This is a story that must be told at the end. A painful ending, which we all wish we had avoided. Andrés Escobar Saldarriaga, who had the personality and the courage to return to the country and put his face after the failure of the Colombia National Team in the 1994 World Cup in the United States, ended up assassinated on July 2, 1994. Weeks before, he had written a column in EL TIEMPO, which closed with the following phrase: “Life does not end here.”
Death ended up finishing a brilliant career, which was very likely to overcome that own goal scored in the game against the United States, which meant the elimination of the World Cup. Emissaries from Milan, from Italy, were already looking to take him away. He was barely 27 years old. And his career had been brilliant.
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At his school, the Calasanz, in Medellín, Andrés was beginning to excel in soccer. His brother, Santiago, was already a professional player in National Athletic. Finally, the sport seemed to win the study race and Andrés did not finish his baccalaureate at that institution, because of his poor grades. He did it at Conrado González, almost by commitment. What I wanted to be was a footballer. And he did it very well: he played as a creative flyer.
Carlos ‘Pisces’ Restrepo, who directed the Antioquia National Team, saw him play and gave him advice. He suggested that he play as a central defender, to take better advantage of its characteristics: good height, good aerial game and security to go out playing from the bottom. Before turning 18, after a short campaign in his department’s team, he was bought by Nacional.
Aníbal ‘Maño’ Ruiz brought him closer to the professional team and gave him the opportunity to play his first game, a friendly against Selection from Uruguay, in which Andrés acted as left back. But it was in 1987, already with Francisco Maturana in command, when he played his first official game, against Cúcuta Deportivo. It would be missing something more for it to consolidate. And that is called destiny.
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Nacional’s starting left-handed center back was Nolberto Molina, a defender who made up for his short stature with an extraordinary sense of location and an enormous ability to jump. Maturana’s assistant was Hugo Gallego, who had been Molina’s partner in the DIM. One day, the two argued in training, Maturana sided with Gallego and Molina left the team. Escobar assumed responsibility, at just 20 years old.
The following year, and against all the voices criticizing him for his youth and his lack of experience, Escobar was already the head of the Colombia National Team. And so he appeared, among the 11 starters, on May 24, 1988, to face England at Wembley. There he scored the most important goal of his career.
Andrés Escobar’s goal at Wembley
“I went to get the header because I was confident and because we were at a disadvantage. It wasn’t fair because of what we had done ”, he told journalist Fabio Poveda Márquez in 1990. And that header, after a corner kick charge from Alexis García, not only meant a tie: it was the international baptism of a team that a year earlier, still without Andrés, had dazzled in the America’s Cup in Argentina.
1989 was an unforgettable year for Escobar. He won the Copa Libertadores and was also part of the team that returned to a World Cup after 28 years. In Italy 1990, he was the ideal team from the first phase. Parma made him an offer, but he had already made the leap to Europe, to Young Boys, from Switzerland, where he could not adapt. He returned to his beloved Nacional to become the League champion in 1991.
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A knee injury took him out of the 1993 Copa América and the qualifying tie for the United States 1994. For that reason he was not in the famous 5-0 against Argentina. But as soon as he was able to play again, he again claimed his position.
A smile, a word of encouragement was never lacking, neither for his teammates nor for his fans. Escobar never had a gross error on a court. He was a leader. He was a very solid center back. That is why his death hurt so much. It took many years to find a central of his level and with his leadership.
Andrés Escobar Saldarriaga
Born: March 13, 1967
Teams: Nacional (1987-94) and Young Boys (1990).
Matches played in Colombia: 220
Taken from the book ‘Play, boys!’ by José Orlando Ascencio (Intermedio Editores, 2018)
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