August 16, 2022

The attackers reportedly shouted “goal” after each shot, echoing the six times the Colombian commentator repeated the word after the fateful own goal.

PASADENA, Calif. — The United States will host the World Cup for the second time in 2026 after hosting the rest of the world in 1994.

Many storylines came from the 1994 World Cup:

  • First World Cup final to be decided on penalties (Brazil beat Italy 3-2 on penalties after finishing the match 0-0).
  • Brazil became the first nation to win four World Cup titles.
  • Most financially successful and attended World Cup to date.

The list is lengthened increasingly.

And then there was the murder of Colombian footballer Andrés Escobar.

Escobar was shot and killed outside a nightclub in Medellin, Colombia, days after scoring a goal against the United States in a 2-1 group stage loss that effectively eliminated the tournament team.

The whole saga is captured in ESPN’s 30 for 30 documentary “The Two Escobars” (2010). The documentary tells the fascinating and tragic stories of drug lord Pablo Escobar and footballer Andrés Escobar (no relation). Despite their lack of a blood connection, the two were fatally linked, however, to a passion for football.

Narco-soccer takes control in Colombia

The Colombian football league Categoría Primera A was mainly dominated by “The Millonarios”, also known as Millonarios FC, until the 1970s when Atletico Nacional, América de Cali and Deportivo Cali became de serious suitors.

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, Atletico Nacional and América de Cali took over the league and won championships, but were linked to prominent cartel bosses. América de Cali was linked to the Orejuela Brothers of the Cali Cartel, and Atletico Nacional was linked to Pablo Escobar.

The influx of “narco-soccer” money used to support these Colombian football teams has allowed clubs to retain their best talent, as well as bringing in the best players from around the world. Football in Colombia flourished, but it became a battle of egos between drug lords who basically used these clubs as their playthings.

Escobar took it to another level though.

After his favorite team, Atletico Nacional, lost a match against América de Cali in 1989, Escobar had the referee killed. The Colombian football federation immediately canceled the 1989 season afterwards.

Although the Colombian football league canceled its season, Atletico Nacional won the continental championship, the Copa Libertadores, after beating Paraguayan side Olympia on penalties.

The rise of club football in Colombia undoubtedly contributed to the growth and success of the national team in the 1990s.

Colombia enter the 1994 World Cup as favorites for the title

The Colombian national team rose to prominence in the years leading up to the 1994 World Cup. Between 1991 and 1993 they won 25 of 26 games, including a 5-0 loss to the international soccer powerhouse, Argentina.

Brazilian soccer legend Pelé, highly regarded as the greatest soccer player of all time, picked Colombia as his favorite to win the 1994 World Cup.

As favored as they were, however, the team was under a ton of pressure.

Just over six months before the 1994 World Cup (December 1993), Pablo Escobar was killed by the Colombian army. Escobar’s death sparked a state of civil war, of sorts. ESPN’s “The Two Escobars” explains that while murder and violent crime were high under Pablo Escobar, they were channeled through him and his cartel. After his death, there were no orders (or Escobars) to control low-level criminals.

A few weeks before the tournament, the son of Colombian midfielder Chonto Herrera was kidnapped. Then, after Colombia were upset in the group stage opener against Romania, Chonto Herrera’s brother was killed in a car crash.

The team had also received death threats. More than half of the Colombian national team were players who played for clubs financially backed by drug traffickers (six Atlético Nacional, five América de Cali, one Millonarios), so many expect there to be an important direct interest.

Talk about pressure. Oh, and the next game on the slate is against World Cup host: USA.

As if it were a nightmare, the game couldn’t have started worse for the Colombians. A John Harkes cross was deflected by Andrés Escobar into his own net in the 34th minute. Seventeen minutes later, USA added another to make it 2-0. Colombia would lose 2-1 after scoring their only goal in the 90th minute.

Losing two group matches in a row, Colombia had effectively been knocked out of the World Cup, and Andrés Escobar’s own goal would end up being a fatal mistake.

After the match, Andrés Escobar wrote a column in a local newspaper, El Tiempo, calling for calm.

“Please keep respect,” wrote Andrés Escobar. “A big hug to everyone, and let me just say, this was a phenomenal, rare opportunity and experience that I had never felt before in my life.”

In conclusion, Andrés Escobar said (with chilling irony, in retrospect), “life doesn’t end there”.

The murder of Andrés Escobar

Andrés Escobar returned to Colombia days after the national team was eliminated from the World Cup. On July 1, 1994, he went to the El Poblado district of Medellin, found himself in a nightclub with three friends.

While at the club, Andrés Escobar was taunted by convicted drug dealers Santiago and Pedro Gallon. The Gallon brothers reportedly shouted “goal” at Escobar.

Andrés Escobar asked the Gallon brothers to stop, was then separated from his friends and returned to his car around 3 a.m. on July 2. The Gallon brothers and their bodyguard, Humberto Muñoz, were waiting for Andrés Escobar.

Another incident escalated between the Gallon brothers and Andrés Escobar, which resulted in Muñoz shooting the soccer star six times in the head. Muñoz reportedly shouted “goal” after each shot, echoing the six times the Colombian commentator repeated the word after the fateful World Cup own goal.

Muñoz was arrested and sentenced to 43 years in prison, which was later reduced to 26 years. He ended up serving less than 12 years and was released from prison in 2005.

After Andrés Escobar was killed outside this nightclub, his murder sparked outrage across the country and around the world.

On July 4, 1994, supporters of the World Cup match between the Netherlands and Ireland held up a banner at the Citrus Bowl in Orlando, which read: “Andres Escobar. ¡Colombia will never forget you! Stop cowardly killers”

It is estimated that nearly 120,000 people attended Andrés Escobars’ funeral on July 3, 1994. The anniversary of his death is still marked at matches in Colombia each year.

Colombian football has been in decline for decades. Colombia did qualify for the 1998 World Cup, but were again knocked out in the group stage. They missed the next three World Cups. In 2011, the country fell to its worst ever FIFA ranking: 54th.

The tide turned for Colombia at the 2014 World Cup, however, when the team qualified for the first time in 16 years and made the country’s deepest run to the title to date. The 2014 side swept through the group stage and beat Uruguay in the Round of 16, 2-0.

But, like the 1994 World Cup, they were eliminated by the tournament hosts, this time Brazil. Despite the elimination, the national team was welcomed by tens of thousands of Colombians in Bogotá, welcoming them back as heroes and restoring pride to the nation.

It seemed the 1994 tragedy had served as a lesson learned…until the 2018 World Cup.

Midfielder Carlos Sanchez has received death threats following his side’s loss to Japan in the 2018 FIFA World Cup, prompting Colombian authorities to open an investigation. Sanchez received a red card minutes into the game for a handball inside the penalty area as he tried to block a shot.

The death threats issued to Sanchez served as a chilling reminder of the murder of Andrés Escobar. The threats prompted Escobar’s brother, Santiago, to speak out.

“As a brother who has been through this, I know what needs to happen in their [Sanchez’s family’s] heads, and I wouldn’t want anyone going through that. Carlos must feel both sad about the mistake he made and very scared, and his family too. My brother never received any threats, they just shot him in the most cowardly way,” Santiago Escobar said. “The fact that people are still allowed to say these things on social media sites, even to threaten him with death (…) shows me that nothing good came out of Andrés’ death, nothing was learned.”

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