidental.Mistakes happen on the football field and some lead to a goal that is just football. It could have happened to any player and, although Escobar was at fault, the reaction to this was unjustified.

Fortunately, Escobar’s murder did not start a trend in Colombia. Pablo Escobar’s murder left Colombia in a state of distress.This gulf in power provided other mobsters an opportunity to mark their territory. This murder of a Colombian footballer did not help anyone and it was clear that this act is never to be repeated. There is the case of Alejandro Peñaranda in January 2018, the Colombian who was playing for Cortuluá. He was assassinated in his home in an attack which saw one of his team mates also injured. The motives appear not to be cartel related, however, this murder only further smears the message that Andrés Escobar was trying to promote.

His death is still a raw subject in Colombia and its after effects are remaining.The man coined ‘El Caballero del Fútbol’ (‘The Gentleman of Football’) for his calm style of play, made efforts to improve the global perception of Colombia. Instead, he became the personification of the violence present in his nation. A widely respected footballer, his greatest legacy was that football can help unite everyone. His quote ‘Life doesn’t end here’ has become very powerful within Colombia as a reminder of the importance of standing up to adversity. His legacy has continued through the Andrés Escobar Project which helps disadvantaged Colombians play football. Many Colombians choose to remember his life in a positive way and pay their respects by bringing his pictures to national games as a reminder that football stands for unity, brotherhood and that life doesn’t end here.

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