Colombia Advances In World Cup, Two Decades After Infamous Murder

Jun 29, 2014
Originally published on June 29, 2014 5:27 pm

The Colombian national team has reached the World Cup quarterfinals for the first time ever. It comes on the anniversary of the infamous murder of star Colombian player Andres Escobar, just weeks after he scored an own goal in the Cup. NPR's Arun Rath speaks with John Rojas, a Colombian-American journalist whose new Spanish-language book Futbol de negro is a fictionalized account of those weeks.

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ARUN RATH, HOST:

If you're just joining us it's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR West. I'm Arun Rath. The World Cup continues to thrill. The Netherlands advanced earlier today after scoring a penalty shot on Mexico in stoppage time. But maybe the story of the World Cup so far is that of Columbia. They beat Uruguay yesterday earning a place in the quarterfinals for the first time ever. The victory comes on an inauspicious anniversary for the Colombian team. In 1994 their appearance at the World Cup was marred when start offender Andres Escobar accidentally deflected to the ball into his own team's goal. Back in Columbia, just two weeks later, he was murdered.

JOHN ROJAS: Cartel drugs and money were everywhere. Not just in sports and soccer of course in particular being the biggest sport in the country. But in every single activity of the country.

RATH: John Rojas was living in Bogota at the time. He vividly remembers watching the World Cup that summer. Columbia unexpectedly loses their first game to Romania. They're desperate for a win against the USA then 33 minutes into the game the unthinkable happens.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPORTS REPORT)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Sends it inside of his own goal. Escobar on the own goal and the United States beats Columbia one to nothing.

ROJAS: It's just a regular mistake that any player can have in the middle of the competition. It's just a ball crossed by John Harkes and Andres is trying to block the cross to get in the middle of the defense. And at the same time he's taking his goal keeper out of the line of the ball. And the ball ended up being a goal.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPORTS REPORT)

MAN: A tremendous drive by Harkes and a dreadful mistake by Escobar.

ROJAS: We are out - we are eliminated and then of course the reaction of the well what could happen with Andres after the match and after the tournament. And of course days after when that happened when he ended up being killed. When this happened people get out and get together to cry. You see people crying, people thinking, reading the newspaper or hanging on the radio receivers just most of all thinking - who's next? There's nothing else that this people, the cartel people, the drug people, can't touch. They could kill anybody for any price or any simple mistake even.

RATH: You know, a lot of people assumed at the time that the cartels had put out a hit on Andres Escobar. Did you have a sense if that was true? What was the feeling in the country at the time?

ROJAS: There were different theories at the time. One was that, that people related with the cartels - people that were betting on the scores had something to do with the death of Andres. The second one that ended up being the official theory of this is that he was just with some friends, enjoying himself, and two people were bullying him because of the own goal and because of the national team elimination. He tried to stop them and at the end of the night he once again tried to stop that bully that he was being and one of the guys used to call the gun and shoot him. At the end of the investigation it ended up that these two people were related with one of the drug cartels.

RATH: Is the fact that the team is back in the cup now playing well - they won yesterday - prompting any reflection back on that time 20 years ago?

ROJAS: As the Colombians we are proud of growing up as an economy that's been respected, as a country that is not just known right now for the drugs. And now this national team is showing true that soccer is growing too. We have a lot of young players and one of the biggest leagues in the world. That is something that is being achieved with work and it reflects develop for the country.

RATH: That's John Rojas. He's a producer and host at NY1 Noticias in New York City. And I'm sure he'll be rooting for Columbia when they take on Brazil on Friday. John, thank you.

ROJAS: No thank you, Arun. Thanks a lot for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.