Football: Colombians living with the past

For Hernan Dario Gomez and his squad, failure in France will bring a sinister reminder of USA 94. By Adam Szreter
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The Independent Online
"WHEN HERNAN Dario Gomez said the match against England was a matter of life and death, he was speaking strictly in a footballing sense," stressed a Colombian journalist at the team's training camp in La Tour- du-Pin, a picturesque village in the Isere valley to the east of Lyons.

Given the events of 1994, when Andres Escobar was shot dead in Medellin less than a week after scoring the own goal that effectively ended Colombia's interest in the last World Cup, you might have thought their present coach would have chosen his words more carefully. It was a crime that shocked everyone, and one that the Colombians have been slowly recovering from ever since.

"It was not, as everyone said, a direct consequence of his own goal," another colleague from Bogota explained. "He was not shot as a punishment. He was just in the wrong place at the wrong time, and said the wrong thing to the wrong person who was hurling insults at him. Just prior to that, his parents had asked him to stay in the United States with them for a few days, but Escobar apparently told them that he wanted to go home to face the Colombian people."

Gomez, assistant coach at USA 94, took on the responsibility of leading his nation out of the doldrums when Francisco Maturana stepped down following that fateful campaign. But, like his predecessor, Gomez has already taken the precaution of announcing that he intends to resign when this tournament is over. Under Gomez, Colombia bounced back well to reach the quarter- finals of the Copa America in 1995 and 1997, and came through the tough South American World Cup qualifying group in third place, just two points behind the eventual winners, Argentina.

They are still heavily dependent upon the 37-year-old Carlos Valderrama, without whose outrageous hair no World Cup would seem complete. He may not move quite as quickly and his passing may not be quite as precise as it once was, but England would be ill-advised to take him lightly. In the 1-0 win over Tunisia he was outstanding.

Also appearing in his third World Cup is Valderrama's midfield ally Fredy Rincon, now plying his trade with Corinthians in Brazil following unhappy spells with Napoli and Real Madrid. But another name synonymous with Colombian football in recent years h as not made it this time - Rene Higuita, the man who put the smile back on the face of Colombian football with his famous scorpion-kick at Wembley From the next generation comes 21-year- old Leider Preciado, who scored the winner against Tunisia and who was virtually unknown outside the Colombian Second Division before the tournament. Now, though, he has been chosen to fill the boots of Faustino Asprilla since the former Newcastle man was sent packing by Gomez following a night on the town in Paris.

The general consensus in the Colombian camp seems to be that the coach did the right thing in sending Asprilla home for talking out of turn and, although his skills will be sorely missed, his suspect temperament will be one less worry for Gomez.

Coming into the World Cup, the Colombians were confident of making progress. They were determined to make amends for their defeat by Romania in the United States, but that was not to be as they lost on Valderrama's old stamping ground at Montpellier to Adrian Ilie's goal in their first Group G match.

They improved against Tunisia but were fortunate to take all three points after a spirited display by Henryk Kasperczak's side. Now they know only a win against England in Lens tomorrow will be good enough to go through, but there should be little danger of the Colombians getting anything out of perspective this time.