July 2, 2014: The Past
Twenty years ago to the day, Andrés Escobar prepared to leave for a nightclub in his home town of Medellin in Colombia. Unlike the quickly evaporating after-shave slapped on his cheeks, memories of Escobar’s own-goal against USA were still moist and fresh.
It had occurred just 10 days prior, in Colombia’s second group game at the Rosebowl, Pasadena, against the hosts of the 1994 World Cup. In his attempt to curtail an attack by USA’s John Harkes, Colombia’s best defender slid on his thighs and intercepted the ball. Only, Escobar ended up deflecting the bladder past a wrong-footed goalkeeper, Oscar Cordoba.
Colombia lost 2-1, all but knocking them out of the World Cup (they eventually exited four days later at the end of the group stages) and plenty from Medellin’s notorious drug cartels lost big betting money.
Escobar and the Colombian side had the blessings of the most notorious druglord of them all, Pablo Escobar. In fact, cocaine-king Pablo owned the club that Andrés and several other national team members played for, Atletico Nacional. But with Pablo murdered by a rival cartel just seven months before the World Cup, the humiliated national side were on their own.
“‘Andrés, stay at home’, I tried to warn him,” says Francisco Maturana, Colombia’s coach at that World Cup, in a documentary called ‘The Two Escobars’. “But Andrés said ‘No, I must show my face to my people’.’’ In fact, Escobar had written something similar in a newspaper column just a day ago. In three separate paragraphs, he had written the words: “Life doesn’t end here”.
His did. Two hours after he had left home, Escobar was riddled with six bullets in the car park of the nightclub, while still strapped to his wheel. He was 27.
July 3, 2014: The Present
Colombia’s horrific past and terrific future met in Brazil today, when Escobar’s sister Maria Ester and brother Jose arrived in Rio de Janeiro on an invitation from FIFA to watch Colombia take on Brazil in the quarterfinals of the 2014 World Cup.
At the Arena Castelao in Fortaleza tomorrow, they will wear their brother’s No. 2 jersey and hope that a history-making national side (this is the first time they have made the last eight) can proceed to the semifinals; something that was predicted for their brother’s side 20 years ago. By Pele, no less.
In the lead-up to USA ‘94, Colombia had played as gloriously and wholesomely as their captain Carlos Valderrama’s locks. They had won 25 of their 26 matches, most of those during the qualifiers — capped off with a 5-0 win against Argentina in Buenos Aires.
The current Colombian side weren’t as spectacular during the CONMEBOL qualifiers, losing four and drawing three to finish second. But Jose and Maria Ester claim that had Escobar been alive today (he would’ve been 47), he would’ve predicted the world for the current Colombian side, which consists of two players he had played with when they were still teens — the 38-year-old captain Mario Yepes and the 43-year-old reserve goalie Faryd Mondragon.
In fact, when Colombia coach Jose Pekerman made a most sentimental substitution in the final five minutes of their final group game against Japan last month, Mondragon became the oldest ever player to participate in a World Cup. He had made his international debut in USA ‘94, as goalie Cordoba’s understudy.
At the end of the Japan game, one that wrapped up a most successful start to Colombia’s campaign, Mondragon is said to have wept copious tears in the locker room. A young team is said to have understood. It’s hard to be the past, present and future all at the same time.
July 4, 2014: The Future
By the time you pick up this newspaper, the Colombians would have already made the journey from their training centre in Sao Paulo to their team hotel in Fortaleza. As would have their beloved fans, who flocked the iron gates of the SPFC training ground in thousands, with “Andrés: RIP” banners in their hands and “James 10” on their backs.
James Rodriguez, 22, was an infant when Escobar was murdered in Medellin. Today, like the injured Radamel Falcao before him, and Escobar and Valderrama before him, he is the current golden face of the national team.
Golden feet too, going by what he has achieved on Brazilian fields so far.
Few gave this side a chance when Falcao pulled out of the World Cup with a very sore knee. But the Monaco star had been observed from close quarters by James. He has, so far, scored in each of Colombia’s four matches — once against Greece, once against Ivory Coast, once against Japan and twice against a hapless Uruguay in the Round of 16.
The five goals have made him the leading contender for this Cup’s Golden Boot, with one goal more than his opposite number from Brazil, Neymar Jr. But unlike Neymar, Colombia’s No.10 has scored the goal of the World Cup.
In the 50th minute of the Round of 16 game, the bladder hadn’t touched the pitch for the last five moves, with both sides nodding it to players from the opposition. But Colombian midfielder Abel Aguilar finally found a team-mate who had his back to the Uruguayan goal. James chested the ball down to his raised right boot via his shoulder, turned 180 degrees and sent a volley screaming over goalie Fernando Muslera.
It kissed the gloved and the crossbar, before it finally came to rest on soil in the Uruguayan net. Two countries exploded simultaneously.
“I haven’t seen so many Brazilians happy,” said Jorge, a travelling Colombian supporter from New York. “By beating Uruguay at the Maracana, James has just singlehandedly set the Brasileiro free from the Maracanazo.”
But Jorge knows that James’ job isn’t quite over yet. Raising his home-made banner with the words ‘1967 – 1994’ printed below a picture of Escobar, he says: “Society killed him 20 years ago. If James wins us the World Cup, football will set him free.”