World Cup fever is upon us and you barely have to scroll through your Facebook feed, catch public transport or turn on the TV to see how seriously people take the so-called ‘world game’. But the fate that befell one unfortunate Colombian World Cup player after he scored an own goal back in 1994.
In many countries soccer, or rather football, is more than just a sport. Panama got a public holiday after their team qualified for the first time ever. Mexicans celebrated their World Cup victory so hard it was picked up on seismographs. Even in Australia the World Cup is taken very seriously, despite our teams very rarely getting past the group stage.
But sometimes that usually celebratory sports fanaticism is taken way, way too far.
Meet Andrés Escobar, a Colombian footballer who started playing internationally in 1988 after a history in the sport going back to school soccer teams. Once in the big leagues, Escobar quickly got a reputation as “El Caballero del Fútbol,” or “The Gentleman of Football” for his clean play and sportsmanship on the pitch.
The height of Escobar’s career coincided with a particularly violent time in Colombia’s history, with its international image in dire need of an uplift. For many, Escobar, The Gentleman, was a sign of hope in these dark times.
Escobar’s first World Cup was in 1990, when the Colombian team reached the Round of 16. As the 1994 cup approached, however, tensions were running high – along with expectations for the Colombian team.
Many believed that the team, with Escobar in defence, had a good chance of winning the 1994 Cup, or of getting to the semis at the very least. Rumours abounded of cartel interference in the World Cup, with large bets being placed on the outcome and the cartels willing to do whatever they had to to make sure those bets paid off.
The team demolished the qualifiers (though Escobar wasn’t called up for these games) finishing off six victories with a decisive 5-0 win against Argentina.
This all fell apart when they reached the World Cup, however, starting with a loss to Romania. It was in their second game, against the USA when Escobar scored an own goal – the only one of his career. The USA won the game 2-1.
Despite a win in their final game against Switzerland, Colombia exited the World Cup far before the Semi-Finals they were meant to make an appearance in. Escobar’s own goal was a shock moment in an already disappointing World Cup.
Only five days after their elimination Escobar was drinking in a bar back in Colombia, later ending up at a nightclub called El Indio with his friends. Escobar was allegedly taunted about his own goal in the club, before he and his friends went their separate ways.
Escobar ended up alone in his car in the parking lot of El Indio at around 3am, when a group of three men appeared and started harassing him. Two of them took out handguns and Escobar was shot six times. The shooter allegedly shouted “¡Gol!” with every shot, mimicking the World Cup commentators. He died in hospital 45 minutes later.
The murder was a low point for an already struggling country, a high-profile example of Colombia’s rampant crime and violence against a man who stood for civility and hope.
The country rallied around its lost footballer, with 120,000 people flooding the streets for his funeral. His memory lives on in memorial photographs brought to matches by fans, and in 2002 a statue in his honor was unveiled in Medellín.
Andrés Escobar’s sad fate was brought back to mind this year after death threats were made against Colombian midfielder Carlos Sanchez over a red card early in the game. For all of us, it’s a sobering reminder not to take sport – even the World Cup – so seriously.