“Life doesn’t end here”.
Andres Escobar, Colombia footballer
It still hurts today.
When you say the name Andres Escobar to a longtime soccer fan, immediately the smile will come off of their faces and a sadness will be seen. The pain is still there for the memory of the murder of Colombian soccer star Andres Escobar even 20 years later.
In the 1994 World Cup held in the U.S., there was one team that everyone wanted to see and that was Colombia. They were like rock stars with the likes of Carlos Valderrama, Carlos Rincon, Andres Escobar and so many others. From the famous scorpion kick from their goalie, to the fun and amazing way they played, Colombia was definitely the team to watch. Defensive star Andres Escobar at the age of 26 was ready to sign a large contract after the World Cup with famous Italian team AC Milan. His dream of marrying his Fiance Pamela Cascardo and living in Italy to play soccer was coming true.
In an amazing 26 international game stretch before the World Cup, Colombia lost ONLY one game. In the World Cup qualifying matches they gave up an unreal, 2 goals. They were on fire dominating the World Soccer scene.
To qualify for the World Cup in 1993, they needed to tie Argentina. Instead they gave what I believe is the worst loss for Argentina in Argentina, 5-0. What was amazing is video shows as a sign of respect, the Buenos Aires fans giving rounds of applause to the Colombians after the game. It placed Colombia for the first time on the world stage of soccer. Pele and many others announced that Colombia would win the World Cup in the U.S. The country Colombia partied like rock stars and their passion was amazing. For once they would shed the reputation of being a violent and out of control country, and gain the respect they wanted.
At that time the rise to prominence for Colombian soccer was linked mainly to one thing; drug cartel money. Colombia had never been a world power. The three biggest drug Cartels, owned teams in the Colombian soccer league. Soccer was the perfect way to launder money that they had gained illegally. With that money they now could afford the great fields and players that were needed to make them a world class power in soccer. One of the drug Cartel leaders was Pablo Escobar. He was so powerful and rich that Forbes Magazine had him as one of the richest men on earth.
A house is only as good as it’s foundation and when you have a foundation built on drug money, only pain and violence will follow. That’s what happened to Colombian soccer. Colombia was a mess in general with more murders being committed per capita there, than anywhere else in the world. Public officials and politicians were bought off, and like many players said, you couldn’t trust anyone.
Pablo Escobar ran for office to avoid extradition to the U.S. for his drug running; and he won! He and the other cartel leaders used Soccer to launder the money by lying about players salaries and bonuses and also about gate receipts and ticket sales. Pablo Escobar did a lot for the poor, building housing and soccer fields and helping out the little guy. He also had public officials murdered and after one match where he didn’t like a referees call, he had the soccer referee gunned down in a parking lot after a game. Much like Al Capone did in Chicago, it created a love for him like a modern Robin Hood to cover up for the violence and pain that he created. Eventually though Escobar was killed and even a few of his family members were slaughtered; in front of their wives and kids in some cases; right before the World Cup would start. After he was killed Colombia was in a violent chaos. No more order in the underworld.
The stress on the Colombian players was now overwhelming. Andres Escobars’ great friend and teammate Chonto Herrera was told the day before their World Cup match that his brother was murdered. They began to worry about their own families safety. Some players began saying they now had to win or wonder what would happen back home. Andres shy smile was now gone. In an interview he said he finds peace by trying to read at least a little bit from the Bible every day. He found comfort in having a picture of his late mother and his fiance Pamela Cascardo in his Bible.
Andres was unlike any 26 year old you’d ever know. While many were party animals, his faith was a foundation in his life. He also loved his country and the poor. His family talked about him going to stores and buying toys and driving through the city giving them away in poor neighborhoods. Even before he signed a big contract, he set up scholarships for poor and needy kids. His father was a banker and he set up foundations to help the needy. His whole family had hearts of gold and his heart was no different. He was handsome, kind, humble and felt for those in need. Everyone loved him.
In the first game of the World Cup the joy was out of the faces of the players of Colombia. In a stunning match, Romania beat Colombia 3-1. The World was shocked. Their next game was against the U.S. who they had never lost to and who had never been a world power in soccer. Unfortunately the violence at home was getting worse and so was the stress of playing. Also there were rumors that the Colombian cartels had lost millions in bets that were placed for Colombia to beat Romania and many were not happy. There were rumors abound and you could see the fear and the pain in the players faces.
Against the Americans the impossible happened. On a simple cross by John Harkes of the U.S., Andres tried to stop the ball and he accidentally kicked it into his own goal. It was a dreaded moment that I will never forget. I told my friends right then and there, they are going to kill him. My friend said it’s just a soccer game and I was dumb to think that. Even when I was a kid I loved history and cultures and I just knew growing up what some cultures could and would do. A chill goes up my spine right now even writing this. I still feel the pain of that moment. I see Andres face on the field knowing what he had done and the possible ramifications. One of his teammates commented that you could see the fear and the pain in Andres eyes after that moment. In irony, Andres sister said that the second Andres did the mistake, her 8 year old son became upset and said that they are going to kill Andres. She said that people loved Andres and that he would be safe. Young people know more than what adults think.
Andres own goal made it U.S. 1 Colombia 0. Another goal followed and after a late goal by Colombia the U.S. had stunned the world and beaten them 2-1. Colombia beat the Swiss 2-0 in their third game but with Romania beating the U.S., it meant Colombia would go home.
There are conflicting reports but there was supposed to be a trip with Andres and his family where they would visit parts of the U.S. Andres didn’t go and he came home. Friends and teammates say that he was crushed by his mistake but he answered all of the media’s questions. In time the people of Medellin; his home city; were very supportive and caring. He began to feel better.
On one night Andres was asked to go to a club. Many of his teammates begged him not to go but he said he didn’t want to hide and that he would be alright. In a club in Medillin, the Gallon brothers; notorious Colombian cartel members; began to mock Andres relentlessly. This upset Andres greatly saying he just made a mistake and he was sorry for it. After a heated argument Andres left the club. In a chilling video in the parking lot, Andres was gunned down by cartel bodyguard Humberto Castro Munoz with a .38 caliber gun. His friends saw the shooting and rushed Andres to the hospital where he died 45 minutes later. Andres girlfriend said that the murderer was laughing and yelling goooooooooaaaaaal when he shot Andres. The World Cup was still going on and the soccer world was angered and outraged. Colombia was in turmoil.
Andres death was too much for the country to take. The grief now was unconsolable. One famous Colombian writer said, “for the first time in my life, I’m ashamed to be Colombian”. The country gave bodyguards to players with some having up to 40-50 of them to protect them and their families. One players child was kidnapped. The entire country was in pain and hope was hard to find.
The soccer team would never be the same. Many retired or just played abroad. Most vowing that they would never play for Colombia ever again for what happened to them and Andres. It was rumored that after days in jail, the Gallon brothers paid off the courts with 3 million dollars in cash and were set free. Murderer Humberto Munoz was the fall person and he did only 11 years of his 40 year sentence. He was let out for being a model prisoner. Andres Fiance and family were outraged.
Colombian soccer began to fall off the map. For years it struggled. Fans stopped coming; the pain was too great. In 2010 at the owners meeting for the Colombian soccer federation, 14 of the 18 teams were now near bankruptcy.
Fast forward to the last 4 years where there has been a form of redemption. The Colombian soccer team is now back at the World cup. With a talented squad, they are now trying to prove again that their reputation for being a violent country based on drug money is wrong. Their past haunts them. I have some Colombian friends and they are a very kind and passionate people with great pride. They long for people and other countries not to judge them and to get to know them. They are also honest about their past and hopeful for their future.
A statue of Andres is now at a park named after him where soccer fields are. Andres always dreamed of having soccer fields all over for every kid to enjoy.
Andres’ last written words were published in newspapers everywhere. They were, “life doesn’t end here”.
Even with the loss of his physical life, Andres is still touching people today. I hope through his memory, along with the soccer fields and parks made in his honor, that more people will support Colombia’s attempt at becoming the peaceful nation that Andres dreamed of. I know that for millions of soccer fans in Colombia and all over the world, no one will ever forget the great Andres Escobar.