When 24 national soccer teams began World Cup play in the U.S. on June 17, it was difficult for most Americans to comprehend the frenzied passions unlocked in other cultures by this, the most-watched sporting event on the planet. Sadly, we are now a little closer to comprehending. Andrès Escobar, a defender for the Colombian national team, died in a hail of gunfire in his homeland last Saturday, apparently because of a goal he had inadvertently kicked in for the U.S. in its surprising 2-1 win over Colombia on June 22 in Pasadena, Calif., which helped bring about Colombia's unexpected early elimination from the Cup.
A bachelor whose pleasant manner and good looks had earned him spots in TV commercials in Colombia, Escobar, 27, had spent Friday evening dancing and talking to friends at El Indio, a bar on the outskirts of Medellín. When he left at about 3:30 a.m. he was accosted by three men and a woman. They insulted him about the play in which he redirected a U.S. pass into his own net—an own-goal in soccer terminology—and he shouted back. Suddenly, according to an eyewitness, one of the assailants shouted, "Thanks for the own-goal, hijueputa [son of a whore]!" Then one of the men whipped out a handgun and began tiring, and Escobar fell, groaning and clutching his chest after being struck by six bullets. He was taken to a hospital but was pronounced dead on arrival. As of Monday, Humberto Mu‚Äö√†√∂¬¨¬±oz, a chauffeur, had been arrested and had confessed to the murder. His boss, Santiago Gallón Henao, had also reportedly been arrested, and two more people were being sought.
Before the grisly crime, which cast a pall over a country desperately trying to change its murderous image, threats had been directed against the Colombian team. On the day of the game against the U.S., a menacing message had been transmitted to the computer screen at the reception desk of the hotel in Fullerton, Calif., where the Colombian players were staying. The message targeted head coach Francisco Maturana, assistant coach Hernàn Darío Gómez and Gómez's brother, defenseman Gabriel Gómez, who had played in a 3-1 loss to Romania in Colombia's opening World Cup game on June 18. "If you play Gómez against the USA, we will set off bombs against your families in Medellín," read the message. The threat was taken seriously, and Gómez did not play.
Although Escobar's slaying could have been the work of dementedly rabid fans, Colombia's notorious cocaine cartels inevitably came under suspicion. After the loss to the U.S., a Colombian TV network aired an audiotape of a man who promised the revival of the old Medellín cartel terrorist campaign against various public figures, among them the soccer players. "Wait for the surprise we've got for those gutless cowards," the man said.
July 10, 1994
But that isn't to say that all drug lords were necessarily displeased by Colombia's disappointing showing. The day before Escobar was killed, a columnist for the Bogotà newspaper El Espectador reported that Colombia's star forward, Faustino Asprilla, had suggested that gamblers from one cartel or another may have persuaded some of Colombia's players, with money or otherwise, to do less than their best in the World Cup. The implication was that at least one group of drug traffickers had bet heavily against Colombia.
Consider, then, the pressure that Colombia's players may have been under: win and face the wrath of some cocaine kingpins; lose and face the wrath of other drug lords or of fans whose very essence seems tied to the performance of the national team. One can imagine the trepidation with which the players must have stepped off the plane in Bogotà on June 29, having failed to advance beyond the first round even though the team was one of the tournament favorites.
The killing of Escobar has occurred at a lime when Americans are preoccupied with their own visions of violence and death in the O.J. Simpson murder case. But nothing in the American experience is comparable to the emotional investment that people in Colombia and other countries make in their fútbol heroes. Regional loyalties dominate American sports, and even during the Olympics U.S. fans usually root more for individuals than for national teams. American fans routinely heap abuse upon their home lads when they fail to live up to expectations, and at least two recent World Series goats, grounder-booting Boston Red Sox first baseman Bill Buckner in 1986 and home-run-yielding Philadelphia Phillie reliever Mitch Williams in 1993, were subjected to threats. But acts of violence against members of the home team in the U.S. are virtually unheard of.
By contrast, largely because of the influence of drug kingpins like the infamous Pablo Escobar (no relation to Andrès), who controlled the Nacional club team in Medellín before he was shot to death by government forces last December, assassination, abduction and intimidation have long been a part of Colombian soccer (SI, May 23, 1994). In October 1983 justice minister Rodrigo Lara Bonilla inveighed against the infiltration of narco-trafficking into Colombian soccer. Seven months later Bonilla was assassinated for his antidrug stance, and other horrific incidents followed. Eight sports officials, including the coach of the national youth team, were assassinated in 1986. The secretary of the Metropolitan Soccer League was murdered in July 1988. And in the most notorious incident before the Escobar shooting, Colombian referee Alvaro Ortega was shot and killed in November 1989 after he made a controversial call that enabled Amèrica of Cali to tie Independiente of Medellín.
During the World Cup, Andrès Escobar wrote a column for the Bogotà daily El Tiempo. Eerily, his last column, written four days before his death, ended with this entreaty: "Please, let's not let the defeat affect our respect for the sport and the team. See you later, because life goes on." The murderers who snuffed out his life had other ideas.
The two Escobars of Colombian soccer shared nothing except a last name, yet it's a sad irony that they will be forever linked in death. When Andrès was buried on Sunday in Medellín, his coffin was draped with the green and white banner of his club team, Nacional. Pablo, too, was buried with a Nacional banner, seven months earlier. One Escobar stood for soccer, the other for death, but in Colombia they now, more than ever, are tragically connected.