Colombia hopes Brazil World Cup can lay to rest memory of 1994


Colombian national soccer team fans kiss a mock World Cup trophy during their team's training session at Estadio Mineirao in Belo Horizonte, Brazil, 13 June 2014. (EPA/DENNIS M. SABANGAN)

The Colombian team that will turn out against Greece on Saturday may be without star striker Radamel Falcao, who's injured for the duration of the World Cup. But it boasts the strongest squad the South American nation has fielded for two decades. In 1994, some, including Brazilian legend Pele, tipped the Colombians to win it all in the United States.

Things went tragically wrong, though. My colleague Scott Wilson offers this account of Colombia's ordeal then:

Andres Escobar was captain of Colombia’s World Cup team in 1994. Picked by many to make it at least as far as the tournament’s semi-finals, Colombia’s roster arrived in the United States amid hugely high hopes back in a home country whose character was defined abroad by its rising drug cartels.

The most powerful at the time was named for Escobar’s home town of Medellin, a violent if cultured city in northwest Colombia, the New York to Bogota’s grayer Washington D.C. Pablo Escobar, no relation to Andres, had run the cartel and many national institutions with the fantastically huge profits from the cocaine trade.

Like many Colombian boys, Pablo Escobar dreamed of growing rich enough to buy a team, and he eventually became the chief financier of Medellin’s Atletico Nacional. He was not the only drug lord to do so, and during the late 1980s and 1990s, cocaine profits fueled a golden age of Colombian soccer. Drug-inflated wages kept the best Colombians in domestic leagues rather than pushing them into the usually more lucrative European ones, and the best international coaches were lured to Medellin, Cali, and other cities with big contracts.

Known as the “gentleman of football,” Andres Escobar was a choir boy on a colorful national team. On June 22, 1994, Colombia lined up against the United States during a group stage match. An internationally coveted defender, Escobar tried to cut out a cross from U.S. midfielder John Harkes, accidentally knocking it into his own goal.

Colombia lost the game and crashed out of the tournament early. Less than two weeks later, in a Medellin parking lot, he was shot a dozen times by a bodyguard of a cartel leader who allegedly lost money on the game.

By then, Pablo Escobar had already been shot dead on a Medellin rooftop and paisas, as those who live in Medellin’s Antioquia Province are known, say Pablo Escobar would never have condoned the killing. He had always supported the Colombian national team, and was buried in the green-and-white banner of his beloved Atletico Nacional.

Even by Colombia’s then-horrifying standards of violence, the “own goal” murder shocked the national conscience. Tens of thousands protested the killing and the government moved to take narco-money out of the Colombian game. The Colombian national team heads to Brazil this year, ranked fifth in the world, its highest placement since the 1994 tournament.

It helps that their country has also progressed, albeit fitfully, from the dark days of the 1990s. Medellin is reinventing itself as a tech hub and center for science and innovation, while the government works toward finding a lasting truce with a decades-old guerrilla insurgency. A memorable Cup run -- and the absence of a tragedy such as Escobar's own goal -- could help change the whole narrative of a nation.

Ishaan Tharoor writes about foreign affairs for The Washington Post. He previously was a senior editor at TIME, based first in Hong Kong and later in New York.
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