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Colombia & Soccer Rises Above Violence, Pain, & the loss of Andres Escobar For Redemption.

andres escobar

 

“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.

 

 

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“Why Americans Should Love the World Cup; My Education”

world cup

Soccer is the most important non important thing in the world.

This is what a friend of my Uncle Phil’s said when they were discussing what soccer meant to people from a soccer crazed country.

The first time I was introduced to the passion of soccer was when I visited London through my church youth group. Gazzamania was in effect with the great Paul Gascoigne still being very popular. It inspired me and I became a Tottenham Hotspur and international soccer fan because of this visit. The passion for soccer that I saw there is greater than our passion for football; it’s that big.

Everywhere you would walk there was a kid playing soccer. It was so much fun. Their skill levels were much higher than ours but we enjoyed their passion and it was infectious.

As an American though, I still don’t get soccer totally. I hate the flopping when players act like they’ve been shot by a high powered rifle, and then after a foul is called they jump up to start playing again. The lack of scoring doesn’t get to me, but it’s the lack of scoring chances that does.   In hockey a 1-0 game can be exciting because there are so many scoring chances. But in Soccer there are some teams that in 90 minutes of play, may only get 5 shots or less on goal. I’m also honest. Let’s face it; the U.S. men’s team is not a soccer power and probably never will be. Remember when the women’s soccer team won the World Cup? Our country went crazy; for a short time. The women’s soccer league eventually folded. We wanted to be the best on the world stage; but it wasn’t a passion. The best male athletes play other sports.

My uncle Phil has two friends that are from much different soccer cultures.   Hinco and Silvina are friends of his who are now Americans but both grew up abroad until meeting and marrying.   Hinco is from the great soccer country of the Netherlands, and Silvina is from Argentina, another soccer power.

I have always been a closet fan of the Netherlands because I love their personalities. A proud but laid back people, they seem to have a great way about them and and they go through life in a good way. Their love for soccer is epic though and the proud orange of the Netherlands always plays a role on the world soccer stage.

Hinco grew up in a small town near Amsterdam where he eventually moved.   As a kid he remembers being picked up by his friends older brother and driving around town waving orange flags after the 1988 Euro Cup championship. (To many the Euro Cup is as important in Europe as the World Cup. The Euro Cup is also played every 4 yrs and is played 2 years after the World Cup). He said that Orange is the Dutch National color (thanks to William I, Prince of Orange, the 16th century founder of the Dutch Royal Family). People were in the streets and in pubs everywhere sharing in the Celebration!

Hinco explained that soccer was a part of the culture. As a kid he would play until dark in the field near his home. His grandfather enjoyed soccer through his local club. At an amazing 96 his grandfather was crowned the clubs longest serving member.

In college his passion grew and soccer was a way of life. His dorm mates would talk soccer and learn more about the game through talking and sharing with each other. Just like what Americans do during march madness and the college basketball playoffs, he and his friends would have soccer pools during the World Cup and Euro Cup. They would talk soccer for hours on end discussing the players, the teams and the strategies.

In Hinco’s opinion, he feels that the U.S. is more than happy with football, basketball, and baseball. He doesn’t feel that will change any time soon. The rest of the world would also like that to continue.

In Argentina, soccer is life. Just like most South American countries, their fiery passion for life is seen in their unquenchable love of soccer. From the great Diego Maradona (some still feel he’s the greatest soccer player of all time) and now to Lionel Messi, you can’t think of international soccer without thinking about Argentina.

What blows me away when you talk soccer with people from a soccer country, is that everyone seems knowledgeable about the game and it’s history. The pride and passionate feelings run deep, and Silvina is no exception.

Silvina grew up in San Juan, Argentina. In Argentina, you are taught that the love of soccer is borderline religion, and for some it literally is a religion. Growing up, kids would play soccer anywhere; in lots, in streets, and in fields. And if kids didn’t have a ball they would make one out of wrapped up socks or whatever they could use.

Like most South American countries, the fans are as colorful as the players. The fans (Hincha’s) are as much a part of the game as the teams. Their singing, dancing, chanting and drum playing use as much energy as the players. Soccer fans have no rival when it comes to passion. In America if you add NFL passion and patriotism, now you have soccer.

The international success in Argentine soccer can rival anyone’s. They have won 2 world cups and many felt if Maradona had not hurt his ankle in 1990, they would have won another one. (They made the finals in 1990 losing to West Germany with many international fans questioning several controversial calls in the match against Argentina.)

They have won the Copa de America an amazing 14 times and their under 20 junior team has won a record 6 FIFA World Cups and many other championships.   Their success is amazing.

Silvina said that after the 1986 World Cup, the goal of every great young player was to be the next Diego Maradona. In a 3 minute span in the 1986 quarterfinal against England, Maradona made the 2 most famous goals in World Cup history.   The famous “Hand of God” goal along with what was voted the goal of the century by FIFA in 2002, when he dribbled half of the field through 5 English defenders while making an amazing shot to score what would be the winning goal. It would take years but Lionel Messi is now on top of the soccer world with many thinking he’s the best player playing right now.

Silvina agrees with me on why soccer isn’t that big in the U.S. First we aren’t that good at it and have had little international success. Most great athletes choose to play in the more glamorous sports like football and basketball. Remember how soccer crazy our country became when the women’s national team won the world cup? They even started a short lived league from it.   America loves a winner.

She also brings up some great points on why soccer is not embraced by American sponsors. Look at the Super Bowl. If someone ends a sentence there is a commercial. There are so many commercial breaks that the game is nearly 4 hours long. The pre-game shows; which have just as many commercials as the game; are 7-9 hours long depending on who the network is. There are many more opportunities to make money for corporations.   Corporate sponsorship means more marketing. More marketing means more fans.

When you watch the World Cup, you will not see many commercials. In fact during the game you will rarely see any breaks. They will promote the sponsor while the game is going on, saying that the continued broadcast is being sponsored by whoever paid for the add. As a fan I love it but if you are a corporate sponsor, there are not many opportunities to make money during the game.

As an American, I don’t think we will ever get to the point of loving Soccer as a country. I do think though that over time, we can learn to love and enjoy it more. It’s fun to watch the excitement and passion of the people during the games. In San Francisco with so many diverse cultures, many local bars are buzzing with excitement and soccer passion during the World Cup.

As Americans that aren’t into soccer, we can as a people respect and enjoy the passion and enjoyment that soccer has brought to the world for so many years. During political battles and personal pain; through natural disasters, wars, world strife, and civil unrest; Soccer has been a healer to millions where even enemies take a break from the madness and enjoy the greatest sporting event in the world. So I tell Americans to lighten up and don’t judge. Smile, put on your ethnic colors, and enjoy in the party. The World Cup 2014 is on!

 

 

 

 

 

 

“In 3 Minutes the Two Most Famous Goals in World Cup History Shocked the Soccer World”

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While Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi rule the soccer world today, if you were to ask historians who the greatest soccer player of all time is, you would probably get two answers.  For many, the majestic and magical Pele’ may be their answer. To others though it would be the great Diego Maradona.  While in today’s soccer world athleticism and speed is a huge tool for players like Ronaldo and Gareth Bale, Pele’ and Maradona used their ball handling skills and imagination to delight the world of soccer. They were more than soccer greats, they were artists.

The 1986 World Cup quarterfinal in Mexico between Argentina and England had a deep rooted meaning of anger and bitterness. In 1982 the Falkland War between Argentina and the UK had begun.   It was a 3 month war that created extreme friction between the two countries. This game meant so much to both teams.

Maradona had electrified crowds with his vision, cunning, and amazing ball handling and playmaking skills.   Listed at 5′ 7″ tall, in reality he was only 5′ 5″ tall but he had a strong, stocky build with muscular legs. He led Argentina into the quarterfinals with dominating expertise on the pitch.

The talented England squad had a lot of expectations. They had their only World Cup win in 1966 when they were the host country. England and Argentina were both soccer crazy countries and if you add the Falkland War into the mix, this game meant much more than a World Cup semi final birth.

On June 22, 1986, Estadio Azteca in Mexico City was magical. The place was rocking with an amazing 105,000 people jammed into the stadium. Chants, songs, and every noise device known on earth were in full effect from the fans. On a warm, sunny day the electricity in the crowd along with all the beautiful colors would create a once in a lifetime experience.   Half Wizard of Oz, half religious experience, this game would be one for the ages.

The first half was a feeling out period for the most part. Both sides being wary of the scoring talents of the other. England’s star Gary Lineker was watched closely by Argentina. Lineker would later win the Golden Shoe award for the highest scorer in the World Cup.

In the second half Argentina came out more aggressive. In the 51st minute, Maradona went on one of his patented drives.   As he entered the goal box, he attempted a give and go move to his teammate. The English defender intercepted the pass but kicked the ball toward the English goalie. Maradona; who had kept going in the hopes of getting a return pass; jumped up in front of the goalie and hit the ball. GOAL!   But was it? The England team protested wildly saying that he had hit the ball with his hand. The referee said he did not see that and allowed the goal.

Later when he was interviewed and asked about the goal, the Argentine star said that the goal was scored, “A bit with the head of Maradona and another bit with the hand of God”. From then on in sports lore, this goal was known as the “Hand of God” goal.

Diego Maradona had just started. Three minutes later he took a simple pass on Argentina’s side of the field. Maradona then took off like a jet and dribbled through 5 English defenders and went the length of the field. English goal keeper Peter Shilton could do nothing as a rocket shot went past him. The Argentina crowd went crazy and the stadium was electrified. Famous Spanish Speaking announcer from Argentina, Victor Hugo Morales, was going nuts actually thanking God for seeing such a goal. Immediately people knew they had seen something special. In 2002 FIFA and the soccer world voted this goal as the goal of the century and the greatest goal ever scored.

Argentina was up 2-0 now but England was not going to go away quietly. At the 70th minute England substituted in John Barnes.   Immediately his energy and passing skills changed everything. Barnes began to pound the goal area with crosses. England looked like a different team and in the 81st minute a cross was put in the goal by Lineker. It wasn’t over yet. At the 87th minute with the crowd on their feet, another great Barnes cross was sent over the middle to an open Lineker but it was inches out of his reach. A few minutes later the crowd roared when the three whistles of the referee marked the end of the game. The game meant so much that many in Argentina felt this was partial revenge for the bitter military conflict between the two countries.

After the game the media and the soccer world was buzzing. People knew they had seen something special, and the charismatic Maradona fueled that fire on and off the field.

To this day Maradona is celebrated by most fans, especially in Argentina where he has icon status. For Americans to understand what a star Maradona is; especially during his heyday; think Michael Jordan and Babe Ruth; COMBINED. And that isn’t an overstatement.

Some fans though are also disappointed and embarrassed by his lifestyle and mistakes.   He was suspended for 15 months in the Italian league in 1991 when he tested positive for cocaine and he was also sent home from the 1994 World Cup in the U.S. for testing positive for stimulants. He owes millions in back taxes in Italy and has had more than a few run ins with the law, the press, and even soccer officials in his own country.

For all the turmoil Maradona has created in his life, the 1986 World Cup will always be his shining moment.  To this day just the sound of his name brings back great memories to Argentina and the soccer world. And in a 3 minute span, he created sports history that will be talked about forever.