In the third of our eight-part ‘Aftershocks’ series – which takes a look at some of the World Cup’s most shocking moments, the immediate fall-out and what emerged in the aftermath – Jordan Norris brings us back to USA 1994, to tell us the story of football’s most tragic failure.
Colombia went to the States on a wave of incredible form. Pele had suggested before the tournament that they would reach at least the semi-finals – given the fact that they had lost just once in 26 matches.
They needed to beat Argentina to qualify, winning 5-0 in Buenos Aires and were genuine title contenders. Captain Andres Escobar led a defence that conceded only two goals in securing their passage to the tournament.
The world was at Los Cafeteros’ feet, and also Escobar’s – as he was set to move to AC Milan in the aftermath of the tournament.
However, social tensions in the South American region were hampering success and growth on both societal and sporting fronts, with the Medellin drug cartel led by Pablo Escobar running riot over the country – and the close association of national team members to the cause making them vulnerable targets for rival gang, Los Pepes – people persecuted by Pablo Escobar.
Colombia set off for America, leaving their own country behind in ruins – in need of success to rekindle some fleeting form of hope.
Betting syndicates and drug cartels began to exercise their influence over the squad – and there was now an extra pressure to win, that being a matter of life or death.
Colombia were drawn in a group with Romania, Switzerland, and hosts USA – a group they were expected to top with relative ease. Their first game saw them take on the Romanians in Pasadena, but under the watchful eye of 91,586 at the Rose Bowl and millions at home – Colombia crumbled under the weight of expectation.
The Colombians dominated early on but an early goal from Florin Raducioiu laid the foundations for collapse – as with the Cafeteros still dominating in search of the equaliser, a moment of magic from Gheorge Hagi put the writing on the wall for Colombia. 2-0 down just after the half-hour mark.
Adolfo Valencia instilled hope with a header just before half-time to bring his country back into the tie, but thanks to a resilient display from goalkeeper Bogdan Stelea, Romania survived the onslaught – before Raducioiu put the game to bed one minute from time and threw the Colombians in front of the firing-squad back home.
Customary welcome messages on the television screens back at Colombia’s hotel were replaced by threats from the so-called ‘dark hand’, who had lost a lot of money thanks to the defeat.
Luis Chonto Herrera, whose infant son had been kidnapped before the tournament, now received word that his brother had been killed in a car crash. Colombia were under pressure to win not only for football, but also for the greater good of society.
American Horror Story
The backdrop leading up to the crucial clash with the Americans was the stuff of nightmares for Los Cafeteros – with manager Francisco Maturana receiving word from the region that if he were to start key midfielder Gabriel Gomez, the entire squad would be murdered.
The Rose Bowl was again the venue for a tragic Colombian failure – most notably for Andres Escobar. With 35 minutes on the clock, John Harkes crossed the ball in low to the Colombian box, and needing to divert the danger, Escobar inadvertently found his own net, handing the hosts a 1-0 lead and putting himself and team-mates in danger of a far more serious kind.
Los Cafeteros huffed and puffed for an equaliser to no avail – Ernie Stewart putting the US 2-0 up to spark wild scenes of contrast. Jubilation for the hosts, while the Colombians became overtaken with fear.
A late goal from Valencia once again proved mere consolation, as Colombia were dumped out of the tournament – and set to fly home to a chaotic reaction.
A 2-0 win over Switzerland meant nothing in the end, as past failings had the writing on the wall regardless.
Andres Escobar subsequently found himself as the scapegoat for the failure of a nation – but the captain issued a plea for peace in a Bogota newspaper El Tiempe in the aftermath of the tournament:
“Life doesn’t end here. We have to go on. Life cannot end here. No matter how difficult, we must stand back up.
We only have two options: either allow anger to paralyse us and the violence continues, or we overcome and try our best to help others. It’s our choice.”
Unfortunately for Escobar, his national counterparts could not see eye-to-eye.
Despite pleas from Chonto Herrera and Maturana to lay low, Escobar insisted he could not hide forever – going out with friends.
At the El Indio bar in Medellin, Escobar found himself the subject of abuse from four men – despite leaving the premises and trying to reason for his mistake, it ultimately proved the demise of the Colombian captain – shot six times in the back and left to die.
Humberto Castro Munoz was charged with murder and sentenced to 43 years in prison – released after just eleven.
Colombia were expected to have a genuine shot at glory, but six bullets in the dark streets of Medellin summarised their tournament far more aptly than any game of football could.
The World Cup was not yet over when the Colombian captain had been murdered in the streets by his own people.
His death cast a dark cloud over the tournament and the entire country.
A team destined for the stars were plummeted to the depths of despair, largely by virtue of the dangerously close link between society and football.
Andres Escobar did not deserve to die, but in the eye of the criminal, someone had to be deemed responsible.
Jordan Norris, Pundit Arena.