The Death Of Andres Escobar: The 'Yellow Fever' Of Medellín '94

As Colombian football reaches its turning point on the biggest stage, we look back at the most famous death in World Cup history...
Publish date:

(picture via)

It's a horrifyingly mortal feeling when a footballer dies, even of old age and long retired, the world goes into a state of abnormality like none other, when a footballer so worshipped and sanctified to level of providence passes from this realm to the next. 

The world had endured many a footballing legend's death, but none like that of Andrés Escobar's in 1994.

Escobar, captain of Colombia, shot dead in the car park of a bar from the madness of Colombian World Cup rage as they exited the tournament after a 2-1 loss to USA, in which Escobar humiliatingly turned a weak John Harkes cross into his own net. It was mortifying enough for Colombia on the 22nd June when their golden generation and what seemed their World Cup went bust and a hazy mist of disarray covered a distraught nation. 

That wasn't the end of it. Ten days later, on the 2nd July, twenty years ago to this very day, Andrés Escobar was heinously murdered in what was thought to be revenge for his World Cup embarrassment. The hazy mist had been further poisoned and gained a bloody tinge. It became the Colombian contingent's very own version of 'La fiebre amarilla', yellow fever.

This event wasn't to be without surreal irony, as just after Colombia's elimination, Escobar wrote in Bogota's El Tiempenewspaper, "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 paralyse 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."

The sheer reality of such a distressing and villainous irony was enough to bring a nation, in which twelve days earlier was on a desperate, hopeful high, to then a solemn and soundless low.

Andrés wasn't the only famed Escobar of Medellín, let alone was he the only one to have a calamitous death there. Pablo Escobar, of no relation to Andrés and head of Colombia's million dollar drug cartel died not long before Andrés and had sent Colombia into its worst ever state of affairs as a country. Colombia was abundant with crime, having the highest percentile of registered crime in the entire world and a shaky, off-balance government. The nation was at an all time low. 

However, Pablo, although having no direct relation to Andrés, was very involved with Medellín's footballing society and Andrés. The, oddly, beloved gang leader had built plenty of football pitches across the city, in which some of the golden generation found their feet as footballers on. Pablo owned Atlético Nacional, to whom he brought great success with the investment of his drug-infested money, even winning the Copa Libertadores in 1989.

"Life doesn't end here. We have to go on. Life cannot end here. No matter how difficult, we must stand back up." - Andres Escobar

Members of the golden generation would frequently visit Pablo when he was imprisoned, after Pablo had surrendered to Colombian authorities. Famously, Higuita, Colombia's number one goalkeeper at the time, foolishly spoke to press before entering the prison and was arrested short after and exiled from the squad, to which many thought as revenge from the Colombian regime's authority being humiliated. Unlike the free-flowing René Higuita, Andrés was not so comfortable visiting a highly revered drug lord. Known as El Caballero del Futbol, the Gentleman of Football, Andrés was much more tame than his panache teammates. He'd often tell his sister, Maria, "I don't want to go but I have no choice."

When Pablo himself was killed, 6 months or so before Andrés, an instant wind blew across the fields, the waters and the cities of Colombia. An era had come to a climatic end. There was no single empowering authority reigning and ruling the cartels, there was no one man dictating what unlawful measures went about Medellín, the underworld was any man's.

And with his death, Francisco Maturana, recently appointed manager of the Colombian national side endorsed such views. "When Pablo Escobar died, the earth shook and the wind cried 'Pablo Escobar!' As of that moment, you had to be on guard at all times. You couldn't trust anyone. Even a policeman could be good or evil."


Will There Ever Be Another Team Like USA 94's Bulgaria?

Why Cruyff Boycotted Argentina 78

It was on the back of such words, that Colombia was then sent into a state of national turmoil. The unlawful country as it was, still had stability. On the death of Pablo Escobar, nothing and no one could claim stability. And on the brink of this chaos, the Colombian national side ventured north to the World Cup frontier. 

Even of times in such national emergency, the Colombian squad set off to USA with high ambitions and hopeful thoughts. A country in mass upheaval depended on the players they worshipped. Never a moment in history where football could have more been the cure to a national crisis.

Andrés, the serene and poised leader, found positives in times to come. "It's difficult to stay focused, but I find motivation in the good things to come," as he had just gotten engaged and secured a move to Milan for the following season. His hope was strong, and he encouraged his teammates on the backdrop of his own emotions. Andrés believed a successful World Cup campaign from Colombia would ease the violence in Medellín. His beliefs very much matching his pacifist-like personality. 

Their campaign started all but positive. A 3-1 loss to an unwarranted Romania sent the Colombian side into a unkempt state of mind, said Andrés' close friend César Mauricio Velásquez. "A psychological crisis for which the team was not prepared."

It had reached a boiling point in Colombia, now. At home in Medellín the streets was savage; cars, bodies, rubble, fires - an apocalyptic plight had taken full form. The mist was getting thick. Following on from death threats, kidnappings and even deaths of relatives to the players, Andrés was doing his utmost best to restore hope in his friends. A time which should have been filled with ecstatic joy and hype for these young players had become a twisted tale of trauma. 

A squad in a state of disarray and so fearful of losing then tensely set out to play the USA. Walking onto the field, faces filled with angst, the side knew they couldn't give in here. The match to be known as the cause of Andrés' death started strongly for Colombia, attacking and attacking. "We attacked from all angles, but the ball wouldn't go in," consolation goal scorer Adolfo Valencia recalled. 

Then it hit that moment. The psychological paralysis of hitting 'the wall' known to athletes, Álvarez remembered knowing a painful moment was coming. John Harkes, belting down the left flank and hurling in a low cross into 'no man's land', left Andrés with no option to intercept it. The ball was sent rolling, aimlessly, despairingly into Córdoba's net. "In that moment, my nine-year-old son said to me 'Mommy, they're going to kill Andrés.'" Told by Andrés' sister in her interview for the documentary making of The Two Escobars.

"In that moment, my nine-year-old son said to me 'Mommy, they're going to kill Andrés.'"

It had been set. Only 1-0 down, but there was an essence around the stadium, around Colombia, around the world, that knew their fate had been sealed and they were to exit here. It was only solidified by a second USA goal. 

Returning to a chaotic Medellín, Andrés was very public and spoke to the press on many occasion. Devastated by Colombia's exit, "Not only because of the error I committed, but also because in these games, our team could not fulfil our expectations," said Andrés.

"No, I must show my face to the people," an adamant Andrés as he refused his manager's advice to stay in on that night. Herrera, his close friend and teammate likewise said the same, but Andrés felt that he must show to the people that they'd done no wrong, they had given their all.

Andrés certainly did give his all in the end. His life. After being tormented and abused in the bar, Andrés left to which the culprits followed. Unlike his normal, passive self, Andrés wasn't acceptant of the continual maltreatment and drove over to them, claiming the own goal was "an honest mistake."

It was now the murderers turns to give their all. An all equivalent to 6 bullets to the back. Through skin, muscle and bone. A national crisis, festered from Medellín had caused the death to a beloved hero. The mist was thick. Stained. Tainted. 'La fiebre amarilla' had taken the life of a national treasure, and one so undeserving of such a heinous death.

Conspiracy still remains over the death of Andrés Escobar, in more ways than one. Who were the true murderers: the Gallóns or Humberto Castro Muñoz? Society or soccer?

20 years on and sportswriter Wright Thompson had travelled to Medellín 'in search of Escobar' and even still, the pain and anguish remains rife in the hearts of Medellín residents. When a footballer passes, it's a transition of cultural passing, the end of an era - and usually a good one in a worthy manner. With Andrés Escobar, the era was one of the worst in Medellín's and Colombia's history, a tainted time. And the passing manner? A violent murder in the car park of a night club. 

"We only have two options: either allow anger to paralyse us and the violence continues, or we overcome and try our best to help others. It's our choice."

For Andrés Escobar, it wasn't his choice. 

Follow Gene on Twitter, @mantomanmarking