Football: Electric maverick who went too far

Colombia's Asprilla has potentially made the most serious mistake of his chequered career
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The Independent Online
FOR ALL the colourful exuberance that the Colombians bring to any football gathering, a dark and menacing shadow is never far away. In that sense Faustino Asprilla is a model representative for his South American country, and no one familiar with a temperament that is seemingly always on the point of explosion will be surprised at events which have led to his expulsion from the World Cup stage.

It could well be that his dismissal from the Colombian squad after expressing dismay at the decision of Hernan Dario Gomez to substitute him in the opening game against Romania works to England's advantage in their attempt to finish as winners of the group.

Yet with Asprilla's departure from France towards a future unknown - and, because it is Colombia, an immediate future that has worrying possible repercussions - goes some of the electricity that helps make this four- yearly event the brightest sporting spectacle of them all.

Asprilla will provoke argument wherever the game is up for discussion because he is capable of much more than most players can achieve. It would not be possible to display those skills if they were not protected by a swaggering confidence. With the former Newcastle striker, that arrogance manifests itself in many ways.

On Tuesday it was revealed in his inclination to voice his frustrations and to accuse the coach of favouritism without a moment's thought to the possible consequences of his outburst into a radio microphone. It was to his and the competition's disadvantage that Gomez was not prepared to grant those grievances a fair hearing.

"If you don't obey the rules, you're out," the coach said. "We can't have that type of criticism. It's upset me that this has happened." It is important when considering the consequences of both Asprilla's attack and the decision to send him packing, that full recognition is given to a Colombian football history which carries a tragic reminder of the high stakes that are involved every time the national side takes to the field.

In 1994, when Andres Escobar's own goal against the United States ensured an early departure from a World Cup that was supposed to promote their emergence as a serious footballing force, the revenge perpetrated by those who had wagered huge sums on a Colombian triumph was to have the defender executed outside a nightclub.

Those same evil elements were lurking around Asprilla when, on a visit home from Italy, he was arrested for waving a shotgun in a bar in his home town. They surfaced again in the build-up to France when death threats were made against Gomez after his squad selection.

It is his irresistible attraction for controversy which made Asprilla such a perverse acquisition for Kevin Keegan at Newcastle at a time when they appeared uncatchable in the Premiership. A new, temperamental and, crucially, non-English speaking, addition was always likely to threaten that ascendancy, no matter that the player arrived from Parma with a pounds 7.5m valuation.

When the Newcastle dream began to die and Keegan departed, it seemed unlikely that Asprilla and Kenny Dalglish could find common ground to suit the interests of team and player. A stunning hat-trick against Barcelona in their opening Champions' League fixture ensured him a place in Geordie hearts forever but Dalglish could not tolerate his characteristically laconic approach and an offer from Parma to take him back was impossible to refuse.

It was another reminder to Asprilla that teams can get along without him; that for all his undoubted brilliance another player can come in to take his place and the team might be healthier as a result.

Nobody can now take his place in this World Cup, but Carlos Valderrama will not be alone in the Colombian camp in stressing that his departure will only strengthen team morale.