Colombia star murdered 20 years ago for making mistake in World Cup play; Crime blamed on Medellin drug lords
For Colombia this week, two worlds collide.
Its captivating side — led by the tournament’s star man James Rodriguez — is preparing for its first ever World Cup quarterfinal on Friday, hinting at a future full of promise.
But that glamor tie against hosts Brazil also comes 20 years after perhaps Colombian football’s darkest hour — the murder of former national team player Andres Escobar.
Escobar’s error contributed to a 2-1 defeat at the hands of hosts USA and six days after Colombia’s tournament ended, on July 2, he was shot six times by gunman in his home town of Medellin.
The murder was linked to drug lords who had suffered big gambling losses due to Colombia’s exit at the group stage but nothing was ever proven.
Two decades on as Colombia prepare for one the biggest clashes in its history — delivered by a squad that is seen as a symbol of hope — the significance of the Escobar anniversary is not lost on the country.
Rodriguez has been the stand out star, his sublime goal in the last 16 win over Uruguay a signpost for the country’s emerging potential.
Their jaunty choreographed goal celebrations have also struck a chord with the watching world, who are ever more connected through social media.
This vivacious side has also energized Colombia, the public hoping this verve and swagger can help chart a new path for a country that has for so long been synonymous with drugs and violence.
Whether that happens or not, Escobar will not be forgotten.
“Andrés Escobar – always in our hearts,” wrote Colombia’s most capped international and Escobar’s former teammate — Carlos Valderrama on Twitter.
“We’ll never forget your kindness, your humility and your fight. I miss you bro, I miss you.”
The Escobar name will be also present in Fortaleza on Friday.
As Colombia take on not just Brazil’s players but also a fervent home nation, Andres’ brother and sister will be present, as they have been for every Colombia match in the competition so far.
Maria Ester and Jose will be bedecked in the team’s famous yellow kit, complete with Escobar’s name and his famous number 2 on the back.
The defender’s former teammates Faryd Mondragon and Mario Yepes are with the current squad, but all of them will know what became of one of its illustrious predecessors.
“Andres is with them and the rest of the team in spirit,” Maria Ester told FIFA’s official website.
“People should enjoy football with passion, but never forgetting it’s a game. (What happened to Andres) should serve as a cautionary tale: there is no place for violence.
“Football should unite the country around a message of peace and love. Twenty years is a long time and it’s really upsetting to think about, but I prefer to thank God for having given us the chance to have him with us for 27 years, for lending him to us.
“His life was cut short, but he did important things in that time.”
The pair accepted an invitation from world football’s governing body to attend Colombia’s matches, partly to be away from home when the 20th anniversary came around.
“I wanted to escape Medellin, because there Andres’s death will be talked about in all the news programs and papers and it would be very tough,” Maria Ester explained.
“I’d rather spend it here, with the family, and then hold a memorial service when we go back home.”
Escobar was rumored to be on the verge of a switch to Italian giants AC Milan prior to his death after seven years at Colombian club Atlético Nacional.
He also had a spell at Young Boys in Switzerland but it was in his native Colombia he remembered most fondly, and afforded the nickname “El Caballero del Fútbol” which translates as “The gentlemen of football.”
“Sometimes I think it’d be better if people didn’t remember Andres every day, because it’s really painful,” his brother Jose explained.
“But he left a mark, so it’s normal.”
Credit: CNN News; www.cnn.com; Photo caption: Murdered Colombian footballer Andres Escobar.