World Cup moments: Andrés Escobar’s fatal own goal in 1994
Colombia captain was murdererd in the car park of a Medellín nightclub after USA exit
Andrés Escobar scores an own goal against the USA in 1994. Photograph: Romeo Gacad/AFP
“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 writes in Bogota’s El Tiempe newspaper following his country’s elimination from USA 1994.
Despite what cynics blessed with the gift of twenty-twenty hindsight might have you believe, Pele’s suggestion that Colombia would at least make the semi-finals of USA 94 wasn’t a crazy shot in the dark. Those would come later, six of them; bullets fired in a Medellín nightclub car park during a row that occurred in the early hours of July 2nd, 1994. They would ring around the world, rendering millions incredulous that the captain of Colombia had been murdered, shot six times in the back, apparently as revenge for his contribution to his own team’s elimination from a World Cup that was not yet over. It seemed that for no crime more heinous than accidentally scoring an own goal during a football match, Andrés Escobar had been gunned down in cold blood.
El Caballero del Futbol, the gentleman of football, was a quiet, disciplined and much-loved leader of a golden generation of Colombian footballers who travelled to USA 94 having conceded only two goals in qualifying. Pele wasn’t delusional: they were genuine contenders. In a final qualifier against Argentina which their hosts needed to win to ensure qualification, Colombia won 5-0 in Buenos Aires, earning a standing ovation from shocked home fans whose team was eventually forced to creep through the back door courtesy of a play-off win over Australia.
In 26 matches leading up to USA 94, Colombia lost just once. Their coach Francisco Maturana insisted his players express themselves and their natural flamboyance yielded rich on-field dividends courtesy of splendidly gifted individuals such as Carlos Valderrama, Freddy Rincón, Alexis García and Faustino Asprilla, to name just a quartet from a squad that, at the time, remained largely unknown outside of South America. This was the mid-90s, when the notion of blanket football coverage courtesy of niche blogs, satellite TV channels and internet streaming was as hopelessly exotic as the names of Colombia’s many wonderfully talented players.
Socially, it was also a time of terrible devastation and misery for Colombia. Medellín was in a state of emergency following the murder of Pablo Escobar, a namesake but no relation to Andrés and head of the multi-billion dollar Medellín drug cartel. Despite his status as bloodthirsty gang lord, Escobar was beloved of his country’s many poor, for whom he provided employment and housing. He also built football pitches, lots of them, on which many of the stars who qualified so effortlessly for USA 94 honed their skills as young boys.
Escobar also owned the Medellín football team Atlético Nacional, where the sale of tickets for cash and decidedly creative book-keeping when it came to player transfers enabled him to launder hundreds of millions of dollars. Other cartels followed his lead and in the 1980s, their investment in various clubs led to a resurgence in Colombian football, which had hitherto been on its uppers. The wages paid encouraged Colombia’s finest players to remain at home, enabling Nacional to become South American club champions by winning the 1989 Copa Libertadores. Their team featured Andrés Escobar in its lineup, among other home-based internationals who would go on to qualify for USA 94 with such distinction.
Responsible for the murder of assorted judges, politicians, over 500 policemen, at least one referee and thousands of rival cartel members who displeased him, Pablo Escobar had surrendered himself to Colombian authorities in the early 1990s, having first avoided attempts to extradite him to the USA. Holed up in Catedral Prison on the outskirts of Medellín, which became his own personal fiefdom, he had been promised a reduced sentence if he agreed to cease trafficking drugs. There he was visited by members of the Colombia football team, who would travel there in secret for kickabouts on the pitch Escobar had ordered to be built as a condition of his surrender.
On one occasion in late 1993, the famously flamboyant Colombian goalkeeper René Higuita foolishly stopped to chat with journalists on his way into the prison to visit Escobar. It caused a scandal and was an excursion that would cost him his place at the following summer’s World Cup. Higuita was subsequently arrested and imprisoned on what were rumoured to be trumped-up charges of mediating in the ransom negotiation of a kidnapping. Most believed the real reason for his incarceration was government embarrassment that such a famous figure had been fraternising so publicly with one of Colombian officialdom’s most despised and America’s most wanted.
According to The Two Escobars, the ESPN documentary that chronicles the intertwined lives of Pablo and Andrés, Higuita could see “the good and bad” in Pablo. Andrés Escobar was less ambivalent and was always uncomfortable at being invited to socialise with such a high profile criminal, however furtively. “Maria, I don’t want to go but I have no choice,” he told his sister, Maria Ester. He would not have to concern himself with visiting orders, metaphorical or otherwise, for much longer. Having escaped from prison and gone on the run after hearing the authorities were planning to move him to a stricter regime, on December 2nd 1993, one day after his 44th birthday, Pablo Escobar was murdered.
The group responsible was a bunch of vigilantes known as The Pepes (Los Perseguidos por Pablo Escobar – People Persecuted by Pablo Escobar) and was ostensibly comprised of the rival Cali cartel, right wing paramilitaries led by Carlos Castano and backed by police, the special forces of both Colombia and the USA, and countless members of Escobar’s own Medellín cartel, who had been ordered to turn against their boss or be killed. With his empire in ruins, unable to trust anybody and with contracts on the heads of his nearest and dearest, Escobar was finally hunted down and shot dead by police, although speculation abounds that the shot that killed him was self-inflicted. If the Colombian government thought the death of their bête noire would signal an end to the gang violence in Medellín, they could not have been more wrong. Total anarchy ensued.
A city in chaos
“When Pablo died, the city spun out of control,” his cousin, Jaime Gavira, explained on The Two Escobars. “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.” With Escobar gone, permission was no longer required. Gavira’s was a view endorsed by Colombia’s manager, who had previously overseen Nacional’s Copa Libertadores triumph and knew Escobar well. “The law of the boss is the law of the land,” said Maturana. “When Pablo Escobar died, the earth shook and the wind cried ‘Pablo Escobar!’ As of that moment, you had to be on guard at all times. You couldn’t trust anyone. Even a policeman could be good or evil.” It was against this backdrop, with frequent bombings and shootings reducing Medellín to a state of complete emergency, that Colombia’s footballers set off to USA 94.
“It’s difficult to stay focused, but I find motivation in the good things to come,” said Andrés Escobar, who was 27 at the time, had recently got engaged to his girlfriend, Pamela Cascardo, and had accepted an offer to play for Milan the following season. “I try to read a bit of the bible each day. My bookmarks are two photos, one of my late mother and the other of my fiancée.” Somewhat ironically and perhaps rather naively, considering how Colombian football’s resurgence was bankrolled, Escobar firmly believed the sport could help put a stop to the violence that was destroying the country he loved. “He saw soccer as a school of life to teach values and tolerance,” said his friend, the journalist-turned-diplomat César Mauricio Velásquez. “To learn to win, to lose, to embrace sport as a sanctuary of unity. Andrés always stayed true to that belief.”
Swept Stateside on a wave of genuine hope amid the despair back home, Colombia’s World Cup campaign could scarcely have got off to a more inauspicious start. At the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, they lost their opening match 3-1 against a largely unheralded Romania side content to defend in depth and attack on the break. Florin Raducioiu scored two for the Romanians, but the pick of their goals was a breath-taking effort by Gheorghe Hagi, with the Maradona of the Carpathians spotting Óscar Córdoba, in Colombia’s team for the banged-up Higuita, off his line and scoring with a shot from the sideline that was as preposterous as it was audacious. In the opposite goal, Bogdan Stelea enjoyed one of the games of his career, pulling off one sublime save after another to maintain his team’s advantage. At 2-0 Adolfo Valencia scored to inspire hopes of a Colombian comeback, hopes that were eventually dashed by Radociou’s second and his team’s third in the 89th minute.
“That marked the beginning of a psychological crisis for which the team wasn’t prepared,” said Velásquez. “Many gamblers lost big money and there appeared a sort of ‘dark hand’ that was very upset with the team’s performance.” The ‘dark hand’ in question manifested itself on the TV screens in the players’ hotel rooms, where the customary welcome messages awaiting returning guests were replaced with unpleasant threats by enterprising hackers. Following the death of Pablo Escobar, the infant son of the Colombia defender Luis ‘Chonto’ Herrera had been kidnapped and subsequently returned in Medellín. Following his side’s defeat at the hands of Romania, Chonto received word from home that his brother had been killed in a car crash. What should have been the time of these exciting young footballers’ lives was rapidly becoming the stuff of nightmares. An unassuming leader, Escobar did his utmost to help his best friend and team to hold things together. “That night Andrés kept me company,” said Herrera. “I wanted to give up and go home, but Andrés said ‘The country depends on you. This is our one shot at the World Cup’.”
Colombia’s preparations for their second group match, also at the Rose Bowl and against the tournament hosts, were less than ideal but the team remained confident. “We’d played hundreds of friendlies against the USA and won them all,” recalled the midfielder Leonel Álvarez. At home, Medellín remained in meltdown, the streets habitually littered with burnt-out cars, bricks, bodies and blood. In Florida, team manager Maturana cried as he arrived for a pre-match meeting with his players. They had received more death threats, while Maturana had been warned that if veteran midfielder Gabriel ‘Barrabas’ Gómez was selected the entire squad would be murdered. “Barrabas was a key player, but they had me beat,” said Maturana, who reluctantly pandered to club owners prepared to jeopardise their own national team’s chances if it meant getting their players in the global spotlight to increase their value.
A squad paralysed by fear
A frightened shadow of the fur coat-wearing maverick who would later pitch up at Newcastle United, Faustino Asprilla remembered everyone at the meeting being “really tense”, paralysed by fear and with nobody saying a word. “And that,” recalls Maturana “is how we entered the field.” Despite, or perhaps because of their terror, Colombia threw the kitchen sink at the USA from the get-go. “We attacked from all angles, but the ball wouldn’t go in,” remembers Adolfo Valencia. “We kept attacking but we couldn’t score,” confirmed Álvarez. “A moment came when you start to remember what happened, bad thoughts flood your mind.” In the 22nd minute, the psychological floodgates opened.
At full stretch in an effort to cut out a low, curling John Harkes cross into the penalty area from the inside left, Escobar made contact with the ball and sent it rolling past the hopelessly wrong-footed Córdoba and into his own goal. Following a few seconds of quiet reflection as he lay flat on his back with his head in his hands contemplating the first own goal of his professional career, the stony-faced Escobar rose to his feet, glanced to his right and walked slowly towards the halfway line. If he was mulling over the seriousness of the possible consequences, he hid it fairly well. Watching the match on TV in Medellín, his nephew was in no doubt. “In that moment, my nine-year-old son said to me ‘Mommy, they’re going to kill Andrés,” Escobar’s sister told the makers of The Two Escobars. “I replied: ‘No sweetheart, people aren’t killed for mistakes. Everyone in Colombia loves Andrés’.”
He was certainly well-liked by his team-mates, who considered him blameless. “He had to make a play on the ball and unfortunately it went in,” said midfielder Alexis Garcìa. “I saw Andrés’s face and felt deep pain. It was like a premonition.” The jig was all but up for Colombia: Earnie Stewart doubled the USA’s lead in with a 52nd minute tap-in and that’s how it stayed until the final minute, when Valencia scored his second consolation goal of the tournament. In the final round of group games, Colombia beat Switzerland 2-0 at the Stanford Stadium in Palo Alto, but the USA’s defeat at the hands of Romania meant their fate was sealed. “It’s a very trying moment,” said Escobar. “Not only because of the error I committed, but also because in these games, our team could not fulfil our expectations.”
Escobar was devastated by Colombia’s World Cup exit and his very public contribution to it, a contribution he would never watch on television. Upon his return to Medellín, his friends and family rallied around in a bid to lift his spirits, while his friend César Mauricio Velásquez convinced him to write his cathartic “life doesn’t end here” column for El Tiempe. “He forgot his worries,” said his girlfriend. “There was warnings but Andrés was young and alive. He wanted to live his life. Had I known I’d have kept him home that night.”
Killed by football or society?
That night. His last. Escobar decided to go out with friends for the first time since his return from the World Cup and called Chonto Herrera to invite him along. Herrera told him to stay in, advising Escobar it would probably be best if they laid low. His manager shared Herrera’s concerns and told his player to be careful. “I said ‘the streets are dangerous,” Maturana recalled. “Here conflicts aren’t resolved with fists. Andrés, stay at home. But Andrés said ‘No, I must show my face to my people’.”
According to eye-witness reports, Escobar showed his face to the wrong people. Upon arriving at Medellín’s El Indio Bar with friends, the footballer enjoyed a few drinks and was happily talking to fellow revellers when a few people began insulting him, sarcastically cheering his error against the USA. Escobar left the premises, but the four-strong group hurling abuse followed him, continued their tirade and loudly labelled him a “faggot”. Upset, Escobar drove his car across the car park in order to reason with his detractors, insisting his own goal had been “an honest mistake”. An already tense situation escalated and at least one gun was produced and fired. Six bullets tore through the flesh and bone of Escobar’s back as he sat at the wheel of his car. An ambulance was called, but it was too late. Less than 30 minutes later, Andrés Escobar was declared dead.
In the wake of the shooting, which was and remains widely assumed to be a revenge slaying perpetrated by gangsters who had shipped heavy losses betting on Colombia at the World Cup, two people gave the licence plate number of one of the vehicles in which the group responsible for the murder made their escape. It was registered to the Gallón brothers, Pedro and Juan, drug traffickers who had left Pablo Escobar’s Medellín cartel to join the Pepes. According to Jhon Jairo Velásquez Vásquez, an enforcer for Pablo Escobar currently in prison for 300 murders, immediately after the shooting, the Gallóns approached Carlos Castano and paid him $3m to buy off the prosecutor’s office and get them to focus their investigation on one of their bodyguards who had been present at the scene. Whether or not he actually pulled the trigger remains unknown, but Humberto Castro Muñoz confessed to Escobar’s murder and was later sentenced to 43 years in prison, only to be released for good behaviour after serving just 11. His employers, the Gallóns, were cleared of any wrongdoing.
Despite ongoing speculation to the contrary, Vásquez insists Escobar’s murder was not a revenge attack by disgruntled gamblers. “Andrés’s mistake was talking back to those guys,” he would later surmise in an interview from the prison in which he is held. “The Gallóns’ egos were so inflated after taking down [PABLO]Escobar, they weren’t going to allow someone to talk back, not even Andrés. It had nothing to do with betting; it was a fight, that’s all.”
More than 100,000 Colombians filed past Escobar’s body as it lay in a wooden casket, draped with a green and white Nacional club flag, in a Medellín basketball arena. At his funeral, Colombia president Cesar Gaviria said the footballer was a victim of the “absurd violence” affecting the country. There were chants of “Justice! Justice!” from the thousands of mourners lining the streets as Escobar was taken to his final resting place. According to Escobar’s friend César Mauricio Velásquez, the cries came from people “united in our pain, sending our prayers to the heavens for the soul of Andrés Escobar and for the soul of sport in Colombia”. Weeping fans threw flowers in the path of the hearse as it passed with a police escort, while at the cemetery Colombia flags were waved by many of the 15,000 present to see Escobar’s coffin lowered into the ground.
Twenty years on, Andrés Escobar remains known around the world as the tragic Colombian footballer who was brutally “killed for scoring an own goal”. It’s a rather simplistic conclusion which his former manager feels does events of the time little justice. “Our society believed that soccer killed Andrés,” Francisco Maturana has since opined, going on to suggest that in fact “Andrés was a soccer player killed by society.”
Life doesn’t end here, wrote Escobar in what turned out to be his valedictory address to the people of Colombia. Instead, it ended somewhere else just a few days later. Violently and senselessly in the seedy confines of a Medellín night club car park.