This was Colombia’s time to shine.
They were in the midst of a “Golden Generation” and were enjoying unparalleled success in their recent international tournaments. At Italy 1990, they had advanced to the knockout rounds of a World Cup for the first time, and just a year earlier they had finished third at the Copa America.
But football was only part of Colombia’s mission in the United States that summer. After being cast as the corrupt and complicit public face of the cocaine epidemic in the United States, Colombia needed to be known for something else other than being a narco state.
Six months earlier authorities were finally able to eliminate drug kingpin Pablo Escobar from the equation, and while his death did not stop the violence, it was seen as a sign that things were improving in the country.
The football team had a chance to not only show the rest of the world that they had more to offer, but it gave their people a chance to be proud of their country on a global stage, and in the United States no less.
It was all set up to be a historic World Cup for Colombia.
To say “Los Cafeteros” rolled through CONMEBOL Qualification would be an understatement.
They finished at the top of their qualification group that included Argentina, Paraguay, and Peru. Over the six-group stage matches, Colombia won 4 and drew 2. They outscored their opponents 13-2, including a historic 5-0 dismantling of Argentina in Buenos Aires. The defeat was the first on home soil in World Cup qualifying history for “La Albiceleste.”
The hype around Colombia heading into the World Cup was at a dangerously high level at home and abroad.
“Colombia is my favorite to become world champion” said Pele ahead of the tournament.
Expectations are a difficult thing to manage, especially for a country without much international success to draw experience from. The 1994 World Cup was only the third Colombia had ever qualified for.
As it would turn out, the weight of expectations would be too much for this squad, and the country, to handle.
Winning games was one thing, but it was the way Colombia did it that made them especially revered by their fans at home and abroad. For the first time, Colombia was playing a dynamic and attacking style that could line up with their traditional continental rivals.
That was in part because they finally had the players to play that way.
Carlos Valderrama was the team’s talismanic and cultured metronome through which everything ran, but he had talented players around and ahead of him. Faustino Asprilla, Adolfo Valencia, and Freddy Rincon could be counted on to finish off the brilliant chances that Valderrama created.
The team was organized and led at the back by defender Andres Escobar, who was known as “El Caballero del Futbol” or, the “Gentleman of Football.” The calm and sophisticated center back was beloved in his homeland and was reportedly set to join AC Milan after the tournament ended.
One final factor had further endeared this team to its country. Because of the domestic club ownership by drug traffickers and their staggering amounts of cash, Colombian football teams had enough money to pay for their best players to play at home instead of going to Brazil, Argentina, or Europe as they traditionally did.
This meant that 18 of the 22 men on the World Cup roster were playing their club football at home in Colombia. Fans had a deeper relationship with this team because they saw these players playing in front of them every weekend. As it would turn out, this would be one of the main issues for the squad during the tournament.
A notable absence from Colombia’s World Cup squad was star goalkeeper Rene Higuita, who had just finished out a prison sentence for his role in a kidnapping case that involved his friend, the notorious Pablo Escobar. By the time the tournament rolled around, Higuita was not yet in the appropriate physical or footballing shape to play a part in the tournament and thus watched from home.
Colombia’s 1994 World Cup Squad
Jose Maria Pazo
Luis Fernando Hererra
Luis Carlos Perea
Antony de Avila
Colombia vs. Romania (1-3)
Date: 18 June, 1994
Venue: Rose Bowl, Pasadena
Colombia kicked off their World Cup campaign against Romania, who were not a traditional European power but were led by the great Gheorghe Hagi, who was at the time one of the best players in the world and would be moving to Barcelona after the tournament ended.
Colombia started bright, showing their trademark attacking flash and skill albeit with a little more nervous energy than they usually displayed.
But just 16 minutes in Romania counter-attacked with precision as Florin Raducioiu took on three Colombian defenders and fired a low shot past goalkeeper Oscar Cordoba.
Despite being dazed by the early goal, Colombia kept their heads in the game and threatened to level. However, Hagi took advantage of poor positioning by Cordoba and chipped a shot over his head and into the net in the 34th minute.
Colombia pulled one back just before halftime through Adolfo Valencia. The goal gave Colombia hope, but there was no question their backs were against the wall.
Despite it being the opening game of the tournament, Colombia played the second half like their tournament lives were at stake. They peppered Romania’s goal, but their defense would not break.
The fatal blow came with the game almost over. In the 89th minute, Raducioiu secured the victory with his second goal of the match.
Panic began to set in. The Colombians knew that anything but a win in their next match would all but eliminate them from the tournament.
United States vs. Colombia (2-1)
Date: 22 June, 1994
Venue: Rose Bowl, Pasadena
Colombia could have drawn a worse team to play with their tournament lives at stake, but there weren’t many.
The United States was the host country and wanted to show off in front of their home fans. They had nothing to lose as the obvious underdogs and felt a responsibility to play well and excite a domestic fanbase who’s interest in soccer had never amounted to much.
Still, the match should have been no trouble for a pre-tournament favorite, right?
It wasn’t. The Americans employed a classic bend but don’t break defensive strategy that would have made Jose Mourinho proud. Colombia enjoyed the lion’s share of possession, with the Americans content to pounce on the occasional counter-attack.
In the 35th minute, one of those counter-attacks changed the course of history for two countries and became one of the most iconic and tragic moments in World Cup history.
American midfielder John Harkes crossed a ball towards Earnie Stewart only to have it deflected by the outstretched leg of Colombian defender Andres Escobar. The deflection sent the ball past Cordoba and into the Colombian net.
The sound of Colombian knives being sharpened could be heard all the way to the Rose Bowl in California.
Colombia was forced to press even harder now that they needed two goals for victory. Once again, an American counter-attack created a goal, this time off the foot of Earnie Stewart just after halftime.
Adolfo Valencia scored a 90th minute goal for Colombia, but it was too little, too late. They were beaten.
Switzerland vs Colombia (0-2)
Date: 26 June, 1994
Venue: Stanford Stadium, Palo Alto
Despite being winless entering their final group stage match against Switzerland, Colombia had life in the tournament. Due to the setup of this tournament, the four best third-place finishers would qualify for the knockout stages.
If Colombia defeated Switzerland and Romania lost to the United States, Colombia had a shot to get through on goal difference.
Colombia held up their end of the bargain, finally, with a dominant 2-0 win over the Swiss, but their efforts were in vain as Romania won their match. They finished at the bottom of the group with one win and two losses. To add insult to injury, all three other teams in their group advanced to the knockout round.
The Colombians went home to face the music. What would unfold would change Colombian football for a generation.
Looking back, Colombia never stood a chance. The suffocating grip of the narcos on Colombian football would not be reduced, even for the good of the national team.
The influence of drug traffickers was felt immediately by the Colombian squad. As previously mentioned, most clubs in Colombia’s domestic league were owned by drug traffickers.
It would mean more money for their clubs if their players played. Players would be more valuable on the transfer market and bring greater publicity to their team.
So it was no surprise then that coach Francisco Maturana received death threats surrounding the team selection for the very first match against Romania. According to the threat, starting midfielder Barabas Gomez was to be dropped in favor of Hernan Gaviria. He was.
Death threats were again sent to the team ahead of the game against the United States as this time a different group claimed the coach’s home would be bombed if he played starting wingback Gabriel Jaime Gomez. As a result, Gomez did not play.
Word of the threats made their way into the Colombia camp and disrupted what should have been the highlight of their professional careers. Is it any wonder that Colombia was unfocused and on edge as they took to the field?
As it turns out, their performances were literally life or death.
Not only were the cartels involved in influencing matchday lineups, but there were substantial wagers put on the performance of the team. When the team crashed out of the tournament early, millions of dollars were lost.
In the mind of at least some of the cartel bosses, someone needed to pay for what they lost.
Defender Andres Escobar would be the one to pay.
Six days after the Switzerland match, Escobar was gunned down outside a bar in his hometown of Medellin. According to reports, the gunman yelled “goal!” after each of the 12 bullets were fired, in reference to Escobar’s own goal in the match against the United States.
The image that the Colombian National Team had tried so hard to rehabilitate was tarnished yet again.
The murder took its toll on the sporting community at home as well. Escobar’s funeral was attended by over 120,000 people, and his memory is still honored today by fans who bring photographs of him to matches.
The tournament had been a false dawn for Colombian football. In what was supposed to be Colombia’s opportunity to put on a new face and shine, the old Colombia once again reared its ugly head.
In fact, the high point of the entire generation of players was not in the United States where it should have been, but in the 5-0 victory in Argentina during qualifying.
Colombia would make the 1998 World Cup but to much less excitement and fanfare. There was no pre-tournament buzz around a generally unchanged squad from the previous tournament. Colombia had their moment, and they had blown it.
Not just the team had blown it, but the entire country.
Who wanted to cheer for a country who killed one of their own over a game?
It would be until the James Rodriguez-led Colombia of 2014 that the world would once again be inspired by the color and music of Colombian football.
The story of Colombia’s trip to the World Cup in 1994 forces observers into hypotheticals.
What if the cartels had left the team alone? How far could a focused and secure Colombia team have gone? Could they have actually won the whole thing?
Unfortunately, during Colombia’s “Golden Generation” the football and the cartels were bound together at the hip and Los Cafeteros were just one more casualty of the narcos.