The Scorpion's giant leap for manic kind
Sport on TV
Sunday 10 September 1995
It was the start of England's international football season, an occasion of almost complete insignificance. Croatia had pulled out, pleading a slightly more pressing fixture at home, and in stepped Colombia. The night could so easily have degenerated into a basic hair story. For one thing, there was the matter of Gazza's rug: he'd promised to ditch the blond, light-bulb look and one feared the worst - some sort of rapper's crop with the image of a pint of lager razored into it, or maybe an unwittingly offensive tartan dye-job. In fact he went for a back-to-basics black rinse, so recently applied that, when the rain came, one was slightly surprised not to see it running in rivulets down his neck.
The Colombian players, too, are big believers in hair. During the pre- match warm-up, Barry Davies, our commentator for the evening, pointed out Valderrama, "a man who hasn't changed his hairstyle in 10 years of international football". Later, when Davies said "Valderrama - beautifully curled", it took a moment to realise he was referring to a pass. Davies somewhat presciently also recommended that we keep an eye on Higuita, "the eccentric goalkeeper", a portly figure with a shoulder-length cascade of glossy black ringlets who looks like King Charles sponsored by Umbro.
And with that, the game was under way. It was a credit to Terry Venables' young but fast-maturing side that they managed to adapt swiftly to Colombia's possessive style and also to remain undistracted by the overriding impression that they were playing against Aerosmith. Everything seemed to be shaping up well when, half an hour in, Higuita hit the launch button and made the rest of the game a formality.
On reflection, these were perhaps not the ideal conditions in which to attempt unassisted flight. There was soft but consistent rain and an early- September chill in the breeze. But as the ball floated goalwards, Higuita watched it all the way, before springing forwards, flipping up his legs and pinging it back off his heels. The expressions on his face were a joy to behold: not simply the enormous delighted grin he wore as he landed, but also, seconds later, a completely unperturbed look, as if the incident had never happened - a sign, if not of madness, then certainly of the possibility for richly interesting mood swings.
Barry Davies couldn't believe his eyes. "Unreal!" he said, from somewhere inside an astonished laugh. "A character in every sense," he added. "It's amazing they managed to keep him in jail for four months." This was a reference to Higgy's recent arrest on a kidnapping charge. (Simply in terms of criminal records, the Colombians made the home side look flat- footed and flairless. The best England could field was Tony Adams - drink- driving - and Dennis Wise - altercation with cabby and cab, case dismissed.)
"Goalkeepers are crazy," Des Lynam said afterwards, "but this one . . ." And words failed him. "All goalkeepers are crazy," Jimmy Hill told Des just a couple of minutes later. "But this one . . ." And then words failed him, too. With the benefit of time, we can more clearly articulate the significance of that giant leap. Higuita will go down as the first man in history to make table football appear to have any relation whatsoever to the real thing.
"Obviously," Terry Venables told Ray Stubbs in the tunnel afterwards, "the only thing we was short of was goals." Obviously, any sentence beginning with the word "obviously" is about to say something obvious. Tel went on: "We're on target for where we are, I think." This too was hard to dispute. But not until David Seaman can pull off a Scorpion can England be expected to be taken seriously as an international footballing force in the fullest sense.
Before the match, Frank Bruno, the new heavyweight champion of the world (or one of them, at any rate) dropped in to the Sportsnight studio to chat to Des about his victory over Oliver McCall. Frank, in a magnificent blue suit, admitted that it had been tough but reckoned he had survived by refusing to get wound up by his opponent's tactics - not least of all what Frank called "the verbal things he was saying". "I had to duck and dive, bob and weave, grab, y'norrowamean? Waltz him, show him me Ginger Rogers steps and everything, y'norrowamean?" Des asked Frank to show the championship belt to the camera. "Cheers, nice one, Des," said Frank. "You've got it upside down, by the way," said Des.
Frank then thanked as many people as he could think of, including his wife and family, God, all of his fans and the man from Sportsnight who had sent him the fax asking him to come on the show. "Very nice," said Frank. Shortly after this, Frank thanked his manager for getting the fight shown on Sky. This possibly wasn't an entirely tactful thing to say while sitting inside the BBC sports department, but nobody seemed to mind. No one says verbal things quite like Frank.
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