Year of tragedy left behind

Simon O'Hagan assesses Colombia's progress from the shadows of 1994
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The Independent Online
PELE said he thought they would win the World Cup. But no glory attached to Colombia at USA '94. Only shame, suspicion, and ultimately, tragedy when, within days of the team's return home, one of their defenders, Andres Escobar, was shot dead in a Medellin restaurant car park. His crime? Scoring an own goal in the defeat by the United States that knocked his team out of the tournament.

As Colombia prepare to take on England at Wembley on Wednesday, the truth about last year remains a matter of speculation. "It's like a plane crash in which the black box has never been found," said Pablo Umana, a journalist on the Bogota sports magazine Deportegrafico, last week. "It probably never will be."

In the 14 months since Colombian football flew into the side of the mountain, an attempt has been made to put the pieces back together. A new manager came in after the World Cup, and with him new players. The drug lords' grip on the leading clubs has been loosened. A government inquiry into corruption is moving slowly towards its conclusion. And two months ago the Escobar affair was settled to the satisfaction of most Colombians when a chauffeur named Humberto Munoz Castro was convicted and jailed for 43 years.

Escobar's death only fuelled the rumours that had already started to circulate following Colombia's elimination. The team was more interested in drinking than football; they had been bribed to lose, it was said, while thousands of pounds' worth of bets were riding on them to do well. Castro's reported words to Escobar as he shot him - "That's for the goal" - sounded like those of a frustrated punter. But in the trial, Castro claimed he was protecting his boss in an argument that got out of hand. Nothing emerged to implicate organised crime, and the consensus is that if there was a conspiracy, the killing was not a part of it.

After the World Cup the Colombian manager, Francisco Maturana, sent a report to the national federation. But it was purely factual: there were no insights into why a talented team containing potentially three of the competition's best players in Carlos Valderrama, Faustino Asprilla and Freddy Rincon, had succumbed with extraordinary passivity to Romania and the United States before beating Switzerland - a result which only made their earlier defeats look all the more puzzling.

Perhaps there is an innocent explanation. "In our minds we had won the World Cup even before it started," Umana said. "An excess of confidence has always been Colombia's problem." Whatever the reasons, Maturana resigned, to be succeeded by his long-time assistant Hernan Dario Gomez, to whom has fallen the task of salvaging the best of the old Colombia while trying to bring on younger players.

In this he has been only partially successful. It was possibly a good thing that Colombia's first matches after the World Cup were not until the beginning of this year, when Gomez took the team on a four-match tour of the Far East and Australia. Gomez left out the ageing Valderrama, and with the European-based Asprilla and Rincon unavailable he took the opportunity to try out new faces. But only Luis Quinones, a 26-year- old midfielder, has made any real impact.

For the Copa America, in Uruguay in July, it was back to the old guard. There was Valderrama, fresh from leading Junior to the Colombian title, as well as Asprilla - who on Friday was given a one-year suspended jail sentence at home in Colombia for possessing guns - Rincon, and Rene Higuita, the eccentric goalkeeper who missed the '94 World Cup while awaiting trial on kidnapping charges. But third place was no more than satisfactory, and goals remained scarce - in 14 matches this year Colombia have only scored 13 times.

For Gomez, who is bringing the best of the Copa America squad, the challenge has been to instil more urgency. "He prefers the game to be played quicker than Maturana did," Umana said. "More direct, more aggressive. But he likes to see nice touches and players making space." Gomez says he still trusts his strategy in spite of only qualified success. Wednesday's match is another chance to gauge his side's progress - and for Colombian football to move further out of the shadow of its past.

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