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When Greatness and Chaos Collide

“Our society believes that football killed Andrés. No, Andrés was a football player killed by society.”

These were the words of Francisco Maturana, the illustrious Colombian manager, when asked years later about the murder of Andrés Escobar shortly after an infamous first-round elimination from the ’94 World Cup. Maturana is considered the father figure and architect of the first golden generation that took Colombia to the highest level of world football during a period of chaos and civil unrest for the country.

The Future Was Bright

At only 19, Andrés Escobar took Colombian football by storm. As a young, talented center back, he quickly became a key player in the lineup for Atlético Nacional, a powerhouse in South America. Just three years after his debut, he led Los Verdolagas to continental conquest, winning the Copa Libertadores against Olimpia de Paraguay—Nacional became the first Colombian team to win the continent’s most important title.

When he was called to join the national team at 21, he already had the reputation of a focused, well-spoken “veteran” with a rare elegant style. Even though household names like El Pibe Valderrama, El Loco Higuita, and Faustino Asprilla were making headlines across South America and Europe, everyone in Colombia knew that there was only one captain, a true gentleman of football: Andrés Escobar.

Self-destruction at the World Cup

After a 28-year World Cup drought, Colombia had a taste of glory during Italia ’90. A famous last-minute draw against West Germany (who would go on to win the World Cup against Argentina in the final) helped Colombia advance to the knockout stage. A heartbreaking loss against Cameroon in the Round of 16 was a drawback, but the overall performance of the team made it clear to the world that Los Cafeteros were to be taken seriously.

Three years later, the Colombian squad was in its prime, and at the center of it all was Andrés. The captain was ready for World Cup glory and possibly a future in Europe. After sailing comfortably through the always difficult South American qualification, Colombia sealed its ticket (and possibly its fate) to USA ’94, by giving one of the most memorable performances in football history and beating the invincible Argentina in Buenos Aires 5-0. The Argentine fans at El Monumental, which included Maradona in the stands, gave Los Cafeteros, the best South American team at the time, a standing ovation. In six games played during the qualifiers, Colombia gave up only two goals.

What came after can only be described as incommensurable joy followed by delusion. Los Cafeteros sat comfortably at the top of the Colombian world, giving society a reason to believe that the time to shine on the world football stage had come. When the national team landed in Los Angeles, Colombia was immersed in the chaos of betting syndicates and a drug cartel war, anxious for an escape from reality.

Football has a way of magnifying things, both the good and the bad. After an eye-opening loss against Romania, June 22, 1994, marks the day Colombia came back to reality, after practically being eliminated by the hosting nation United States. (Colombia won the third game against Switzerland, but that was not enough to advance.)

Andrés fell in disgrace, and scored the own goal that most certainly put an end to the fairy tale of winning the World Cup. The dream was over. The country had to face the cold hard truth that behind the golden facade something was broken.

It got worse before it got better. Ten days later, with the World Cup still being played, the world was shocked by the news that Andrés Escobar had been assassinated outside a dance club in Medellín, under very strange circumstances. Reality and football finally got on the same page for Colombia.

It’s easy to reduce the killing of Andrés Escobar to an isolated event in retaliation for scoring an own goal in a World Cup. But the truth about what happened to Andrés is much more than just a sensationalist headline tied to football. What happened to Colombia at the time was more complex, and in some ways, disheartening.

This week marks 26 years from his departure, and we want to honor his legacy by paraphrasing the title of his last column for El Tiempo: Life didn’t end there. He is missed, but Colombia will always be thankful he helped pave the way for better things to come.

 

Illustration by @inakivector.

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