The Case of the Fatal Goal

A soccer star who lost to the U.S. is murdered

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The mistake had been fleet, but no one knew how fatal it would be. It was a slip of the mind, a touch of the foot and, suddenly, instead of blocking the ball, Andres Escobar propelled it past his own team's goalie and into Colombia's net. The defensive error gave the U.S. soccer team a 1-0 lead, and eventually a surprise 2-1 victory at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, California, on June 22. For Escobar and the heavily favored Colombians, it led to World Cup elimination and, in the early morning hours near Medellin last Saturday, murder.

Escobar had been on the town with friends, carousing at a roadside dance bar called Restaurante el Indio, when three men and a woman accosted him at 3:30 a.m. They hurled insults at him for his slipup at the World Cup. When he flung back epithets of his own, two of the men drew handguns. "All of a sudden, we heard gunfire, and then Escobar was on the ground, groaning and clutching his chest," said Jorge Arango, a witness. Escobar had been shot 12 times. One of the assailants reportedly said, "Thanks for the auto-goal, you son of a bitch." The killers then took off in a Toyota pickup truck. Escobar was pronounced dead 45 minutes later.

Colombian authorities believe the killing had been planned. The owner of the getaway truck told police that the assassins had robbed him of the vehicle an hour before the murder, holding him hostage at an isolated point on the road to the Medellin airport. They reportedly told him they were keeping him for two hours to prevent him from alerting the police "until it was all over." Said a police official: "This wasn't spontaneous violence. It was an execution."

As Colombians reacted with shock, other members of the national team were assigned bodyguards. "Much to our disgrace, Andres will go down in posterity as the symbol of the internecine violence that remains the country's greatest challenge," said Hernan Dario Gomez, an assistant coach of the team.

A cloud has always gathered around Colombia's soccer mania. Since Colombia's elimination two weeks ago, the team had received several anonymous threats. In 1989 a referee was killed, apparently by a group of gamblers linked to drug traffickers. This year there had been rumors, none substantiated, that some of the country's drug lords had wagered heavily against the national team. Before the U.S. game, defensive back Jaime Gabriel Gomez withdrew from play after his family received death threats.

Beyond Colombia, the death cast a further pall on the World Cup, which had been receiving a modest but heartening welcome in the U.S. A moment of silence preceded the Germany-Belgium game in Chicago. Said Sepp Blatter, head of soccer's governing body: "If something happens by accident, you can say it was the will of God. But when people deliberately shoot and kill somebody because he made a mistake in the game, something is wrong."