Excitement of a World Cup Run Is Tempered by Memory of a Tragedy

Posted on Jun 27 2014 - 6:54pm by Rico
Colombia's Andrés Escobar watches a missed shot by the U.S.'s Eric Wynalda during the teams' 1994 World Cup match. Associated Press

Colombia’s Andrés Escobar watches a missed shot by the U.S.’s Eric Wynalda during the teams’ 1994 World Cup match. Associated Press

COLOMBIA NEWS – (WSJ) As Colombia’s soccer team laces up its cleats to meet Uruguay in the World Cup‘s round of 16 on Saturday, excitement here has reached peaks not seen in years. Winner of Group C, Colombia is formidable, having dismantled three teams, filled stadiums in Brazil with thousands of Colombians and even won acclaim for its players’ post-goal dance, now an Internet sensation.

But for many here, that excitement is tempered by knowledge that this year marks the 20th anniversary of the murder of Andrés Escobar.

At the 1994 World Cup in Los Angeles, Escobar inadvertently deflected a cross from American John Harkes into Colombia’s own goal. Colombia, which Brazil’s legendary player Pelé had predicted might win it all that year, went on to lose to the U.S. and bowed out early from the tournament, disappointing all of Colombia.

Two weeks later, in his native Medellín, Escobar was shot dead outside a bar, quite possibly in retribution for the own goal, by a man with known links to drug traffickers.

“It’s the 20-year anniversary, and we of course never want to forget the killing of Andrés Escobar because he was an innocent, young man who didn’t deserve to die,” said Álvaro González, a 65-year-old Bogotá resident and devoted soccer fan, as he watched a World Cup match at an upscale Bogotá shopping mall. “But at this moment, as we advance in the World Cup, we are reluctant to rehash this event and its relations to cocaine and violence. These are precisely the images we’re trying to overcome.”

In a recent interview with The Wall Street Journal, Santiago Escobar, the 50-year-old brother of Andrés Escobar, said he is unaware of any plans at the World Cup to honor his brother on the 20th anniversary. Were he still alive, Andrés Escobar would be 47, and his absence remains a source of anguish for the family, Santiago said.

“My brother was a respectful, honest man,” Escobar said. “He left a great memory, a great mark on Colombia, and we will commemorate him on July 2 (the anniversary of his death) this year, as we do every year.”

Even in Colombia, a country torn by a decades-old guerrilla conflict fueled by drug trafficking, the killing stands out as one of the nation’s moments of infamy. Enrique Santos, a well-known Colombian journalist and brother to President Juan Manuel Santos, wrote at the time that the slaying of Andrés Escobar made him ashamed to be Colombian for the first time ever. “It’s was a traumatic event that moved the country,” Santos told The Wall Street Journal this week, adding that he fears the masterminds of the killing have yet to be brought to justice.

About five days after his team was eliminated from the 1994 World Cup, Escobar was shot in the parking lot of a nightclub. Humberto Muñoz, a bodyguard and driver for top members of a Colombian drug cartel, was arrested shortly after the killing and charged with murder. He confessed and was convicted, then served 11 years of a 43-year sentence before being freed in 2005 for good behavior. Many believe Muñoz was merely a hired gun and say cartel leaders who may have made large bets on Colombia in the World Cup ordered the hit. Others believe the murder was merely reflective of the lawlessness gripping Colombia at that time.

The episode is still a painful reminder of the violence that plagues Colombia, even as it has become a safer country, a popular tourist destination and a Wall Street darling. And so as Argentina-born coach Jose Pekerman, striker Jackson “Cha Cha Cha” Martinez and others from la seleccion prepare to take on strong and unpredictable Uruguay—which will be playing without its star Luis Suárez—González said Colombia is unsure how, or even if, to commemorate this infamous moment.

For González and other Colombia fans, the Uruguay game is a chance at redemption—a way to finally put a positive, lasting imprint on the country, in both the sports world and beyond.

So far in the tournament, Colombia is doing just that. Stadiums in Brazil have been packed with fun-loving Colombians, with 54,477 paying tickets to see games, the fifth-largest group of foreigners in Brazil, according to FIFA.

The on-field performance of the team, which was No. 8 in the FIFA world ranking before the tournament began, has been nearly flawless, even without the presence of its top player, striker Radamel Falcao, who is injured.

Colombia is one of just four teams, alongside Belgium, the Netherlands and Argentina, to win all three of its games in the first round. On Tuesday it defeated Japan 4-1 in a lopsided match that allowed Pekerman to substitute in goalkeeper Faryd Mondragón, who at age 43 became the oldest player to ever take part in the World Cup. Mondragón was a young member of that team that included Escobar.

Michael Zimbalist co-directed with his brother Jeff a 2010 documentary called “The Two Escobars” that looks at how the fate of Andrés Escobar intertwined with that of Pablo Escobar (no relation), Colombia’s most famous drug kingpin. The latter Escobar was also gunned down in Medellín, just seven months before Andrés Escobar was killed.

Zimbalist said he understands the hesitancy on the part of many Colombians to focus much on Andrés Escobar’s death. “Colombians are so affected viscerally by the images and associations of their country as a hotbed of violence, corruption and drugs. Most Americans have a tough time understanding it,” Zimbalist said in a phone interview from California. “I hope Colombia can really turn it on as the World Cup continues.”

Colombians erupted in anger when the Dutch actress Nicolette van Dam, a goodwill ambassador to the children’s charity Unicef, posted on Twitter a doctored photo that seemed to show two Colombian soccer players snorting cocaine. She later apologized and said she didn’t mean to offend Colombians, and later resigned from the United Nations group.

Still, many other Colombians say the country is oversensitive and hypocritical when it comes to Colombia’s image of drugs and violence. They say the country would do well to focus less on trying to prove something to its detractors during events like the World Cup, and instead should focus just on the sport itself.

“We complained about this Dutch woman…yet at the same time we are exporting soap operas that deal with drug traffickers, said Omar Rincón, a Colombian pundit. “We need to be more consistent,”