The FIFA World Cup is the biggest event in sports. That’s just a fact. Despite not being the most popular sport in the United States, soccer is the biggest game in the world and every four years, the world watches as 32 teams battle it out over the course of a month for the right to be called the best in the world. In 1994, however, only 24 teams competed, the last time that would happen before the expansion in 1998, and Andres Escobar and his home country of Colombia were one of those lucky 24.
The U.S. hosted the World Cup for the first time in ’94, kicking off the festivities on June 17, 1994, the same day of the famed O.J. Simpson white Bronco chase. Andres Escobar and his Colombian teammates began play the next day, part of Group A with the U.S., Switzerland, and Romania. Expectations were high as the Colombians had lost just one time in 26 matches leading into the World Cup and had given up just two goals in qualifying.
Colombia’s first match came against Romania on June 18, 1994, at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena. But the team looked sluggish and were completely outplayed, losing 3-1. That meant their June 22 matchup with the United States was essentially a must-win match, a match that would prove to be tragic for Andres Escobar.
Andres Escobar scored an own goal against the U.S. in Colombia’s second game of the ’94 World Cup
The United States had tied its first match of the 1994 World Cup, battling Switzerland to a 1-1 draw. Back then, the top two teams from each of the six groups advanced to the knockout stage, as did the top four third-place finishers. So this was a must-win for Andres Escobar and Colombia, who were already in last following the first day of Group A play.
Escobar had been a defender essentially his entire career. It wasn’t his job to score goals. It was his job to keep the other team from doing so. But on June 22, 1994, he scored the wrong kind of goal: the dreaded own goal.
In the 34th minute of the opening half, with the score tied 0-0, U.S. midfielder John Harkes attempted a left-wing cross in the box but there was Andre Escobar to deflect. The problem was that he deflected the ball into his own goal, giving the U.S. a 1-0 lead. The U.S. went on to win the match, 2-1.
Colombia was able to win their third match of the World Cup, a 2-0 victory over Switzerland, but with Romania beating the U.S., the Colombians were eliminated.
Andres Escobar issued what turned out to be a chilling statement
Following Colombia’s elimination from the World Cup, Andres Escobar returned to his home country, determined to move on with his life despite pleas from his loved ones to lay low as fans were still very upset. Upon his return, he wrote a statement that appeared in El Tiempo, a newspaper in Bogota, a statement that only a few days later would become one of the most chilling things ever written. (h/t to The Guardian)
“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 paralyze 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.”Andres Escobar
“The Gentleman of the Field” was murdered on July 2, 1994
On the night of July 1, 1994, Andres Escobar, known by fans as “The Gentleman of the Field” due to his extremely calm demeanor and clean play on the pitch, went out with friends. They hit up a few bars in Escobar’s hometown of Medellin but parted ways late in the night. At approximately 3:00 a.m. on the morning of July 2, Escobar was alone in a parking lot when he was approached by a group of men who argued with him about the unfortunate own goal. A scuffle ensued and Escobar was shot six times and left for dead.
Later that night, Humberto Castro Munoz, a bodyguard for certain members of a powerful drug cartel and also a driver for brothers Pedro David and Juan Santiago Gallon Henao, who were highly connected and present at the murder scene, confessed to the murder and was later sentenced to 43 years in prison. The sentence was then reduced to 26 years and he was released after serving just 11 years behind bars. Many still believe that the Gallon Henao brothers ordered Munoz to kill Escobar but there wasn’t enough evidence to convict.
More than 120,000 people attended Andres Escobar’s public funeral and a statue of him was unveiled in Medellin in 2002.