So here we are into the final four weeks of additions to my all-time ‘cult’ footballers. It’s getting rather
laborious exciting, i’m sure you will admit, however this particular instalment will not be written in such a light hearted style as in previous weeks and the reason will soon become apparent. This story is one of tragedy and heartbreak as this particular player suffered extreme consequences for his misfortunes during one fateful match at World Cup USA ’94. The whole footballing world was shocked and saddened to its core as the news broke of this particular player’s plight on the evening of 2nd July 1994. This tale shows that whatever happens on a football field, it is imperative that the passion, emotion and competitiveness should all be forgotten once a player crosses that white line for the changing rooms. On this particular day, football literally became a game of ‘life and death’ as an act of ‘retribution’ cost this particular player his life. Let’s all remember Colombian defender; Andrés Escobar Saldarriaga.
Andrés was born in the Colombian second city of Medellín in March 1967, a city notorious with gang culture and drug trafficking under the influence of the Medellín cartel, run by none other than Pablo Escobar (no relation). He was born to a wealthy family as his father was a successful Colombian businessman and subsequently received a lengthy and substantial education. After leaving education aged 21, he was signed by local club Atlético Nacional where he stayed for two years before moving to Switzerland for one season with Young Boys Bern. After the 1990 World Cup, Andrés returned home to Atlético where he became a fans favourite for his uncompromising, passionate and dedicated attitude towards his home town club. He became notorious as a player who was unbeatable in the air and was utilised in both penalty areas, creating havoc with his timed runs from deep. He was part of the Atlético Nacional team who cruised to a Copa Liberatadores win in 1989, putting him firmly on the map in Colombian football enabling him to travel with his national team to World Cup Italia ’90.
Unfortunately, Andrés will never be widely remembered for his contributions at club level as it was his misfortune at USA ’94 playing for his native Colombia that sent his tragic story hurtling around the football world. He was selected as part of a Colombian side packed with obscene amounts of talent in the form of Mendoza, Valderrama, Herrera, Lozano, Rincón and Asprilla. Many footballing experts, including Pele had tipped ‘Los Cafeteros’ to become world champions from that tournament. Given the depth of talent available, the form of the more prominent national teams and the favourable summer conditions it was a very realistic outcome and a good ‘dark horse’ bet.
Colombia, somewhat mysteriously, started the tournament hesitantly, losing 3-1 to a very strong Romanian outfit and had succumb to the genius of a former player in my ‘cult’ list. The pressure was well and truly on for the players to perform as the whole footballing nation of Colombia sat back and watched their most talented outfit in nearly forty years come under threat of elimination at the hands of nations who many felt would not compete. The stage was set for Colombia to right the wrongs of the Romania game and concentrate on beating the hosts and perennial ‘no-marks’ the USA. As you know, it did not quite go to plan…
It was quite apparent that whatever the outcome of Andrés’ attempted clearance the chances were incredibly likely that John Harkes’ pass would have found teammate Earnie Stewart for a simple finish. Although anyone who had seen Earnie play would agree that the finish would not have been so straight forward. Regardless of the outcome it was Andrés’ determination and will to win that forced him to attempt an interception of that cross and ultimately became the main attributory reason for his death ten days after the tournament. It was obvious that outside influences contributed to Colombian poor performances in ’94; many believe to be attributed to betting patterns, drug trafficking and the impact of the betting syndicates associated with the cartels. Tragically, it was because of that misfortunate ‘own goal’, Escobar received such wrathful and unwarranted retribution after returning home – a personal choice instead of remaining in the USA. He was shot ten times in his home town of Medellín, a month before his scheduled wedding to his fiancée Pamela by Humberto Castro Muñoz, a bodyguard for members of a local betting syndicate with links to the cartels. Interpret the events as you will and I encourage extra research to formulate your own opinions as I do not want to dwell on such an appalling tragedy as many of the evidence streams are contradicting and presumptuous to say the least. The fact remains that Andrés was made the definitive scapegoat for the embarrassing elimination of his team and paid the ultimate price.
“People would tell me, you can’t control what happens off the field. Of course you understand that, but it becomes such an issue dealing with personal lives. For years and years, you don’t know what it was attributed to. It’s years and years that have gone by since, but you always think about it. I do.” John Harkes
Why a ‘cult’ footballer? In my opinion he gave 100% commitment and dedication to both club and country and lost his life through factors that should have no association with the beautiful game. The act of retribution that tragically befell Andres was received with enormous grief by fans of Atlético Nacional and the entire Colombian populace as an estimated 120,000 people attended his funeral as a mark of respect. He will be forever remembered as “El Caballero del Futbol”; the gentleman of football. He is an embodiment of the tragic consequences resulting from misguided retribution and sends a shocking reminder to football fans that players are themselves totally human and are rarely deserving of the abuse or punishment they sometimes receive. Stop and reflect the next time you witness one of your footballers throw away an important game through error and attempt to suppress those angry thoughts and violent urges. Rest assured, one fine day they could very well make it back up to you. Welcome to my ‘cult’ XI Andrés, may you rest in peace.
Follow the youtube links from the video below for the remaining five parts of an in-depth documentary.