Colombia inspired by Escobar
Andres Escobar (Getty Images)
Belo Horizonte - Colombian fans are paying tribute to defender Andres Escobar, gunned down 20 years ago after scoring an own goal in the World Cup, and hope his memory will inspire the current crop's hunt for glory.
In one of the darkest chapters of football history, Escobar was shot outside a bar in Medellin on July 2, 1994, in apparent retribution for an own goal he scored days earlier hastening Colombia's exit from the World Cup in the United States.
Some Colombian fans in Brazil have been carrying Escobar's photo to games as they have watched their team march into the quarter-finals with four wins out of four. And Escobar's brother, Santiago, has urged them to keep going in his honour.
"We dedicate this triumph to Andres Escobar," one fan said on Twitter after Colombia's victory over Uruguay set up Friday's quarter-final against hosts Brazil.
"Andres Escobar is living through this team," added another in a flurry of social media discussions of Escobar's legacy on the eve of Wednesday's anniversary of his death.
While Escobar's death was synonymous with a 1990s Colombia wracked by violence and drug cartels, fans say the star of the 2014 team - baby-faced midfielder James Rodriguez - coincides with the image of the nation's rebirth since then.
Though yet to end Latin America's longest-running guerrilla war or tame the cocaine trade, Colombia has made huge strides in security and has also developed an increasingly prosperous economy, drawing tourists and foreign investors alike.
It was the early hours of July 2, 1994, that six bullets were shot into Escobar, a tall 27-year-old player known as "El Caballero del Futbol" or "The Gentleman of Football".
He had been part of a talented squad containing the likes of Carlos Valderrama, Rene Higuita and Faustino Asprilla.
But after a shock 3-1 opening defeat by Romania, their confidence drained, especially amid reports back home about disquiet among betting cartels, and death threats to the team.
Then came the fateful game against the United States on June 22, when Escobar stretched to cut out a cross but only steered the ball into his own net for the first goal in a 2-1 defeat.
The frozen pain-etched look on his face said it all.
Colombia managed to win their third game, but it was not enough and they went home to an angry public.
Escobar sought in vain to cheer up the nation with the retrospectively haunting words: "Life doesn't stop here."
In a car-park outside a bar in his hometown Medellin where he had been out with friends, Escobar got involved in an argument with taunting locals, one of whom pulled his gun.
Some reports said the gunman shouted "Goooool!" as he fired.
Escobar died en route to hospital, and tens of thousands, including Colombia's president, attended his funeral.
His killing was widely assumed to be revenge from betting mafias who had lost heavily on Colombia's poor showing.
For Colombian fans, it is a keen and emotional memory. Even those who were not old enough to witness the 1994 campaign have seen the own goal footage over-and-over again as Colombian football rakes over the memory and the lessons to be learnt.
Twenty years on, though, they have plenty of reasons to cheer with Colombia in the World Cup quarter-finals for the first time despite the absence of injured star Radamel Falcao.
In his place, others have stepped up, most notably the phenomenal Rodriguez, who is top of the goal-scoring chart on five, ahead of Lionel Messi, Neymar and Thomas Mueller.
"In James and (Jackson) Martinez, Colombia have a deadly, unpredictable attack force. What better memorial for Andres Escobar?" another fan wrote.
Ahead of the showdown with Brazil, and on Wednesday's exact anniversary of Escobar's death, one youth sports organization called Streetfootballworld is hosting a memorial in Rio de Janeiro.
A Brazilian band is to play the song 'Hasta Siempre' (Until Forever), which was created by Colombian football fans to honour Escobar.
"That was a very sad time in football and a very sad time in Colombia's history. Escobar didn't deserve that. He made a mistake," said Gerardo Esguerra, 48, an accountant buying filled corn bread at a street stall in Bogota on Monday.
"Colombia will beat Brazil and keep going in the cup. That would show those who killed Escobar. It would be the best thing for Escobar and his family. Colombia will win for him."