x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Escobar's kick of death

Remember when... The American cross came hard from the left. The Colombian defender Andres Escobar slid in to cut it out, but the ball hit his boot and flew into his own net.

Colombia's Andres Escobar slides the ball into his  own goal in a 1994 World Cup game against the USA. Ten days later, he was shot dead.
Colombia's Andres Escobar slides the ball into his own goal in a 1994 World Cup game against the USA. Ten days later, he was shot dead.

The American cross came hard from the left. The Colombian defender Andres Escobar slid in to cut it out, but the ball hit his boot and flew into his own net. Colombia's keeper, Oscar Cordoba, recalled Escobar telling him simply: "Go on, take the ball out of the net, get going." But the Colombian team - perhaps the country's best - lost 2-1 to the US and were virtually eliminated in the first round of that World Cup of 1994.

Ten days later, on July 2, in the car park of a nightclub in the Colombian city of Medellín, Escobar was shot dead. His murder has been turned into an allegory of the crazy grip football has over many people. In fact it's a story about Colombia. Escobar was born to a well-off family in Medellín in 1967. That combination of time and place was a tragedy. Just as the baby was landing in Colombia, so were cocaine and civil conflict. Once one of Latin America's richer countries - with briefly, in the 1950s, perhaps the world's richest football league - Colombia descended fast.

When Escobar was born, Colombian gangs were just starting to smuggle the country's traditional plant of coca, refined into cocaine, to the US. Gradually a Medellín cartel captured much of the trade. The white powder accounts for at most three per cent of Colombia's economy, but its impact on Colombian life is much bigger than that. Violent gangs invaded society. Each big cartel funded their own football club. The Medellín cartel, led by Pablo Escobar, backed Atlético - the club of his namesake Andres. When Pablo Escobar was buried in 1993 after a shoot-out, an Atletico flag was draped over his coffin.

Andres Escobar would have known the drugs kingpins - everyone in Colombian football had to - but that was not his world. Unlike most Colombian players he was a middle-class boy. Courteous, serious, soft-skinned, and devoutly Catholic, he was known as "el caballero del futból", "the gentleman of football". He seems to have accepted his own goal calmly. He wrote in his column in the upmarket newspaper El Tiempo: "We simply hit a low. See you soon, because life doesn't end here."

He was wrong. Nobody knows exactly what happened in that Medellín car park at 3am, but it appears that Escobar got into a quarrel about his own goal with two local "businessmen", the brothers Santiago and Pedro David Gallón Henao. It all ended with their driver and bodyguard, Humberto Muñoz, pumping bullets into Escobar, while, according to one witness, shouting "Goal! Goal!" like a TV commentator.

Muñoz was sentenced to 43 years in jail. He was released after only 11, in 2005, on the grounds of his good behaviour in jail. "Frankly, there is no justice in Colombia," commented Escobar's father. Most Colombians would agree. Few of them believe this story ends with Muñoz. There are many theories about the murder, but the main one is that a drugs mafia killed Escobar as a punishment for spoiling their football bets. Perhaps the Gallón Henao brothers were involved, but perhaps not.

Fernando Rodriguez Mondragon, whose family ran the Cali drugs cartel, and whose recent book El Hijo del Ajedrecista outlines the links between Colombian drugs and football, says: "A drugs trafficker from Medellín called Cadavid had him murdered. He'd bet US$2million (Dh7.34m) on a Colombian victory against the US. Cadavid was never worried, because he didn't pull the trigger. Here, if you don't kill personally, you're not guilty."

This may be true. Alternatively, it may be one of the infinite Colombian conspiracy theories. In the end, the exact circumstances of the murder are not the point. The sad fact is that there was nothing extraordinary about Escobar's death. It was just the sort of thing that happens in Colombia. The player was shot like so many Colombian politicians, judges and ordinary people. When he died, Colombia had the highest homicide rate in the world.

Today, things are only a little better. Colombia's football team - like so many Colombian institutions - has never quite recovered from the violence. Many clubs still get drugs money, though the new drugs barons keep a lower profile than their predecessors. The reported murder rate has halved since 2002, but remains three times higher than the level in Mexico. What killed Andres Escobar was Colombia.

skuper@thenational.ae