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Colombia's own-goal star shot dead

ANDRES ESCOBAR, the Colombian defender whose own goal against the United States helped eliminate his nation from the World Cup, was shot dead early yesterday in his home town, the cocaine cartel city of Medellin.

Escobar, 27, thought to be no relation to Pablo Escobar, the cartel boss killed by troops last December, was shot 12 times by three men who fled in off-road vehicles of the type favoured by drugs and gambling mafiosi. 'Thanks for the own goal,' said one, according to witnesses.

The killing heightened speculation that gangsters from either the United States or Colombia had tried to 'fix' the US-Colombia match, which the US team won 2-1 in a major upset. The Colombian coach, Francisco Maturana, and several players were said to have received death threats before the game. Midfielder Gabriel Gomez refused to play.

There was talk of big money, both American and Colombian, riding on a US win at long odds. Some said US mafiosi with a financial interest in the host side's success may have bribed or threatened the Colombian team. But Medellin police said a lot of Colombian money, including cocaine funds, was riding on a Colombian win.

Medellin police said the men had argued with Escobar, who played for the local First Division side Nacional Medellin, over the fateful own goal as he left a restaurant with a woman friend at 3.30am yesterday.

In the match against the US in Pasadena on 23 June, Escobar stretched to cut out a cross from the left but instead stabbed the ball past his own goalkeeper for the opening goal. In a normal game, it would have looked like bad luck. In the context of Colombia, where betting on football is like horse-race betting in Britain, there was just a suggestion that he should have been able to steer the ball wide for a corner. For the rest of the game the Colombians continued to play below form.

Carlos 'the Kid' Valderrama, their peroxide- dreadlocked midfield star, could not hit a straight pass.

As for the normally-dazzling leftwinger, Faustino Asprilla, 'he didn't even try' in the words of the man who marked him, US right-back Fernando Clavijo.

The US team, who were rank outsiders, went on to qualify for the last 16 of the tournament while Colombia, who had been tipped by the great Brazilian star Pele to win the tournament, had to pack their bags in disgrace. Already out of the tournament, they showed their true form in beating Switzerland 2-0 in their final group match.

Colombia had joined the ranks of the favourites to win the World Cup after dominating their South American qualifying group with electrifying performances. The high point was reached with a 5-0 humiliation of Argentina in Buenos Aires. Dozens were killed in the boisterous celebrations that followed in Colombia.

Escobar is not the first football victim of Colombian violence. Another leading player and at least one top referee have been shot dead in Medellin by cocaine-financed gambling mafias who bet millions of dollars on matches.

After the US match, the disappointing star Asprilla told reporters: 'It's not the end of the world.' It was for Escobar.

(Photograph omitted)