by Karl Hofer.
On 22 June 1994 Andrés Escobar scored an own goal in a World Cup group match between the United States and Colombia when in the 34th minute he deflected a cross from the former Derby and Sheffield Wednesday midfielder John Harkes into his own net. The US added a second a few minutes into the second half when Earnie Stewart capped off a fine move with a delicate finish. Colombian striker Adolfo Valencia restored some pride a minute from time but the match ended 2-1 and Colombia were subsequently eliminated from the tournament, despite defeating Switzerland in their last group match.
Nothing remarkable there; every four years a number of nations depart from the World Cup earlier than they perhaps envisaged and fans have to deal with the disappointment. In Colombia however that disappointment was more palpable than most. Pele himself had said pre-tournament that Colombia, inspired by the great Carlos Valderrama, could go all the way and win it that year, but it wasn’t to be.
On July 2nd, ten days after he had diverted the ball past his own goalkeeper in Los Angeles, Escobar was murdered in cold blood after being shot twelve times in the parking lot of a nightclub in his hometown of Medellín.
Humberto Muñoz, a bodyguard and driver for leading members of a Colombian drug cartel, was arrested shortly after the shooting and charged with murder. He confessed and was eventually given a 43-year sentence – but he was freed in 2005 for good behavior.
In the immediate aftermath of the murder the media were quickly speculating that the shooting was in retribution for Escobar’s own goal, including theories that he had been targeted by drug lords or gambling syndicates who had bet heavily on Colombia at the World Cup.
Most people believe that Muñoz was merely a hired gun and say it was cartel leaders who ordered the hit. Others believe the murder was merely a reflection of the lawlessness that gripped Colombia back then. We may never know for sure, but for Colombia, a country plagued by decades of guerrilla conflict fueled by drug trafficking, the killing stands out as one of the nation’s moments of ignominy.
In an interview with the Wall Street Journal the 50 year-old brother of Escobar revealed his anguish; “My brother was a respectful, honest man,” Santiago Escobar said. “He left a great memory, a great mark on Colombia, and we will commemorate him on July 2nd this year, as we do every year.”
The death of Andrés Escobar was a traumatic one, not just for his family but for the nation as a whole. But it may well have been the catalyst for some degree of change.
Thankfully things have improved greatly in Colombia over the last 20 years and, while many of the issues that plagued the country in 1994 still remain, it is no longer the anarchic hotbed of violence and corruption it perhaps was.
As the 20th anniversary of his murder arrives this week the memory of Andrés Escobar will never be forgotten, but the country is fighting hard to overcome its reputation and as Colombia prepare to take on the hosts Brazil on Friday in the quarter finals of the World Cup, perhaps a new, more positive image can start to be cultivated for this beautiful and passionate land.