The Goal That Ended a Footballer’s Life

"Life doesn't end here. We have to go on. Life cannot end here. No matter how difficult, we must stand back up. We only have two options: either allow anger to paralyze us and the violence continues, or we overcome and try our best to help others. It's our choice. Let us please maintain respect. My warmest regards to everyone. It's been a most amazing and rare experience. We'll see each other again soon because life does not end here."

Colombia captain Andrés Escobar wrote in Bogota's El Tiempo newspaper following his country's elimination from USA 1994.In the early hours of 2 July in 1994, 6 bullets fired in a Medellín nightclub car park during a row that occurred left Andrés Escobar fighting for his life. 45 minutes later he was declared dead. Andrés Escobar was a victim of the lawless chaos that riveted Colombia at a time when football also became wrapped in the tentacles of organized crime and illegal narcotics industry. Escobar would’ve been 49 years old today.

He had been planning marriage, having children and a move to AC Milan that would have established his status as one of the world’s best defenders. El Caballero del Fútbol (the gentleman of football) was a discreet, well disciplined and much-loved leader of a golden generation of Colombian footballers who were keen to cement their status as serious contenders for the World Cup.

Colombia had joined the ranks of the favorites to win the World Cup after dominating their South American qualifying group with electrifying performances. Their 'golden generation’ – the team of Escobar, Faustino Asprilla, René Higuita, Carlos Valderrama and Freddy Rincón just to name a few of the splendidly gifted individuals destined for World Cup greatness. The high point was reached with a 5-0 humiliation of Argentina in Buenos Aires.

Then the unthinkable happened. The team lost 3-1 to Romania side who were content to defend in depth and attack on the break. That result shocked and marked a psychological crisis which the team wasn’t prepared for. "Many gamblers lost big money and there appeared a sort of 'dark hand' that was very upset with the team's performance" said his friend, the journalist-turned-diplomat César Mauricio Velásquez. This ‘dark hand’ represented threats to the players as they returned to their hotel rooms on the TV screens where the customary welcome messages awaiting returning guests by hackers.

Their next group match was against the hosts, the USA. In Florida, team manager Maturana cried as he arrived for a pre-match meeting with his players. They had received more death threats, while Maturana had been warned that if veteran midfielder Gabriel 'Barrabas' Gómez was selected the entire squad would be murdered. These kind of threats would influence any footballer negatively and leave them paralyzed with fear, especially before a decisive match.

Colombia tried to play the match with an attacking mentality but nothing was going right for them. Then, in an effort to hopelessly intercept a low, left wing cross from John Harkes from the penalty area, Escobar made contact with the ball but only succeeded in wrong footing his goalkeeper Oscar Cordoba and putting the US in the lead. That was the first own goal of his professional career.

The match ended in a 2-1 win for the US, hanging Colombia’s hopes by a thread. In their final group match, Colombia beat Switzerland 2-0. However, the USA's defeat at the hands of Romania meant their fate was sealed. Colombia were forced to an early exit.

After returning to Colombia, Escobar refused to succumb to self-pity, he even wrote an editorial in Bogota's El Tiempo expressing his regret and apology for the goal but ending with the words, “See you soon, because life doesn’t end here.”

Escobar made the vital mistake of going out with his friends soon after returning to Medellin, despite warnings that he should keep a low profile in a city dreadfully disappointed at Colombia’s lacklustre showing in America.

The incident happened after he was harassed for his goal at a nightclub and left to his car to drive home. Then he was confronted by 3 men and a woman by his car and as he argued with them, protesting that his own goal had been a mistake, two men took out handguns and shot him 6 times leaving him for dead. His death caused deep shockwaves in his own nation and abroad.

At his funeral, Colombia president Cesar Gaviria said the footballer was a victim of the "absurd violence" affecting the country. There were chants of "Justice! Justice!" from the thousands of mourners lining the streets as Escobar was taken to his final resting place. According to Escobar's friend César Mauricio Velásquez, the cries came from people "united in our pain, sending our prayers to the heavens for the soul of Andrés Escobar and for the soul of sport in Colombia".