How Colombia’s 1994 World Cup Campaign Led to the Murder of Andres Escobar
Having been tipped by some to win the 1994 World Cup, an own goal from Andres Escobar helped to end Colombia’s dream at the group stage. Five days later, he was shot dead in a nightclub parking lot in Medellin.
In the run up to the 1994 World Cup, Colombia had been nothing short of a phenomenon. Having gone unbeaten in their first five qualifiers and conceded only two goals along the way, La Tricolor sealed their place at the finals with a 5-0 demolition of Argentina in Buenos Aires in September 1993. The dangerous state of affairs back home was epitomised by the resulting celebrations, with dozens killed and hundreds injured in the supposedly jubilant aftermath. Though a much diminished Pablo Escobar would be caught and killed in a shootout with the infamous Search Bloc a couple of months afterwards, Colombia was still caught up in a vicious war against its narcos, with the collapse of the Medellin cartel and the rise of their Cali rivals making the first few years of the nineties some of the bloodiest on record.
It was against this violent backdrop that the Colombian national team travelled to USA 94, bearing an enormous weight on their shoulders. Colombian supporters expected them to go far, including many avid fans from within the rival cartels. Pablo Escobar himself had been a diehard supporter of the national team before his death, following their fortunes from hiding while financing Colombian football through his alleged connections to Atletico Nacional and a programme of grassroots benefaction. Colombia's players laboured under a form of pressure far more acute than that of their opponents, then, having raised expectations among some of the deadliest and most unpredictable criminals in the country.
The deadening burden showed once La Tricolor had kicked off their World Cup campaign in earnest. They opened the tournament with a dispiriting 3-1 defeat to a Gheorghe Hagi-inspired Romania at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, a far cry from their hammering of La Albiceleste the previous year. Rumours began to circulate that the drug cartels were attempting to influence team selection, with death threats intended for head coach Francisco Maturana and midfielder Gabriel Jaime Gomez sent through their hotel switchboard before their next match against the USA. That game was now absolutely crucial, a fact which was no doubt stressed to the players through all means available to the meddling narcos. Lose to the host nation and Colombia would be as good as out of the competition, with the players left to face the displeasure of some of the most feared men in South America.
There were further complications ahead of the USA game when it was suggested that betting syndicates in Colombia and America had millions of dollars riding on various outcomes. The Colombia players were stuck between a rock and a hard place, with criminal elements both at home and abroad menacing them from behind the scenes. In the end, the pressure was too much for them, and they lost 2-1 after a timid performance in which USA defender Fernando Clavijo accused Faustino Asprilla of not even trying. The match hinged on an incident towards the end of the first half, when Atletico Nacional centre-back Andres Escobar attempted to cut out a cross from the left, only to turn it into his own net with his outstretched leg.
Despite beating Switzerland 2-0 in their final match, Colombia went out of the World Cup bottom of their group. The team who had been tipped by some to win the tournament were going home in disgrace, especially since Asprilla had said after their defeat to the USA that it was "not the end of the world." While this went down badly among Colombians, the future Newcastle star may have been speaking relative to the threats being made against the team, and perhaps reflecting a feeling among the players that it was better to go out than to continue to be harassed and blackmailed. Unfortunately, Colombia's disastrous performance at the tournament would not be easily forgotten, and would soon be a contributing factor in one of their players losing his life.
After Colombia crashed out of the competition, Andres Escobar was invited to stay in the USA while things cooled down back home. He refused, confident that he would be welcomed back in his home city of Medellin even as he struggled to come to terms with his fateful own goal. Five days after Colombia's elimination from the World Cup, with the tournament still ongoing, Escobar went with friends to the El Indio nightclub. There, he got into an argument with a group of men who allegedly taunted him over his World Cup nightmare, and as he left the club and headed for his car he was shot six times in the back and neck, then left to bleed to death.
In the immediate aftermath of the killing, Escobar's murder was directly attributed to his own goal by the press. With the exact cause of the argument at El Indio still undetermined, it remains a distinct possibility. As one of the most senseless acts of brutality ever to affect the world of football, the global media picked up on the story immediately, and it became a defining feature of the coverage of USA 94. Phil Davison of The Independent wrote that one of the killers had said "thanks for the own goal" after the shooting, while The LA Times reported the macabre rumour that his killers had shouted "Gol!" after each shot was fired.
While a man named Humberto Castro Munoz was soon arrested and judged to have fired the fatal bullets, it was the people he worked for, the Gallon brothers, who were seen as the masterminds behind the crime. Seasoned narcos and gambling moguls, some theorised that they had wanted Escobar killed on account of money they lost on the USA game. Other theories have since emerged, with Henry Mance writing in FourFourTwo that their argument may have been over a woman, and others seeing it as an essentially arbitrary event in a city which was haunted by casual homicide. Either way, at the time, many Colombians saw Escobar's killing as emblematic of a society despoiled by narcos, with Medellin's El Colombiano newspaper going with the headline "Unpardonable!" and hundreds of thousands of mourners turning his funeral into a peaceful demonstration of sorts.
Though Andres was no relation to Pablo Escobar, it has since been suggested that had the notorious drug lord been alive his namesake might not have been killed that evening. As narcos in Medellin, the Gallon brothers would have known not to target a footballer and star of Atletico Nacional lest they face the most vicious of reprisals themselves. Pablo was dead and buried, however, and fear of his merciless wrath no longer kept the streets of Medellin in check. Either way, had Colombia advanced to the group stages of the World Cup, Andres Escobar would never have been at El Indio that night and might well be alive today.