”Life doesn’t end here” – Andres Escobar proclaimed after his Colombia side were knocked out of the 1994 World Cup at the first hurdle.
It had been a long road to get here, one rife with hardship and challenges – Colombia’s reputation had been dragged through the mud in the 1970s and 1980s thanks to figures like Pablo Escobar (no relation) whose stranglehold on the nation before his 1993 death had ruined the perception of the country to outsiders.Despite his (overseas) reputation as a greedy, thirsty warlord, Pablo Escobar was a deeply patriotic man whose funds helped build the football pitches so many of Colombia’s players mastered their craft on.
But those days had gone – Pablo was no more, he was killed the end of 1993 and Colombia entered the new year in a state of total disrepair. The nation was still healing from decades of bloody, gruesome internal conflict between militant left and right-wing groups that had been the catalyst of thousands of deaths and hundreds of disappearances. Football, it seemed, was one of the only things capable of bringing the nation together. The team known Los Cafeteros (The Coffee Growers) seemed to have diplomatic powers stronger than any elected official. For 90 minutes, differences are put aside, rivalries are forgotten, and enemies become allies.
The World Cup, hosted in the nearby United States, was the perfect opportunity to showcase Colombia on the world’s biggest stage. Fans from all over the world arrived in the U.S., donned in the colours of their respective countries and chanting the hymn-like rallying calls of their respective nations. Colombia was no exception – ”football is the only thing that unites us” you’d hear more than once from Cafeteros fans. Thousands of Colombians travelled to the United States in a sea of yellow and blue ready, as always, to spur their team on.
Their tournament began on June 18th at the Rose Bowl in Pasedena, California with an underwhelming 1-3 loss to Romania. Meanwhile, the United States (potted in the same group as Colombia) drew the tournament’s opening game 1-1 with Switzerland. As a result, the upcoming Colombia vs United States game was a must-win for both teams if they had any hope of qualifying for the knockout rounds.
Talent was evident in Colombia’s squad. Carlos Valderrama, considered the nation’s greatest ever player, was the captain in charge. The talents of Alexis Garcia and Faustino Asprilla also galvanised the squad, who lost just once in their previous 26 games. Marshalling the Colombian defence was 27- year-old Andres Escobar of Atlético Nacional. Nicknamed El Caballero del Futbol (The gentleman of football), Andres was a reserved, highly professional defender whose calm, stoic play took place behind his more flamboyant teammates. When Pelé suggested that Colombia could go all the way in the competition – he wasn’t lying. They had the talent, drive, and had the advantage of only travelling a few thousand miles to the tournament. However, so far, their campaign had gotten underway with a damp-squib defeat to an under-par Romania.
The Rose Bowl was once again the setting -the game game against the United States was a must-win. Colombia easily possessed the better players, but the U.S. had the home advantage. A whopping 93,869 fans sat down, nervously, to spectate. Colombia hit the ground running – attack, attack, attack. That was the game plan. The ball seemingly playing fugitive to the United States’ goal. “We attacked from all angles, but the ball wouldn’t go in”, remembers striker Adolfo Valencia. Panic begins to set in when your game-plan isn’t bearing fruit – as soon as the opposition has a spell, the pendulum of momentum begins to swing the other way. In the 22nd minute, a low cross by John Harkes flashed across goal – Andres Escobar tried to deal with it and ended up converting it in to his own net. For a few seconds, he lay on his back defeated, before rising to his feet and jogging back to his position. As was typical of his demeanor, the calm defender showed no outward signs of panic or grave concern.
Those watching on TV had the opposite reaction. “In that moment, my nine-year-old son said to me ‘Mommy, they’re going to kill Andrés,” his sister later recollected, to which she replied ‘’No sweetheart, people aren’t killed for mistakes. Everyone in Colombia loves Andrés’’. Escobar was indeed beloved by his teammates and the public alike – the vast majority of the country sharing in his feelings of sorrow following his calamitous mistake, there was still plenty of time to turn the game around and win.
Despite the best efforts of the talented Colombia side, the United States’ goal remained empty until the last minute of the game – by that time, the hosts had scored again and the game finished 2-1 to the U.S. Despite winning against Switzerland, Romania’s win against the U.S. meant that Colombia were out. Andres Escobar and his team went home with their tails behind their legs – Escobar was particularly devastated.
It was shortly after his return that he gave his ”life doesn’t end here” statement to the press. There had been warnings. There had been rumblings and rumours that Escobar would come into harm following his mistake. Still, he was young and full of life – he wanted to live normally and peacefully, and make amends at the next World Cup.
Sadly it wasn’t to be. On the evening of July 2, 1994, Escobar went out to bar, in Medellín, his first night our following the World Cup . He had turned down the opportunity to visit loved ones in Las Vegas – he wanted to be home in the country he loved so dearly. His manager had hold him to keep a low profile – to which he responded ‘No, I must show my face to my people’.” Andres did show his face but, sadly, it was to the wrong crowd. After enduring a night of heckling from the customers regarding his mistake, Andres got in his car and drove towards the group. ”It was an honest mistake”, he insisted with his patented brand of pragmatism – unfortunately, this only made the situation worse. ”Faggot!” they shouted at him, before one man pulled out a gun and unleashed six shots in to Escobar’s bang. Six. One for every ””¡Gol!” shouted by the commentator during the game’s live broadcast. Andres was rushed to the hospital where he died 30 minutes later.
Escobar’s death still haunts the nation of Colombia. Over 25 years later, he remains beloved by Atlético Nacional fans and is still widely mourned in his home nation. His assassination is thought by some as an act of revenge by jaded bookmakers, and, to others, to be merely a case of a man being in the wrong place at the wrong time – either way, his death brought notoriety and shame to a nation whose image was already fragile overseas. ”Life doesn’t end here” were Andres Escobar’s prophetic words – and he was right, it didn’t end there, rather, it ended on the tarmac of a seedy nightclub’s car park.
I guess football, to some, really is more than just a game.