Colombians hope memory of slain Escobar inspires players at Brazil World Cup

Defender was murdered 20 years ago after scoring own goal at 1994 World Cup

Colombia players James Rodriguez, right, and Camilo Zuniga speak during a training session in Cotia, Brazil, on July 1, 2014. Marcos Mendez / EPA
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Colombian fans are paying tribute to defender Andres Escobar, who was shot and killed 20 years ago after scoring an own goal in the World Cup, and hope his memory will inspire the hunt for glory for the current crop of players.

In one of the darkest chapters of football history, Escobar was shot outside a bar in Medellin on July 2, 1994, in apparent retribution for an own goal he scored days earlier, which hastened Colombia's exit from the World Cup in the United States.

Some Colombian fans in Brazil have been carrying Escobar’s photo to games as they have watched their team march into the quarter-finals with four wins out of four.

Escobar’s brother, Santiago, has urged them to keep going in his honour.

“We dedicate this triumph to Andres Escobar,” one fan said on Twitter after Colombia’s victory over Uruguay set up Friday’s quarter-final against hosts Brazil.

“Andres Escobar is living through this team,” said another in a flurry of social media discussions of Escobar’s legacy on the eve of the anniversary of his death on Wednesday.

While Escobar's death was synonymous with a 1990s Colombia wracked by violence and drug cartels, fans say the star of the 2014 team – baby-faced midfielder James Rodriguez – coincides with the image of the nation's rebirth since then.

Though yet to end Latin America’s longest-running guerrilla war or tame the cocaine trade, Colombia has made huge strides in security and has also developed an increasingly prosperous economy, drawing tourists and foreign investors alike.

Escobar was sitting in his car outside a nightclub when six shots were fired into the tall 27-year-old international, who was known as “El Caballero del Futbol” or “The Gentleman of Football”.

Some reports said the gunman shouted “Goooaal!” as he fired.

Escobar died en route to hospital, and tens of thousands, including Colombia’s president, attended his funeral.

He had been part of a talented squad containing the likes of Carlos Valderrama, Rene Higuita and Faustino Asprilla.

After a shock 3-1 opening defeat by Romania at the 1994 Wolrd Cup finals, their confidence drained, especially amid reports from home about disquiet among betting cartels and death threats to the team.

Then came the fateful game against the United States on June 22, when Escobar stretched out a leg to cut out a cross but only steered the ball into his own net for the first goal in a 2-1 defeat.

Colombia won their third game, but it was not enough and they went home to an angry public.

Escobar sought in vain to cheer up the nation with the retrospectively haunting words: “Life doesn’t stop here.”

His killing was widely assumed to be revenge from betting mafias who had lost heavily on Colombia’s poor showing.

For Colombian fans, it is a keen and emotional memory. Even those who were not old enough to witness the 1994 campaign would have often seen the own-goal footage as Colombian football has raked over the memory and the lessons to be learnt.

Twenty years on, though, they have plenty of reasons to cheer with Colombia in the World Cup quarter-finals for the first time despite the absence of injured star Radamel Falcao.

In his place, others have stepped up, most notably the phenomenal Rodriguez, who is top of the goalscoring chart on five, ahead of Lionel Messi, Neymar and Thomas Muller.

“In James and [Jackson] Martinez, Colombia have a deadly, unpredictable attack force. What better memorial for Andres Escobar?” another fan wrote.

Ahead of the showdown with Brazil and on Wednesday’s anniversary of Escobar’s death, one youth sports organisation called Streetfootballworld hosted a memorial in Rio de Janeiro.

A Brazilian band played the song Hasta Siempre (Until Forever), which was created by Colombian football fans to honour Escobar.

“That was a very sad time in football and a very sad time in Colombia’s history. Escobar didn’t deserve that. He made a mistake,” said Gerardo Esguerra, 48, an accountant, who was shopping with his family in Bogota on Monday.

“Colombia will beat Brazil and keep going in the cup. That would show those who killed Escobar. It would be the best thing for Escobar and his family. Colombia will win for him.”

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