There is a lot of talk in modern football about the pressure and stress absorbed by those performing at the game's elite levels.
As another England squad tries to give a decent account of itself at a World Cup while a nation fights itself to death over such tedious issues as Raheem Sterling's gun tattoo and whether or not flying an England flag from your house can get you arrested in a SWAT team sting (spoiler alert: it can't), it can sometimes feel hard to imagine how much worse it could get, how much more negative tension could really be generated around 23 seemingly quite level-headed young men who grew up loving a sport so much that they now get paid very well to do it full-time.
The squads at the 1994 World Cup in America were 22-men strong, and they weren't nearly as well paid, but the pressure on one team in particular was almost unimaginable in its paralysing heft. Colombia is a country that only now seems to be pulling itself out of a decades-long conflict revolving around the illegal cocaine trade.
By the time the tournament kicked off, notorious narcowars poster boy Pablo Escobar – responsible, it is said, for the deaths of over 500 police officers, thousands of gangsters, judges and politicians and at least one referee – had himself been dead six months, but the civil war between the government and guerrilla drugs gangs was still raging in the vacuum his demise had left behind. So much of the money in Colombia passed through the narco gangs, so it was inevitable that their influence would be felt in the world of football – but no one expected them to leave an impression as cruel, pointless and brutal as they did that summer.
Andrés Escobar was, first and foremost, a sportsman. As such, it would be a disservice to discuss his death without first creating some competitive context, to make plain just how good the Colombian side that he led to that tournament could have been had they not spent it shackled by mortal fear.
In the 26 matches prior to the World Cup, Colombia lost just once. Throughout the whole of qualifying they conceded only two goals, and in their final qualifier they hammered an Argentina side containing Fernando Redondo, Diego Simeone and Gabriel Batistuta 5-0 in Buenos Aires, a result greeted with that ultimate compliment: a standing ovation from the fans whose team you've just taken to pieces. Colombia had wonderful players of their own: Freddy Rincón, Carlos Valderrama and Faustino Asprilla the most obvious. Really, though, the team was the star, and it was a team led to the '94 finals by Andrés Escobar, a quiet man devoted to his family and God, who spent much of his spare time advocating peace on behalf of the embattled government.
"It's difficult to stay focused, but I find motivation in the good things to come," said a 27-year-old Escobar ahead of the tournament, after which he was planning to move to Italy to play for Fabio Capello's phenomenal Champions League and Serie A-winning Milan side. "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." His friends and family paint a picture of a man who believed that football could save Colombia.
This is a view shared by Michael Zimbalist, who – along with his brother, Jeff – directed the meticulous and fiercely paced documentary The Two Escobars about these two unrelated men and the way their lives intertwined to hold a mirror up to Colombian society.
"To this day, Colombians experience a lot of negativity in terms of how people perceive them," Zimbalist explains. "The Colombian national football team at that time, as captained by Andrés, were trying to change that negative image, and I think that's still true today, not just in football but for all Colombians. Personally, I've never encountered a people who are so collectively invested in changing how those outside of the country perceive them."
Those perceptions are still tainted today by what happened after Colombia played the home nation in their second group-stage game at USA '94. They'd lost the first 3-1 to a Romania team that were shockingly good in a genuine sense: before the modern football boom of the internet years made the stats and style of every top level player on the planet immediately accessible, Gheorghe Hagi was able to land on TV screens like a bolt of lightning striking a tree in the desert. He scored one of the goals of the summer in that opening match, a ridiculous lob from the touch-line that sailed over the head of Colombia's goalkeeper Oscar Cordoba. A mixture of his majesty, an inspired performance from Romanian 'keeper Bogdan Stelea and Colombian nerves – more on that later – secured a surprising win for the Eastern Europeans. It also made the USA game one that Escobar couldn't really afford to lose.
Watching the footage back, it's hard not to wonder what was going through Escobar’s mind as he lay prone on the turf of LA's Rose Bowl Arena, having just turned a 34th-minute cross from the American midfielder John Harkes into his own net. Was he at all aware of how costly his own goal would ultimately prove? If he wasn't, his nine-year-old nephew, watching back home in Medellin, had made his mind up. "In that moment, he said to me, 'Mommy, they’re going to kill Andrés,'" the defender's sister says in The Two Escobars. "I replied: 'No sweetheart, people aren’t killed for mistakes. Everyone in Colombia loves Andrés.'"
Colombia peppered the American goal with attempts, but nothing went right for them until the 90th minute, when Adolfo Valencia finally registered. By that time, though, they were already 2-0 down, and there was to be no salvaging rally. Colombia’s gilded generation had lost again, and would be on their way home after a valiant but vain 2-0 victory over Switzerland in the final group match.
In many ways, home was the last place those players wanted to be; in other ways, they had never really managed to escape it. Many people had been angered by that first result against Romania, not just for sporting reasons, but because they’d lost a lot of money gambling on it. When the players arrived in their hotel rooms afterwards, they found that their TV screens had been hacked, the traditional "Welcome" messages replaced with sinister threats and abuse. The defender Luis Herrera was told that his brother had been killed in a car crash, and the Colombian coach, Pacho Maturana, was informed that if he dared to pick experienced midfielder Gabriel Gomez, the whole squad would be murdered.
It was in this way that Colombia prepared for that crucial second game against the United States; a way that hardly seems ideal. "Psychologically, they were under so much pressure – at that time, the murder threats weren't just idle threats," explains Zimbalist. "People were being killed back in Colombia at an alarming rate. You can imagine when your family's being threatened that it makes it quite difficult to perform in any capacity."
Most people would have difficulty frying an egg if they'd been told their families were going to get shot, let alone trying to win a World Cup for a country that was looking to them for vast and much needed amounts of pride, joy and relief. Nevertheless, when home, Andrés was determined not to let the circumstances of the Colombian exit get to him, penning a defiant open letter for Bogota's El Tiempe newspaper calling on the country to unite against anger and violence. "Life doesn't end here. We have to go on… No matter how difficult, we must stand back up," he wrote.
And then, ten days after the own goal against the United States, Andrés decided to go out in public for the first time for a few drinks with friends, at the El Indio bar in Medellin.
Herrera had warned him not to go. Maturana had, too. At some stage in the night, a group of four men pursued Andrés from the bar out into the car park, hurling abuse and calling him a "faggot". Colombia's upset captain drove over to the quartet in his truck, insisting that he hadn't meant to divert the ball into his own net, asking them to see sense. Six bullets later, Andrés was slumped in the driver's seat of his car. An ambulance crew tried and failed to revive him.
"Of course we were aware that it had happened at the time," says Terry Phelan, who played left-back for the Republic of Ireland at the tournament. "To shoot someone dead for scoring an own goal… does someone really need to lose their life for that? I remember speaking to Carlos Valderrama about it a couple of years ago, and he actually cried when I mentioned it – he said it was still too sore for him. You just ask yourself, 'Why?'"
It's a pertinent question, and one that still hasn't and maybe will never be adequately answered. It was widely assumed at the time that the murder was motivated by gambling losses. Many still think this to be true – eyewitness reports given to the police indicate that a vehicle in which the perpetrators made their escape was licensed to Pedro and Juan Gallón, two drug trafficking brothers who'd been under the command of Pablo Escobar before leaving to join the rival Los Pepes cartel. At the time, though, the Gallóns went free, with one of their bodyguards – Humberto Castro Muñoz – confessing to the murder and going on to serve 11 years of a 43-year sentence.
However, an enforcer of Pablo Escobar's named Jhon Jairo Velásquez Vásquez – or "Popeye", as he's known in his homeland, where he's become something of a YouTube celebrity – has always claimed that the Gallóns bribed their way out of trouble, paying $3 million to the right people in law enforcement to basically set up Muñoz. Vásquez also maintains, though, that the killing wasn't because of lost betting stakes. "Andrés' mistake was talking back to those guys," he claimed in one of the numerous interviews he’s done off the back of his relationship with the deceased drug lord. "The Gallóns’ egos were so inflated after taking down Pablo, 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."
If the claims and counterclaims of narco hitmen and the questionable reliability of the Colombian judicial system make it tough to get a clear take on who, exactly, pulled the trigger that summer night in mid-90s Medellin, maybe in a weird way it doesn’t matter all that much. As strange as it sounds, perhaps the role that Andrés sought to play in society at the time means that real vindication for him would not be to see his killer imprisoned, but the country he loved liberated at last from the civil war that has taken and ruined millions of lives.
"We set out to make a film about who killed Andrés Escobar, but what we ended up with was a portrait of a country at large – I think that's what Andrés' life and death have become about; something much bigger than, 'Who pulled the trigger?'" explains Zimbalist. "Andrés was a beacon of hope at a dark time, and because of what he represented, his murder really shook the foundations of the national psyche. I'm not sure there will ever be emotional closure to his murder, because it was just such a shock, to his teammates, his friends, his family and the country. I imagine someone being found guilty of his murder would bring closure to some, but real closure for Andrés and Colombia would be seeing the country grow in a positive new direction."