Murder, Corruption & Drugs: Colombian Football's Own-Goal

Ten days after his own goal had eliminated his team from the 1994 World Cup, Andres Escobar was gunned down by gang members outside a nightclub. The real tragedy though, is how little it surprised followers of Colombian football.
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In the early hours of Saturday, July 2nd 1994, Colombian international Andres Escobar paid his bill at Medellin’s notorious Padua disco, and left. Ten days earlier, Colombia had been eliminated from the World Cup Finals after a defeat against the USA, and Escobar’s own goal in that match had been endlessly replayed since. As he went to unlock his car, a group of men appeared, and chanted: “OWN GOAL, OWN GOAL” at him. The ringleaders were the two Gallon brothers, well known in Medellin for their connections with drug smuggling and prostitution. Normally unflappable, Escobar got angry. Awakened by the row, the Gallon brothers’ chauffeur strolled over and shouted: “What does this faggot want?” Without waiting for a reply, he fired six bullets into Escobar’s chest, screaming “OWN GOAL” each time he pulled the trigger. Escobar was left to bleed to death inside his car. Forty other people were shot dead in Medellin that night.

Leading Colombian stars had been fearful even before the tournament began. “Many of us received notes warning us what would happen if we did badly”, recalls former Colombian striker Freddy Rincon. Conspiracy theories suggested that Escobar’s murder was ordered by Colombian gambling syndicates, furious that his defensive error had cost them millions of dollars. The rumours are well wide of the mark, but the fact that many remain willing to believe them proves that Colombian football has a sinister soul.

Five years ago, in an effort to draw a line under the most infamous event in Colombian football history, Padua disco’s owners renamed the bar Club Guarna. Yet the picture of Escobar which hangs on the wall means that the establishment retains its air of ghoulishness. The barman sees me peer at the photograph, and look around uneasily. With an air of resignation, he comments: “You are a journalist. We get lots of them in here from Europe and America. So many of them want to come to the place where Andres Escobar had his last drink.” Thanks to the tenacity and unparalleled networking skills of my journalist friend Celso Edmundes, I’m here to meet up with Juan Carlos Metiche, a policeman who has worked in this edgy urban sprawl for the best part of twenty years. He comments: “This place used to be full of pimps, hookers and drug dealers. Nowadays, rich Medellin University students dance to Kylie Minogue.” He fills me in on the infamous events of a decade ago.

“Escobar arrived at about 10pm with three friends, and they shared a few bottles of Colombian firewater (aguardiente). At first, the evening passed quietly. But at around midnight, the Gallon brothers appeared for the first time. They started to mock him. One of the Gallon brothers admits he said to him: “Oh Andres, you scored a lovely own goal. Wasn’t it beautiful?’ But to his credit, Escobar ignored them, and the Gallon group disappeared for a while.”

Several witnesses later claimed that Escobar called one of the Gallon brothers’ girlfriends “a whore.” At this point, the story becomes hazy. Neither of the brothers mentioned this in their testimonies, and Colombian newspapers totally ignored these allegations. This is odd, considering the monumental amount of coverage Escobar’s murder received in the press, and the fanciful allegations which flew around at the time. Metiche has his own theory on this glitch. He says: “Colombian footballers of that era were either portrayed as angels, or as total scumbags. Escobar and Carlos Valderrama will always be portrayed as whiter than white. But Rene Higuita and Faustino Asprilla have come to represent the dark side of Colombian football.”

“This place used to be full of pimps, hookers and drug dealers. Nowadays, rich Medellin University students dance to Kylie Minogue.”

Many English football fans base their opinions of Colombian football on the antics of former Newcastle United striker Asprilla. Signed from Italian club Parma for £6 million in January 1996, he arrived at St James’ Park, preceded by the news that he was strongly connected to the Colombian “business community.” He’d already left his wife for a porn star, and admitted that he carried a large hand gun for “security reasons.” (“This is normal for leading Colombian players,” admits Asprilla’s former international team mate Rincon). Throughout his spell at Newcastle, he seemed aloof and distant, claiming to be unable to speak a word of English. Unlike many of his Newcastle teammates, Asprilla was regularly seen socialising in Tyneside nightclubs. Invariably clad in shades and a black leather trench coat, the language barrier couldn’t prevent him from trying to shag as many Geordie lasses as possible. In 1997, the police swooped on one of his Colombian compatriots, who walked with a strangely pronounced limp. Tyneside cops discovered it was caused by the four pounds of cocaine strapped to his left leg. The miscreant claimed to have bought the drugs from Asprilla. Tino claimed that he’d met the guy in a pub, fallen for his hard luck story, and generously lent him £20,000 to help him out.

Asprilla’s alleged misdemeanours pale in comparison with those of Rene Higuita. The wild haired former goalie – famous for his scorpion kick save from Jamie Redknapp during Colombia’s friendly with England in 1995 – was great friends with international cocaine dealer Pablo Escobar. “They’re not related, but it’s strange how Colombia’s 2 famous Escobars represent all that is good and bad about my country,” comments Juan Carlos Metiche. During the early 1990s, Pablo Escobar was sentenced to three years in prison. After striking a deal with the authorities, he was allowed to build La Catedral prison on his acres of land in Medellin. As well as containing luxury jacuzzis and swimming pools, the complex also had a football pitch. It was there that Higuita featured in games between Pablo Escobar’s “associates.” Yet Higuita’s relationship with Escobar wasn’t simply a sporting one.

In 1991, Escobar was responsible for kidnapping the daughter of Carlos Molina, a rival cocaine baron. Higuita helped secure her release by delivering a ransom of US $300,000 to his friend – Escobar. Higuita spent seven months inside on charges of profiting from a kidnapping. The charges against him were later dropped, but Higuita’s chances of playing in the fateful 1994 World Cup were over.

“Drugs, porn stars, kidnappings, guns,” Metiche laments. “That is how the outside world views Colombian football. Let’s be honest. If Higuita or Asprilla had been shot dead back in 1994, no one would have been surprised, given the company they keep. The shocking thing was that Andres Escobar was always horrified by corruption in the national leagues. Why do the innocent always suffer?”

When Escobar began to argue with his tormentors outside the Padua disco, two of the group actually attempted to diffuse the situation, pleading: “You’re a good guy. Let’s all go home now.” Even the Gallon brothers admitted that their friends had attempted to calm things down. But Escobar was riled by one of the brother’s jibes: “Do not look for trouble with my brother. You don’t know who you are dealing with. You’re a dumbo, faggot, son of a bitch. The Gallon brothers’ chauffeur, Humberto Munoz Castro, was sentenced to 43 years in prison for manslaughter. Despite the “OWN GOAL” cries as he pulled the trigger, he claims to be unaware of whom he was killing. The Gallons received fifteen months each for incitement to murder.

On one memorable occasion, he evaded police in a car chase for three hours. When they eventually did bring his stolen Mercedes to a screeching halt, they let him off with a derisory fine. After all, he was Usuriaga.

One story claimed the brothers had staked $800,000 each on Colombia to win the World Cup, and this was their chance to exact revenge on Escobar. “That’s totally untrue,” claims Metiche. “It’s misleading because the Gallons were known as the ‘Medellin Mafia’, but they didn’t have a massive network in Colombia at all. The city’s police went through their accounts and transactions very carefully in the weeks after the shooting, and there is no evidence to suggest that they wagered anything on the tournament. In 1994, we estimated that there were 400 hired assassins in Medellin – guys who’d willingly shoot anyone if you paid them. It would have been very easy for the Gallons to have hired a sicario (assassin) and had Escobar shot that way. They would have then avoided any connection with his murder. The truth is that the murder was down to a parking lot bust up which went very badly wrong. But people won’t accept that.”

In the late 1980s, Colombia’s “golden generation” of footballers began to come of age. Under the captaincy of the sublimely gifted Carlos Valderrama, the national team qualified for the 1990 World Cup – its first since 1950. The star of the team was Albeiro Usuriaga, a prototype of Asprilla. A genius from the wrong side of the tracks, Usuriaga had a taste for anarchy. After testing positive for cocaine in 1988,he was found in possession of stolen goods in 1990. On one memorable occasion, he evaded police in a car chase for three hours. When they eventually did bring his stolen Mercedes to a screeching halt, they let him off with a derisory fine. After all, he was Usuriaga.

He was behind some of the greatest moments in the Colombian game. His goal in the 1990 play off against Israel secured Colombia’s qualification for the 1990 tournament. He also spearheaded Athletico Nacional of Medellin to victory in the 1989 Copa Libertadores – the South American version of the Champions League. To date, it remains the only time in which a Colombian club has won the trophy. His national coach Francisco Maturana opted not to take him to the 1990 tournament in Italy, commenting: “You never know what’s going on inside his head.”

As Colombian football emerged from the shadows, allegations of bribery and corruption within the domestic leagues grew. Drug lords started to take an unhealthy interest in the game. Pablo Escobar used Athletico to launder money for his multi million dollar drug business. A year after Athletico secured the Copa Libertadores, domestic football was suspended when a Uruguayan referee accused Escobar’s men of putting him under pressure to “ensure that Athletico won the tournament.” The official died a year later – his meal in a restaurant had been laced with rat poison. In 1990, referee Alvaro Ortega was killed by two gunmen after officiating an Independiente Medellin v Club America match. “That will teach you to disallow a fucking Medellin goal,” screamed his assassins, before they pumped twenty bullets into his body. Two goalkeepers were shot dead in 1993 after letting in soft goals during league games. Andres Escobar spoke of the “culture of fear” which was prevalent in Colombian football.

A 5-0 victory in the 1994 World Cup qualifiers against Diego Maradona’s Argentina alerted the rest of the world to the explosive potential of Colombian football. The 1994 World Cup was designed to be a showcase for Colombian football. My friend Celso Edmundes was also able to put me in contact with Escobar’s international colleague Freddy Rincon. The former Colombia striker initially turned down my request for a telephone interview, claiming: “I have no wish to revisit such a dark period of my life.” After spending an hour (and £50) convincing him to change his mind, Rincon relented, and filled me in on the atmosphere surrounding the Colombian camp in 1994. “Suddenly, everyone wanted to know about us. Many people told us we could win the tournament, and we started to believe them. Instead of working hard, some of the players decided to party. That’s when many of the club owners and directors got angry. Because Colombia’s league is such a small one, we are dependent on selling players to European clubs in order to survive. And believe me, some of those owners were not guys you wanted to annoy.” Metiche puts it even more succinctly: “The assorted gun runners, gambling addicts, and drug fiends who were in charge were likely to go on the fucking war path if they didn’t get their money out of football.”

At the local police station, he shows me a grainy video of Andres Escobar’s final interview before Colombia flew to the USA for the start of the tournament. Edgy and restless, the normally ultra cool Escobar furtively glances around the room as he talks to reporters, showing little of the excitement you would expect from a player about to play on the greatest stage of all. “All of us were absolutely shitting ourselves with fear,” explains Rincon.

A 3-1 defeat against Romania dented Colombian hopes of making it through to the knock out stages of the tournament. “The pressure to beat the USA in the second match was unbearable,” explains Rincon. Against the Americans, Valderrama and Asprilla hit woodwork before the nadir was reached. As John Harkes crossed the ball for team mate Ernie Stewart, the stretching Escobar diverted the ball past a stunned Oscar Cordoba. For a couple of seconds, he lay prostrate on the sun bleached turf, staring skywards. Colombia lost 2-1. Though they rallied to beat Switzerland 2-0 four days later, it was too little, too late. Their World Cup was over, but the recriminations were about to begin.

“Many of us received notes warning us what would happen if we did badly”

Several of Escobar’s team mates opted to take a holiday in Las Vegas or Disneyland, rather than go home. Going against the wishes of his family, Escobar took the most difficult option, and flew back to face the music in Bogota. As the joint national team coaches – Francisco Maturana and Hernan Dario Gomez - prepared for a press conference from hell, Escobar and Rincon talked of “the Mafiosi” which awaited them in their homeland. They weren’t referring to gangsters – but the Colombian journalists. At Bogota’s Eldorado airport, Gomez makes the ultimate faux pas. Leaning across to Maturana, he whispered: “Look around this room. Soon I will take some of these sons of bitches with me.” Gomez was unaware that his microphone was already switched on. The press vented their fury, viciously lambasting members of the Colombian team in the newspapers over the forthcoming days.

The only member of the team to emerge with any credit from the tournament was Escobar, who was poised to sign for AC Milan in the following month. At the press conference, some journalists applauded him as he walked into the room. “At least you have the guts to face us,” said a writer from one of the Bogota dailies. The clearly embarrassed Escobar squirmed his way through the conference, as assorted hacks circled around the national coaches like vultures around fresh carrion. Most of their fury was reserved for Asprilla’s inept performances. In a bitterly ironic parting shot, Escobar commented: “I’m now going to look forward to the France 98 World Cup Finals.” He never spoke in public again.

These days, Athletico Nacional fans regularly unfurl banners of Escobar at home games, and chant: “Andres Escobar, you went away but kept alive in my heart.” One Athletico fan tells me: “This city isn’t the place it used to be. These days Medellin is more famous for Fernando Botero’s art work and the Festival de Flores (Festival of Flowers.)” Yet to many, it remains the most dangerous city in the world. Last year, there were an estimated 3500 victims of gun crime in the city, the worst record of any South American city. As I took my leave of Medellin earlier this year, it appeared that Colombian football was finally beginning to clean up its act. This is partly due to a shrinking talent pool of players. The national team is struggling to qualify for the 2006 World Cup, and the gangsters, aware there is currently little money to be made in domestic football, appear to be hibernating.

Two weeks later, Freddy Rincon sends me a disturbing message, confirming that Albeiro Usuriaga – the former golden boy of Colombian football - has been assassinated. Gunned down outside a Cali nightclub at the age of 37, his murder sends shock waves through the country. Rumours spread like wildfire. Usuriaga and Escobar may have been total opposites, but the theories behind their murders are almost identical. Were betting syndicates with long memories taking revenge on Usuriaga? Had he insulted a local drug baron? Andres Escobar’s murder remains the most high profile killing in Colombian football’s murky history, but Usuriaga’s death proves that the story is constantly being updated.

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