By Courtney Ginn


Since its independence of Spain, Colombia’s political and social history has been marked by periods of intense violence. This image of violence has become entrenched in the international community’s perception of Colombia. In the 1994 World Cup Colombia was poised to make a dramatic and powerful statement in the soccer world. The small country’s national team consisted of a few star players who had experienced unprecedented success in the years leading up to the 1994 World Cup. For a brief time, media coverage about Colombia consisted of optimistic predictions for the national team rather than cocaine and violence. However, the team’s disappointing early exit and the successive events would reinforce the international community’s stereotype of Colombia.

History of Colombia/Soccer

When Colombia became an independent and autonomous nation in 1831, the country experienced economic and political growth. However, class struggles and dissatisfaction with the role of the Catholic Church in government would lead to almost constant civil conflict during the second half of the 19th century. These political skirmishes fueled the intense rivalry between the political Conservatives and Liberals, which would in turn lead to two more civil wars.[1]

It was during this time that the British brought football to Colombia. In 1903 British workers on the Barranquilla railroad introduced the game to the local communities they passed through. Several years later, in 1909, Colombia formed its first organized football team: Barranquilla FBC.[2]

Football and violence would remain entwined, though not necessarily related, throughout Colombia’s history. The Colombian national team first qualified for the FIFA World Cup in 1962, near the end of La Violencia, a period when more than 200,000 people were murdered. Colombia would not return to the World Cup until 1990, the same year the Colombian drug cartels reached the height of their power. Since Colombia’s soccer achievements have followed periods of intense violence, the international media has viewed them as inseparable. This link between Colombian soccer and violence reached an apex during the 1994 World Cup.

1994 World Cup

The 1994 World Cup in the United States seemed destined to be the grand finale for a successful Colombian team. After a disappointing early exit in the 1990 World Cup in Italy, the Colombian national team had steadily improved and become more successful.logo_84 The roster included many talented players: Antony de Avila, Carlos Valderrama, Adolfo Valencia, and Faustino Asprilla. The team’s impressive World Cup qualifying campaign was highlighted by a 5-0 victory over rival Argentina, who had been undefeated for 30 games. The win gave Colombia a number one seed in the World Cup and the respect of international soccer critics. Soccer legend Pele even picked the Colombian team to win the World Cup. Though others had more modest expectations, it was the general consensus that Colombia would easily advance out of its bracket, which included Romania, Switzerland, and the United States.[3]

Unfortunately, the 1994 World Cup would prove disappointing for the Colombian team. The team lost its opening match against Romania 3-1. The upset added pressure to the Colombian team. To stay competitive in the tournament, Colombia needed a win against the United States. The task did not seem too daunting; the United States had not won a World Cup match since 1950 and was not considered a dominant soccer power. However, as the game drew nearer, the tension increased. In the days preceding the match, Colombian coach Francisco Maturana and halfback Gabriel Gomez received several death threats via fax and telephone. The newspaper La Prensa reported that a “shadowy death squad” had warned Maturana that “There will be bombs in your house and in Gomez’s house, if you put him on the field. The caller further instructed Maturana to replace Gomez with Hernán Gaviria, a halfback from Medellin. Maturana refused to acquiesce to the demands; however, senior Colombian soccer officials overruled him. Maturana Thumbnail Gomez watched from the bench as Gaviria started the match against the United States.[4] After the match, Asprilla said that the more threats had been extended to all the players: “This is what was on our minds as we went on to the pitch – that, if we didn’t win, there would be trouble and we would be killed.”[5]

Above Left: Colombian head coach Fransisco Maturana received death threats before the 1994 World Cup

The Colombian team began the match with several aggressive attacks on the United States’ goal. Colombia had several early shots and a particularly close call in the sixth minute, when United States defender cleared a shot by de Avila. The momentum of the game was irreversibly changed in the 35th minute. In what was deemed “the ugliest shot of the World Cup”[6], American midfielder John Harkes crossed the ball from the left side of the field. Andres Escobar, veteran of the 1990 World Cup team and known as “the caballero of soccer”, ran to defend the box. Unluckily, the ball ricocheted off his foot and into his own net. Escobar had just scored an own-goal.

Andres Escobar’s Own Goal versus the United States

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The United States took a shocking 1-0 lead. Inspired by the lead, the American team continued to assault the Colombian net, with Earnie Stewart scoring a second goal in the 56th minute. The Colombian team’s morale was crushed. Maturana stated “It’s a shame the laws only allow two substitutions otherwise I would have replaced all 11 players for the second half.”[7] Adolfo Valencia managed to score a goal in the 90th minute; this was only made possible by the fact that the American team was already celebrating its victory. Alan Rothenberg, president of the U.S. Soccer Federation, called it “the biggest win in the history of United States soccer.”[8]

While the Americans celebrated their shocking victory, the embarrassed Colombian team tried to deal with their hostile fans. Headlines included La Prensa‘s “Humiliated by the United States”[9] and The Guardian‘s “Soccer: A Defeat that Stunk Out the Field.”[10] In El Tiempo, one Colombian fan stated that “If we aren’t capable of beating the gringos, then we aren’t worth anything.”[11] After the match Maturana stated “This is a terrible day and we have let the country down. Despite all the problems I never imagined we could play as badly as this. I do not know where we go from here—home probably.”[12]Even though Colombia defeated Switzerland 2-0, it was not enough to advance out of its bracket. The shamed Colombian team returned home after a brief World Cup competition. The team was well aware of the hostilities they faced; teammate Asprilla warned Escobar to avoid going out in public. In an eerily prescient column written just a few days before his death, Escobar urged the Colombian public to forgive the team: “Please, let’s not let the defeat affect our respect for the sport and the team. See you later, because life goes on.[13]

Andres Escobar’s Murder

Andres Escobar

Colombian defender Andres Escobar

On July 2, only one week after Colombia’s exit, Andres Escobar was murdered outside a club in Medellin. The details of the crime remain unclear. Witnesses reported that several men confronted Escobar as he was leaving the club. Twelve shots were fired; six of them struck Escobar. Pamela Cascardo, his fiancée, stated that after every shot, the murderer yelled “Gooooal!”, mimicking South American sports commentators distinct call. Other witnesses state that the shooter yelled “Thanks for the own-goal, you son of a bitch.”[14] Escobar was pronounced dead at a hospital just before 4 am.

Andres Escobar’s murder shocked the soccer world. The fact that the murder had occurred during the most watched sporting event in the world meant that it garnered international headlines. Based on witnesses’ reports, Escobar’s death appeared to be retribution for scoring an own-goal. John Harkes called Escobar’s death “tragic” and “demented”. Scottish soccer commentator Alan Hansen apologized for his post-game remarks, which included the statement “ the player (Escobar) ought to be shot for making a mistake like that.”[15]

Unfortunately, Escobar’s murder was not the first soccer-related homicide in Colombia. In 1986, eight officials were assassinated. In 1988, the secretary of the Metropolitan Soccer League was murdered. In the most notorious murder before Escobar’s death, referee Alvaro Ortega was killed after a controversial call that allowed America of Cali to tie Independiente of Medellin. The prevalent belief was that Ortega’s call angered Colombian gamblers, most of whom are connected to the infamous cocaine cartels. These gamblers will often bet hundreds of thousands of dollars on a single game.[16] Regardless of the motivations behind Ortega’s murder, the Colombian soccer league was immediately thrust into world headlines. Reports of the collaboration between cocaine cartels and the soccer league stunned the world; however, for many Colombians, it was already an established fact.

Soccer and Drug Cartels

The violence in Colombian soccer has often been tied to the presence of cocaine cartels. One soccer player stated: “Soccer in this country is a sordid business, it reflects the culture completely. It is owned by the cartels, run by the cartels, and now it’s played by the cartel members. Even in the World Cup. Especially in the World Cup. You can’t imagine how putrid the game is here.”[17] Many believe that the largest teams in Medellin, Bogota, and coastal Colombia are owned by drug cartels who use the teams to launder their money. The soccer clubs were often used to launder cartel money; many players were offered “hot money” under the table. It may not be a coincidence that the greatest years in Colombian soccer coincided with the rising popularity of cocaine.[18] In 1993, the notorious drug kingpin Pablo Escobar (no relation to Andres Escobar) was buried with an Atletico Nacional flag. It is commonly assumed that Pablo Escobar was the main financier behind the Medellin team. In 1982, drug lord Gonzalo Gacha openly bought the Millionarios Club in Bogota. When Gacha was murdered eight years later, police discovered hundreds of documents recording illegal payments to players and money laundering.[19]

In 1997, Antony de Avila scored the winning goal in the match that qualified Colombia for the 1998 World Cup. In a television interview after the match, de Avila dedicated his goal to “those who’ve been deprived of their liberty, especially Miguel and Gilberto Rodriguez.” The Rodriguez brothers were convicted drug lords who had owned America Cali, de Avila’s team in Colombia’s national league. Antony de Avila considered himself indebted to the brothers because they had played a seminal role in his professional career; they had discovered him while he was playing in the barrios.[20] Many other Colombian stars played soccer as a way to escape the slums and they relied on cartels to aid their professional careers. One of the first critics of the cartel-clubs was Colombia’s Justice Minister Rodrigo Bonilla. In 1983 heAntony de Avila led a campaign for the removal of the cartels that owned most of the top clubs in the Colombian league; three months later he was assassinated[21]. Using soccer clubs as fronts for laundering cocaine money is not the only reason cartels invest in the sport. Like many South American countries, Colombia has a rabid obsession with soccer. Owning the soccer clubs gives the cartels power, status, and the ability to influence the public opinion. These powers have become especially important in their war against the Colombian and other international governments.

Above: Antony de Avila

Various theories involving the cocaine cartels arose almost immediately after Escobar’s death. Some believed that the team had been bribed to lose; this was compounded by the Asprilla’s suggestion that Medellin’s drug cartels had “persuaded” several Colombian players to throw the matches. Other believed that Escobar had been murdered by vengeful gamblers who had lost a fortune on the match

Arrest and Trial

Despite the rumors, the man charged with the murder, Humberto Munoz Castro, denied that the killing was related to soccer. He claims that he shot Escobar to defend his employer, Santiago Gallon Henao. Castro claimed that not only did he not watch the World Cup match against the U.S., he did not even know what an “own goal” was.[22] Several days after the murder, Castro and Henao were arrested. Only Castro was charged with Escobar’s murder. During the trial Castro’s explanation for shooting Escobar changed repeatedly. Originally, he claimed that he “didn’t know” that it was Escobar. He repeatedly stated that he was drunk when he confronted Escobar, and that the murder was not premeditated. Later in the same trial, Castro stated that he had been ordered by Henao to shoot Escobar. Castro was found guilty and sentenced to 43 years in prison.* The Colombian jury had decided that Escobar was just another victim of spontaneous violence, like the 40 other Colombian citizens who died in Medellin that night.[23]


Andres Escobar’s murder remains shrouded in mystery even 15 years later. The Colombian cocaine cartels’ power penetrates deeply into the nation’s soccer leagues, lending credence to the theory that Escobar was a victim of a vengeful cartel. Regardless of the the involvement of a cartel, it is obvious that Escobar’s murder is not an isolated incident. Colombian soccer has a long history of violence and death. Escobar’s death finally brought the worldwide recognition and outrage that was long overdue.

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Works Cited

[1] “Colombia.” Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. Encyclopædia Britannica, 2009. Web. 11 Dec. 2009 <>.

[2] “Football.” Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. Encyclopædia Britannica, 2009. Web. 11 Dec. 2009 <>.

[3] Ridley, Ian and Rupert Metcalf. “World Cup 1994 Team Analysis.” The Independent 12 June 1994. Lexis-Nexis Academic. 8 Oct. 2009.

[4] Brooke, James. “World Cup ’94: Colombia’s 2 Defeats Stretch Belief.” The New York Times 24 June 1994, Friday Late Edition. Lexis-Nexis Academic. 8 Oct. 2009.

[5] Walker, Michael. “Football: The own-goal that cost a life.” The Guardian 7 April 1998. Lexis-Nexis Academic. 8 Oct. 2009.

[6] Howard, Johnette. “An American Dream Come True: Underdog U.S. Soccer Team Exults in 2-1 Upset of Colombia.” The Washington Post 23 June 1994, Thursday Final Edition. Lexis-Nexis Academic. 8 Oct. 2009.

[7] Collett, Mike. “Glory, glory for US golden men of soccer.” The New York Times 24 June 1994, Friday Edition. Lexis-Nexis Academic. 8 Oct. 2009.

[8] Howard, Johnette. “An American Dream Come True.”

[9] Brooke, James. “Defeats Stretch Belief.”

[10] Engel, Matthew. “Soccer: A Defeat that Stunk Out the Field.” The Guardian 24 June 1994. Lexis-Nexis Academic. 8 Oct. 2009.

[11] Brooke, James. “Defeats Stretch Belief.”

[12] Collett, Mike. “Glory, glory for US.”

[13] “Soccer Player Gunned Down.” St. Petersburg Times 3 July 1994, Sunday City Edition. Lexis-Nexis Academic. 8 Oct. 2009.

[14] Chua-Eoan, Howard and Tom Quinn. “The Case of the Fatal Goal.” Time Magazine 11 July 1994. Lexis-Nexis Academic. 8 Oct. 2009

[15] “Soccer Player Gunned Down.”

[16] Smith, David. “Colombia: A World Cup Nation in the Grip of the Drugs Lords.” The Independent 25 April 1998. Lexis-Nexis Academic. 8 Oct. 2009.

[17] Smith, David. “Colombia: A World Cup Nation in the Grip of the Drugs Lords.”

[18] Davison, Phil. “The Road to Italy: In the Shadow of the Drug Barons.” The Independent 20 May 1990. Lexis-Nexis Academic. 8 Oct. 2009.

[19] Davison, Phil. “The Road to Italy: In the Shadow of the Drug Barons.”

[20] Smith, David. “Colombia: A World Cup Nation in the Grip of the Drugs Lords.”

[21] Davison, Phil. “The Road to Italy: In the Shadow of the Drug Barons.”

[22] Barclay, Patrick. “Escobar: Wrong Man in the Wrong Place.” The Gazette (Montreal) 17 Feb. 1998, Final Edition. Lexis-Nexis Academic. 8 Oct. 2009.

* In a controversial yet little publicized decision, Munoz was released from prison in 2006 for good behavior, just eleven years after the murder. Because the judge’s name was never released, finding information about Munoz’s release is especially difficult.

[23] Walker, Michael. “Own-goal that cost a life.”

Photo Credits
Colombian Flag Illustration – Photoillustration by Will Flaherty

4 thoughts on “Colombia

  1. Leo

    Fake. You said “the notorious drug kingpin Pablo Escobar (no relation to Andres Escobar) was buried with an Atletico Nacional flag”. Atletico Nacional colors are green and white. In this video

    We can see clearly the colors red and blue, colors of Deportivo Independiente Medellin. You’re not credible.

  2. Pingback: Soccer Politics / The Politics of Football » The Two Escobars

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