Pelé, arguably the greatest footballer of all time, boldly predicted before the 1994 FIFA World Cup that Colombia, a country, and football team on a mysterious rise, would go on and win football’s grandest prize and live the American Dream to put all their internal problems aside, and create a new, positive image for the South American nation. In hindsight, he had every right to believe that the nation could indeed go all the way as they were turning the screw in footballing terms with help from the most dangerous of constituents.
The country was going through hell at the time and football was the only reprieve its natives had. Up against a drug battle that had flustered the whole nation, Colombia, the football team, qualified for the World Cup in fine fashion but were rattled just months before the tournament. A fervent supporter of the national team was the head of the Medellín Cartel, drug baron and terror kingpin, Pablo Escobar, not to be confused with Andrés Escobar the Colombian centre-half.
Pablo Escobar had several rivals of his own, specifically the Cali Cartel, who were their rivals in trade. To many, especially in Medellín, Escobar was a hero for his support financially and his willingness to provide education and support to many in the city. Despite his actions citing him as a mass terrorist and a brutal murderer, he was craved by many in the city and his death came as a shock to them, for his actions were of immense help.
His death was the culmination of months of work by local police and few of his former workers. At one point, Escobar was regarded as one of the richest people in the world, with almost all his money being earned in an illegal manner, and he managed to legalise it through his beloved football, inspiring several others to do the same. His, and all the other drug barons’ billions could import the best foreign players and coaches into the country and keep his existing talents at the club, but once they did leave, drug cartel bosses and their clubs would record higher transfer fees than what they received, thus ‘legalising’ a huge amount of their illegal income, and keeping them away from the authorities. This was becoming a trend across the country.
Pelé’s bold claims about the Colombian team had enough mettle behind it. Atlético Nacional, financially supported by Pablo Escobar and featuring a whole host of stars were the dominating force in the continent and even won the 1989 Copa Libertadores. With provision, albeit illegal, that boosted the team, they had a squad that was filled with champions and was ready to take on the world stage. In the build-up to the World Cup, they had lost just one of their prior 26 games, even beating the mighty Argentina 5-0 in Buenos Aires in 1993 – the game that punched their ticket to the United States. Everyone on the team had his own brilliance and his own aura and they were united by a common cause – creating a brand-new image, one that epitomised positivity for their homeland.
Spurred by a positive qualification campaign, a legend’s backing and with the happiness of a nation on the line, everything was set to be in Colombia’s favour and the fans were in ecstasy. But that’s where they were let down – their own high expectations were not in line with those in the team, with some of the players and management claiming they’d be happy to make it past a round or two. Despite the flicks, rabonas and the fluid nutmegs that were well on display in the build-up to the World Cup, there was something that serenaded their minds.
“I never heard any of the players say we were going to win the World Cup, or get to the final. At most, we could have got one or two rounds further, that would have been fair” – Oscar Cortes, a member of Colombia’s 1994 FIFA World Cup Squad.
In December 1993, the Colombian and United States authorities finally achieved what they had craved for so long – the assassination of Pablo Escobar, who, as one of the world’s most wanted man, was in hiding. His killing opened the gates for the country’s other cartels to make their way in the world, and that put Colombia in more danger than it ever was. If they thought killing Pablo Escobar would bring tranquility to the region, they couldn’t have been more wrong. And with the problems at an all-time high in the country, the Colombian squad would leave for the World Cup in uncertainty, confusion and with a worry about the wellbeing of their own back at home.
In addition to that, Colombia’s performances were also influenced by the ‘dark hand‘ of gamblers and club owners who wanted to see their players make it to the eye of the world, even if it meant sacrificing the hopes of a nation. Colombia’s World Cup campaign kicked off with a 3-1 defeat to an unfancied Romania in Pasadena, a loss that was mentally very demanding and had inexplicable outcomes. The side were receiving death threats from home, and one bookie even called for Gabriel ‘Barrabas’ Gómez to not start or risk having the whole team murdered. Coach Francisco Maturana reluctantly obliged.
And if that was bad, it was only about to get worse.
Andrés Escobar, the team’s captain, poster boy and overall hero was a source of strength to many. His fine performances over the years made him arguably the most loved member of the side and rightly had the armband on him in every game. A member of the Atlético Nacional side that had so much success in the prior years, he was set to move to Milan in the weeks following the World Cup with his fiancé in a decision largely due to the messy scenes at home and amongst a side that had Carlos Valderrama, Freddy Rincón and Faustino Asprilla amongst so many others, the greatest expectation fell on him.
The next game against the hosts USA, also at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena was surrounded by fear. The atmosphere in the build-up in Colombia’s locker rooms was tense, with the squad paralysed. They entered the game in the same fashion, but went all out once the first whistle went. Throughout the match, the USA were on the backfoot, but it was one moment of uncertainty that sealed Colombia’s exit, and would have grave repercussions at home. Andrés Escobar, in the hope of cutting out a low cross helplessly guided the ball past a confused Óscar Córdoba into his own net. Colombia lost, and failed to make it past the first round.
Despite winning the final game against Switzerland to salvage some pride, they finished bottom of the group with just three points and a goal difference of negative one. And upon their return home just after their final game, Andrés Escobar wrote a touching note in local newspaper El Tiempe to keep the nation as upbeat as possible, amidst the horror:
“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“
Just days after that, he would show himself to the world as he, and a few friends would be out for a few drinks just to ease the tension around him. What was to follow was unexpected, heinous and tragic. Annoyed by some of the comments made to him at the bar – which mocked his error from ten days prior, he would exit the bar to get away from the distraction but the men continued to follow him into the car park. Escobar would then proceed to talk to them to explain himself, but a gun had been pulled out, and six rounds drove right into his flesh, killing him before paramedics could arrive for help.
It is believed that the car that fled the scene belonged to Pedro and Juan Gallón, two former apprentices of Pablo Escobar who turned on him to bring him down. It is also believed that they bought off the prosecutor’s office and pin down one of their bodyguards as the perpetrators. To this day, the man who pulled the trigger is still uncertain, but Humberto Castro Muñoz, one of the men working with the Gallón’s, confessed to the murder and served just 11 years of his 42-year sentence, getting out early due to ‘good behaviour’.
The scenes of Andrés Escobar’s funeral are some of the most heart-wrenching in humanity. More than 100,000 Colombians gathered and went by his coffin which was draped in an Atlético Nacional flag. Football united that day as Escobar was laid to rest for the actions of people he wanted to have nothing to do with.
Society failed him, and it failed football. As his coach Francisco Maturana rightly pointed out: “Our society believed that soccer killed Andrés, Andrés was a soccer player killed by society“. Escobar was a gentleman on and off the pitch, and if an unintended, unlucky own goal was enough to justify murder, it wasn’t worth playing the sport. Just like racism or homophobia, Colombia’s war against narco-trafficking needed nothing to do with football. A case that was bothersome from the start, it slid into sport and brought great political influence, once again proving why politics and football should never be together. His heart-warming note just days before his murder was supposed to be followed by a move to Europe, a greater career, and another World Cup, but his surroundings senselessly failed him.