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Football: a matter of life or death, after all?

As legendary manager Bill Shankly once famously remarked, “Some people believe football is a matter of life or death.

“I am very disappointed with that attitude – I can assure you it is much, much more important than that.”

Shankly’s words are now routinely regurtitated whenever a tragedy strikes the game. They were used when 96 fans of Liverpool perished in the Hillsborough disaster, and when Marc-Vivien Foe died on the pitch at the African Cup of Nations.

Football is not a matter of life or death – it is, after all, just a game. On occasions, however, and to a select few, football does become more than just a game.

Andrés Escobar was a Colombian defender who made 50 appearances for his country, and was nicknamed “El Caballero del Futbol” – “The Gentleman of Football”.  He scored his only goal for his country against England at Wembley in 1988, and once told  journalist Gonzalo Medina why he loved playing the game.

“There is no death” – Escobar

“This sport illustrates the close relationship between life and the game,” he said.

“In football, unlike bullfighting, there is no death. In football no one dies; no one gets killed. It’s more about the fun of it, about enjoying.”

Little did Escobar realise the significance of his words.

It was June 22, 1994 and the host nation, the USA, were playing Columbia in the second group match of the 1994 World Cup Finals. Stretching to cut out a dangerous cross from US midfielder John Harkes, Escobar could only deflect the ball into his own goal – sending the USA on their way to a 2-1 victory, thus eliminating Columbia from the tournament.

Felipe, the player’s young nephew, was watching the events unfold in the Rose Bowl stadium in Pasadena. Despite his tender years, he was well aware of the violent, dangerous culture of the family’s native Medellín, and issued a chilling statement.

“They are going to kill Andres,” he told his mother.

Ten days later, Felipe’s fears were confirmed. Escobar was dead.

Tragic: The unfortunate own goal that led to Escobar’s execution.

He had returned to Columbia, to “face the country” after his World Cup nightmare. Whilst visiting friends in a Medellín bar, a bodyguard called Humberto Muñoz Castro shot Escobar 12 times in the car park – reportedly shouting “Goal!” as each shot entered the defender’s body.

“It was one of the most painful moments of my life,” said Alexis Garcia, after identifying his former teammate’s body.

“It was terrible to look at the man who had been so vital, so strong, so important, turned into something lifeless.”

Escobar was a player gunned down in his prime, who died with the world at his feet. He was due to marry Pamela Cascardo, his girlfriend for the past five years, and was earmarked as the next captain of Columbia when Carlos Valderrama stepped down.  He was even destined to replace the legendary Franco Baresi at AC Milan.

To this day, Pamela still keeps all Escobar’s shirts and caps. His father, Dario, died last year aged 77.

“He never understood why his son was murdered,” said Escobar’s brother Santiago, now manager of Independiente Medellin.

“He died with a bad taste of mouth, knowing that in Andres’ case there was no justice; too many questions remained.”

Santiago Escobar: “My father died with a bad taste in his mouth about Andrés’ death.”

Muñoz Castro was sentenced to 43 years in prison, but was released in 2005 after serving just a quarter of his sentence behind bars. Juan Santiago and Pedro David Gallón, who Muñoz Castro worked for, spent just days in prison after paying a fine.

Although not as renowned as Shankly’s words, those of Alexis Garcia remain poignant: “Andrés, how is football in heaven?”

“Is it true that all is joy? Is it true that in heaven you can make mistakes?”

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