Ahead of the 2004 World Cup. Columbia had high hopes that they could win the tournament for the first time in their history.
They had topped South American World Cup qualifying, had humiliated Argentine 5 – 0 in front of their home fans in Buenos Aires, and even Pelé had made tipped them as eventual winners,
But they failed to get out of the group stages and an unfortunate own goal was cost central defender Andreás Escobar his life.
Columbia at the time was not a safe place to live, with the drugs cartels running large sections of the country, whilst a bitter civil war was being conducted against a local insurgency movement. Not surprisingly, the country had one of the highest homicide rates in the world.
Football became intertwined with the drugs lords some of whom laundered their proceeds through the clubs. Chief amongst them was Pablo Escobar, the most successful of them all, he bought Atlético Nacional, one of the most successful clubs in the county, bankrolling them to the extent that he paid such high salaries that players chose to stay in Columbia rather than head to Europe which is what normally happened to the country’s best talent.
He would also frequently invite the Atlético players and their families out to his ranch, where they would play in all-star football games which he would bet on, along with other cartel leaders.
One of those players was Andreás Escobar, although there is no evidence that he condoned what went on – instead, he kept his head down and his thoughts to himself.
Pablo Escobar was murdered himself a few months before the World Cup began, but in his wake he left chaos, particularly in the city of Medellin, where there was a power vacuum, with reports that rival gambling syndicates had bet large sums of money on Columbia getting to the second round of the tournament and beyond.
Known as “The gentleman” Andreás Escobar (no relation) was known as a calm and composed defender, with a clean style of play. He had already played 48 times for his country before the 1994 World Cup got underway.
Drawn in Group A, the World Cup began badly for Columbia, and they were beaten 3 – 1 by Romania in Pasadena. That made their next match with the hosts, the USA, four days later, in the same stadium, a mist win game.
However, in the 34th minute, as Escobar stretched to cut out a cross from the wing, he inadvertently diverted the ball past his own keeper who was wrong footed. The USA scored again, and, although Columbia did pull a goal back late on, it was too late, and they were out of the World Cup.
A win over Switzerland in the final group game was just a consolation.
After the tournament Escobar turned down the chance io visit relatives in the US choosing to return home. Shortly after arriving back he went out with friends to a local nightclub, but decided to leave when he kept being pestered by people who wanted to talk to him about the own goal.
He returned to the car park, but there was accosted by three men and a woman who accused him of conceding the goal deliberately. Escobar tried to protest that t was an accident but two of them produced a handgun, and six shots were fired into him from point blank range, apparently in testimony to how many times the commentator said goal as the ball trickled into the nt.
Escobar was left bleeding to death, whilst the accused escaped in a pick-u[p truck. He was rushed to hospital, but died 45 minutes later.
The next day, Humberto Castro Muñoz, a bodyguard for one of the biggest drugs’ barons in the county, Santiago Gallón was arrested and pleaded guilty to the murder.
Gallón was closely linked with one of the betting syndicates that are reported to have lost heavily betting on the team.
Muñoz was sentenced to 43 years in jail eventually spending 11 years in prison before being released. Three other accused were acquitted, and many believe that the real people who ordered the killing have never been brought to justice.
More than 120,000 people attended Escobar’s funeral and in 2002 the city of Medellin erected a statue in his honour. Even today he is remembered by football fans in Columbia who often bring photographs and pictures of him to matches.
Andy is an exiled English football fan living in Cyprus. He loves all sports but football is his abiding passion, and he still has dreams every now and then about scoring the winning goal in a Wembley Cup Final, even though his playing days are long gone. He follows most major leagues, across Europe at least, and has a favoured team in each. When he’s not watching, listening, reading or downloading podcasts about football, he spend his time worrying about his beloved Arsenal.