One of soccer’s darkest moments
Soccer is the most popular sport in the world, but beyond that, it is a way of life in many cultures. And, as Andrés Escobar Saldarriaga found out, a way of death.
his respect and level-headedness
So, how did a player nickname “The Gentleman” for his respect and level-headedness on the pitch and “The immortal Number Two” at his club end up as a murder victim after the 1994 World Cup?
This is the story of Andrés Escobar Saldarriaga: the Colombian soccer player who was killed in cold blood by a cartel member for one mistake.
Escobar was born on March 13, 1967, in Medellín, now the third-most populated city in Colombia. His father, Darío, was a banker that founded an organization that gave young people the chance to play organized soccer instead of getting sucked into a life of poverty and crime on the streets.
Escobar grew up in a middle-class household and attended school all the way through college, where he played soccer the entire way. After his graduation, he made the switch to full-time professional soccer.
His brother, Santiago, was also a professional player who later went into management.
Escobar enjoyed a successful playing career as a central defender. He made 78 appearances across four years at Atlético Nacional, a professional team based in Medellín, before accepting a move to Young Boys in Switzerland. He would only make eight appearances in Europe, however, and moved back to Atlético less than a year later.
During his last year in his first stint with his local team, Escobar played a crucial part in helping his squad win the 1989 Copa Libertadores, an annual international competition between the best teams in South America. They defeat Paraguayan side Club Olimipia on penalty kicks 2-2 (5-4) in the final to win the first of two Copa Libertadores titles in the club’s history. It also made them the first Colombian team to ever win the competition.
Gaining international recognition
Escobar made his debut for the Colombian national team in 1988 at 21 years old in a 3-0 win against Canada. He also scored the only goal of his career in a 1-1 draw against England in his first appearance in a national-level international competition during the 1988 Rous Cup.
In 1990, Colombia won its World Cup qualifying group with Escobar at the heart of the defense. It then won a play-in match it was forced to participate in because of its low total points and secured a spot in the 1990 World Cup.
At the World Cup, Colombia was thrust into an unfavorable group with eventual champion West Germany, alongside Yugoslavia and the UAE Colombia only finished third in the group with three points (a win was worth two points at the time) with a +1 goal differential , but still qualified for the Round of 16.
Escobar appeared in every match and cemented himself as a reputable starter at just 22 years old.
Colombia’s run through the knockout did not last long, as it was eliminated 2-1 in extra time by Cameroon in the first round. Escobar appeared in every match and cemented himself as a reputable starter at just 22 years old.
The young defender made seven appearances during the Copa América the next year, but was not involved in the 1994 World Cup qualifying squad. Right around that time, he was reportedly offered a contract by Italian giants AC Milan, who had won the Supercoppa Italiana three years on the trot and went on to win the 1994 European Super Cup 2-0 over Arsenal.
With a growing international reputation, he was brought back into Colombia’s 1994 World Cup team. Unbeknownst to him, that would be the first step toward his tragic death.
The World Cup incident
The ’94 World Cup was hosted by the USA who, alongside Romania and Switzerland, were dropped in Group A with Colombia.
The South American representatives lost their opening match 3-1 to Romania and took on the USA four days later. In the 35th minute and with the score knotted at 0-0, Escobar found himself backpedaling in the center of the pitch during a USA attack.
American midfielder John Harkes drilled a low cross about ten yards outside of the penalty box from the middle-left side of the pitch; Escobar stretched out to intercept the pass but inadvertently directed the ball toward the center of his own goal. Goalkeeper Oscar Cordoba had already committed to charging out, thinking that Escobar would not be able to reach the ball, and was unable to stop his momentum and get back in position.
The ball squirted into the back of the net and gave the Stars and Stripes the breakthrough goal. They later scored another in the 52nd minute and won the match 2-1 to put them on four points through two matches (wins were changed to three points by this time).
Colombia won its final match against Switzerland, but finished last in the group and was sent home from the tournament. Escobar had the opportunity to visit family in Las Vegas, Nevada, but opted to return home to Colombia.
Shortly after the World Cup ended, Escobar was quoted in a newspaper as saying “[The World Cup has] been a most amazing and rare experience. We’ll see each other again soon because life does not end here.”
Little did he know that his decision to return home was about to prove him wrong.
A fatal end
Five days after his country was eliminated from the World Cup, Escobar and a few friends decided to go out and enjoy the Medellín nightlife. They began their night at a bar and later visited a liquor store before ending up at El Indio nightclub.
At around 3am and after a night of partying, Escobar found himself in his car in the El Indio parking lot. His friends had already dispersed and he was all alone.
A group of three men suddenly appeared out of the darkness and surrounded Escobar’s car. An argument ensued, and two of the unexpected visitors raised .38 caliber pistols. A few moments later, a helpless Escobar was shot six times.
the killer allegedly shouted “¡Gol!” (“Goal!”) between every shot
Accounts from witnesses show that the killer allegedly shouted “¡Gol!” (“Goal!”) between every shot, referencing the number of times the Colombian announcer shouted “¡Gol!” after Escobar’s gaffe against the USA. The men then piled into a car and drove off, leaving the 27-year-old to bleed out.
Escobar was discovered and rushed to a hospital, where he was pronounced dead 45 minutes later. Humberto Castro Muñoz, a bodyguard for a local drug cartel, was arrested the next day and confessed to the murder.
Part of Castro’s nefarious activities saw him work as a driver for Santiago Gallón, the leader of the Gallón gang. Gallón allegedly lost a large sum of money betting on Colombia in the match against the USA, which established a motive for the murder.
More than 120,000 people showed up for Escobar’s funeral in Colombia. In 2002, he was honored with a statue in his hometown of Medellín.
Following the murder of Andrés Escobar
Castro was found guilty of Escobar’s murder in 1995 and was initially sentenced to 43 years in prison, but had his sentence reduced to 26 years in 2001. He was then released from prison in 2005 because of a change to prison work and study rules.
Popular rumors suggest that the Gallón brothers bribed the prosecutors to center their case on Castro, who allegedly was carrying out orders from Santiago Gallón. The prosecutors were ultimately unable to produce credible evidence that tied Gallón to the murder. Pamela Cascardo, Escobar’s fiancée, believes that the allegations of bribery are true because of the relatively brief sentence.
In 2013, Francisco Maturana, a Venezuelan former Atlético Nacional player and manager, said that Escobar’s murder had nothing to do with the 1994 World Cup and was a byproduct of being in a dangerous area late in the night.
Andrés Escobar is widely beloved by Colombian soccer fans. He is remembered for bringing an image of cleanliness and stoicism in a time when the country was marred by crime and poverty.