In amongst the razzamatazz of the 1994 World Cup, which kicked off with Diana Ross putting a penalty kick wide of the goal during the opening ceremony and finished with Roberto Baggio putting one over in a penalty shoot-out that seemed pre-ordained to follow a desperately bad final between Italy and Brazil, the darkest of football’s dark hearts showed its face. It felt as if a parallel universe – a feudal world in which criminality rules and considerations of humanity take a back seat – had momentarily become entwined with ours, and it led to the death of a sportsman, quite possibly for the seemingly absurd reason that he made a mistake under highly pressurised circumstances that cost some very violent and very powerful people a lot of money.
Andres Escobar was born in Medellin in Colombia in 1967. A tall, gifted defender, he played for Atelico Medellin, one of the giants of Colombian football, for his entire career apart from a brief and unsuccessful six month long spell in Switzerland playing for Young Boys Bern between 1989 and 1990. For someone that had lived the whole of their life in one of the most violent cities in the world, perhaps life in the relative peace and quiet of the Swiss capital was too much of a culture shock. Atletico are a successful club. They have won the Colombian Categoría Primera A ten times and, with Escobar in the team, won the Copa Libertadores in 1989. He also played a total of fifty games for Colombia, scoring one goal, in friendly match at Wembley Stadium against England in 1988.
Colombia had plenty of reason to be optimistic about the 1994 World Cup finals. They had won their qualifying group in sensational style, with four wins and two draws from their six matches from a campaign that concluded with a 5-0 win in Buenos Aires against Argentina. Pele, no less, stated that he felt that Colombia were his favourites to win the entire tournament. As well as the likes of Escobar, their squad contained flair players such as Carlos Valderrama, Freddy Rincon and Faustino Asprilla. The team had stumbled through the group stages of the 1990 World Cup in third place before losing to Cameroon in the second round, but the prevailing opinion was that they had since come of age.
Yet during the build-up to the tournament, there were pertistent rumours from some close to the Colombian squad that all was not as it appeared on the surface. The coach, Francisco Maturana, had only taken the job after his predecessor resigned after receiving death threats, and an atmosphere of menace hung thickly over the squad. After their opening match against Romania, midfielder Gabriel Gomez quit the team after he and Maturana received a faxed death threat, sent by a betting cartel who stood to lose if Colombia won the World Cup. Escobar’s death came because his own goal was perceived as having knocked the team out of the tournament. In many respects, the team was damned if they did, and damned if they didn’t.
They had a tough draw, placed in a group with the host nation, Romania and Switzerland. The United States and Switzerland kicked it off win a 1-1 draw in Pontiac, near Detroit – the first ever World Cup finals match played indoors. Colombia’s tournament, meanwhile, started disastrously against Romania in Pasadena. They fell two goals behind before pulling one back just before half-time, but the Romanians, whose run to the quarter-finals was one of the surprises of the tournament, ended up winning 3-1, leaving them with an uphill battle to guarantee themselves one of the top two spots in the group (although, under the slightly ludicrous rules that whittled down twenty-four teams to sixteen, only finishing bottom of the group guaranteed not qualifying), although their cause was assisted when Switzerland beat Romania 4-1 in their second match.
A win against the United States of America would see them back on course, of sorts. The death threat issued against the coach and one of their players obviously shattered the concentration of the players, and after thirty-four minutes of the match, a well placed swinging cross was diverted past the Colombian goalkeeper by Andres Escobar to give the United States the lead. Earnie Stewart doubled the lead for the USA seven minutes into the second half, and a late goal for Colombia from substitute Adolfo Valencia with two minutes left to play was too little, too late. Colombia were effectively out of the tournament with one match still to play. The team rallied in their final match, beating the Swiss (who were already through) 2-0, but Romania’s 1-0 win against the United States of America sealed their fate. They were the first team to be eliminated from the 1994 World Cup.
The players returned home and, for the backbone of the Colombian 1994 World Cup finals squad – six of whom played for Atletico Nacional – that meant returning to Medellin. Escobar, who had lived almost the whole of his life in the city, seems to have returned unafraid, and on the night of the 2nd of July 1994, he went out drinking with friends. He was in his car in a car park opposite a bar called “El Indio” when he was shot twelve times in the back. He died in a friend’s car as they rushed him to hospital. His killer, mimicking South American football commentators, cried “Goooolll” with every shot that he fired. No fewer than 120,000 people attended his funeral, which was held on the 2nd of July 1994, while the World Cup was still taking place.
The man that committed the murder was Humberto Muñoz Castro, a bodyguard (or “driver”) to two local car dealers. Some say that the murder was a spur of the moment event, inspired by a sharp exchange of words outside the bar, whilst others hint that this was something planned by the cartels, infuriated that Escobar’s own goal had knocked their team out of a World Cup that they had bet significant amounts of money on Colombia winning. It has never been conclusively decided either way what the truth of the matter was. Castro was arrested and sentenced to forty-three years in prison in June of 1995. Any pleasure to be taken at what seems to be justice being delivered in a country in which the law of the jungle so often seemed to prevail, however, was tempered by what happened over the next few years. Castro’s sentence was commuted to twenty-six years in 2001, and in 2005 he was released on grounds of good behaviour, having served barely eleven years in prison.
Andre Escobar’s father, Dario, is blunt and to the point. “Andre’s death was a national and international disgrace”, he said in a subsequent television interview. The assassination seemed to confirm many people’s stereotypical view of Colombia as being a basketcase of a nation, run by drug barons who murdered anyone that upset them in any way whatsoever, even if that person hadn’t done anything deliberate to upset them. Colombia arrived at the 1994 World Cup with the rare possibility of presenting a positive image of its country and a chance of going a long way in the tournament. The team never had such expectations again. They were knocked out by Romania (again) and England in France four years later and haven’t qualified for the finals of the competition since.
The country of Colombia, however, has perhaps changed. Reported kidnappings have decreased sharply, from 3,700 in the year 2000 to under 200 in 2009, whilst the murder rate, although still colossally high, has also dropped significantly, from 28,837 in 2002 to 15,817 in 2009. Consequently, tourist numbers have almost trebled in the last ten years, and although the Foreign Office’s advice to people seeking to visit the country remains sombre, it is clear that the general situation in the country is greatly improved. It’s impossible to say how much of the hard work put into trying to set the country on the right track is Andres Escobar’s direct legacy, but we should probably be thankful for the mere fact that the country is a little safer than it was fifteen years ago. We should also be grateful for the fact that appalling incidents such as this remain shocking in part because of their very rarity. The politicking and accusations of corruption that seem to waft around the World Cup are one thing, but murder is another altogether.