Remembering Colombian footballer Andrés Escobar

Fifteen years after Colombian football player Andrés Escobar was killed, his assassin is free while the family pleads for justice.

3 de julio de 2009

Andres Escobar Saldarriaga once told Colombian journalist Gonzalo Medina why he enjoyed playing football. According to the national team’s defender, “this sport illustrates the close relationship between life and the game. In football, unlike bullfighting, there is no death. In football no one dies; no one gets killed. It’s more about the fun of it, about enjoying.”
That same answer was given to Felipe, the player’s nephew, when his uncle committed the only own goal of his career while playing with the national team in the 1994 World Cup in the United States.

Worried by the violent environment in their native Medellín—the country’s second most important city located in the northeastern province of Antioquia— the child presaged the tragedy that would follow while sitting in the Rose Bowl stadium in Pasadena. He told his mom: “They are going to kill Andres.”
Only a few days later— on July 2, 1994— a bodyguard called Humberto Muñoz Castro, who worked for the brothers Juan Santiago and Pedro David Gallón, would prove Felipe right. With his 38 caliber gun, this man shot Andrés six times in a parking lot of a bar in Medellín. The player had gathered there with some friends to grab a drink after his return from the States. He had come back to Colombia to “face the country”, canceling a family trip that would take him and his family across the United States, from coast to coast.
In the bar, he faced a group of people that constantly reminded him of his mistake and insulted him. He only asked for respect. The discussion heated up until the bodyguard used his weapon fatally.

The news of his death, which occurred while the World Cup was being played, shocked the country and the world. It also reaffirmed the global vision of Colombia as a country blinded by violence. The negative image of the country was worsened by various hypotheses that linked football mafias, hitmen of the shantytowns of Medellín, and drug dealers to the crime. What started as a terrible football tragedy turned into the failure of Colombia as a nation. As Enrique Santos Calderón, an influential Colombian journalist said in his column in El Tiempo newspaper, “for the first time in my life I was ashamed of being Colombian.”

Alexis Garcia, who had to identify the corpse said“it was one of the most painful moments of my life. It was terrible to look at the man who had been so vital, so strong, so important turned into something lifeless”. Luis Fernando ‘Chonto’ Herrera, also part of the Colombian national football team, added: “A country can’t do this to its idols.”

When the paths of Andrés Escobar and Humberto Muñoz crossed, the football star was going through important times. He was about to marry Pamela Cascardo, his girlfriend for the past five years. He had just recovered from a delicate knee injury; the team’s coach, Francisco Maturana, had selected him as the most possible next team captain when Carlos ‘Pibe’ Valderrama resigned, and he was only one signature away from replacing Italian football player Franco Baresi at AC Milan. By that time he had already been part of two important feats in Colombian football: his local team Atletico Nacional had won Copa Libertadores—the first time a Colombian team won the regional tournament— and had also helped Colombia reach the World Cup in 1990 after almost thirty years of absence.
For all these reasons, his death was even more painful and incomprehensible. Also, according to people close to him, Andrés had no enemies. Colombian writer Ricardo Silva Romero, who has just published Autogol (Own goal)— a novel based on the player’s tragedy—, describes Andrés as a tragic character. “He was the only person who shouldn’t have gone through that. He was a good boyfriend, a good son, a good colleague and a good uncle.” Thanks to his responsibility and dedication with the national team, he became known as the exception to the rule; many of the other players were less disciplined.

Andrés was a gentleman in football and a generous man in his everyday life. Alexis and Pamela told SEMANA that they used to drive through the streets of Medellin with Andrés giving Christmas presents to poor children. They also remember that despite his seriousness, he was capable of laughing for hours at a time. His brother Santiago still smiles recalling the day when he fell off a horse and Andrés laughed so hard he peed his pants. “He was a man that conveyed happiness. That was only due to one reason: Andrés treated everybody like his equal.”
Santiago treasures such happy times, but also admits his family is still tormented by the six gunshots that reached Andrés. Today, ‘Sachi’ as he is popularly known, regrets his brother is not present to share his experiences as a coach and as a father of two small children. Pamela, his old girlfriend, still keeps his medals and team shirts; she also the family dentist. Dario, father and Andres’ idol, died last year at age 77 with a grieving heart. “He never understood why his son was murdered. He didn’t speak of him, it was too hard” recalls Santiago. “He died with a bad taste of mouth, knowing that in Andres’ case there was no justice; too many questions remained.” The most burning question has to do with Muñoz Castro, who was supposed to serve 43 years of prison and is free since 2005 due to good conduct. He only completed a quarter of his time in jail. The Gallón brothers only spent a few days behind bars, after paying a fine.

The sad thing is that the death of this beloved football star didn’t contribute to greater tolerance and respect in Colombia. “As a country, we are not able to learn from our losses” explains Gonzalo Medina, author of the related book La sonrisa que partió de madrugada (The smile that left at dawn). Silva Romero, who recalls there is already a full generation who didn’t get to know Andrés, has similar thoughts. “The day we truly remember him, the day we are really shaken with what happened, we will have something that resembles a nation.”
This is why the words of Alexis Garcia after the death of his close friend are still meaningful: “Tell me Andrés, ¿how is football in heaven? ¿Is it true that all is joy? ¿ Is it true that in heaven you can make mistakes?”
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