Medellin mourns its murdered sports star

HUNDREDS of thousands of stunned soccer fans filed past the body of the murdered Colombian star, Andres Escobar, in a basketball stadium yesterday before he was buried in his hometown of Medellin.

Escobar, 27, was shot dead in the city on Saturday after three men and a woman accosted him over the own goal he scored in Colombia's 2-1 World Cup defeat by the United States ten days ago. The goal, and Colombia's shock defeat, helped end the hopes of a team tipped by former Brazilian star Pele to win the tournament.

Medellin authorities claimed the killing was 'unpremeditated, a spur of the moment thing, a personal grudge'. In Medellin, where football is often literally a matter of life or death, and teenage hit- men will kill for as little as pounds 20 to resolve matrimonial or other disputes, that was entirely possible. But it conflicted with initial police reports that a vehicle in which the killers fled had been stolen the previous night.

The police statements, against the backdrop of death threats against the Colombian team, reports of huge bets on the US match and rival cocaine cartels' involvement in Colombian football, raised speculation that drugs or gambling mafiosi had murdered Escobar.

The player was no relation to Pablo Escobar, multi-billionaire boss of the Medellin cocaine cartel who was shot dead by troops last December after bribing his way out of a local jail. But Escobar's cocaine money was long believed to be behind the local First Division side Nacional, for which Andres Escobar played. Pablo Escobar also acted as unofficial agent for many Medellin players. He was thought to have been involved in the 1991 transfer of the star winger, Faustino Asprilla, to the Italian club, Parma.

One theory strong in Medellin yesterday was that inter-cartel rivalry was behind the killing. The Cali cocaine cartel, thought to own a local side via front men, has long been involved in a violent vendetta with its Medellin rivals and the Nacional Medellin team. Many believe the Cali cartel may have killed Andres Escobar because they had bet huge sums on Colombia in the US match.

Others are convinced the Medellin cartel suspected the Colombian team of either 'selling out' to the Cali cartel, to 'throw' the match against the US, or of succumbing to the pressure of death threats made before the match by not trying on the pitch. Coach Francisco Maturana and midfielder Gabriel Jaime Gomez were both threatened and Maturana took the threats seriously enough to leave Gomez out of the team.

There was widespread suspicion that all was not well with the match. Calling for a Fifa inquiry, the Independent's Ken Jones reported at the time that Colombia's players were 'without conviction, devoid of spirit'.

In an article in the Colombian daily, El Tiempo, after the US match, Andres Escobar wrote: 'I can assure you nothing strange happened in our (World Cup) group. We simply hit a low. See you soon, because life doesn't end here.'

(Photograph omitted)