Colombia: The South American Rock Show

Even though football and rock music appear to be unrelated, there are some rudimentary similarities between the two, especially in a nation like Colombia. Both have been the voice of the downtrodden and the youth of the country. Both provided the much needed breath of fresh air to Colombians who had survived two harrowing wars and countless epidemics. It provided people with something that was somehow bigger than religion and more powerful than gunpowder. Surprisingly enough, rock music’s biggest paradigm shifts throughout the century have always somehow coincided with the evolution of Colombian football. Ayan Roy Chowdhury  tells us more at Goalden Times.


Alvaro Ortega was returning to his hotel room after an exhausting day of football when he realized that the streets were unusually still. A bit unnerved, he decided to walk faster. His hotel, after all, was just around the corner.  Suddenly, two mysterious men appeared seemed to appear out of thin air. Were they the ghosts of Medellin’s past?

The air smelled like death. There was a blinding flash, a deafening roar, a morbid scream of sheer terror.

“That will teach you to disallow a f**king Medellin goal,” screamed the assassins, before they pumped twenty bullets into Ortega’s body.

In 1989, referee Alvaro Ortega was killed by two gunmen after officiating an Independiente Medellin v Club America match. European football is well-publicized throughout the world. It doesn’t matter whether you are a middle class family man in Vietnam or a poor farmer in Burkina Faso—European football is just one click away. Tactics, directness, physicality—European football gets things done its own way. But when we search for romanticism in football—that mystique aura which elevates it to fairy-tale stature—the answer almost always lies with football in Latin America. It’s the land of joga bonito, the land of superclasico, the land of Maradona and Pele. It’s the place where people don’t have enough money to buy food, but enough skill to dribble past ten.

Alvaro Ortega was assassinated on October 1, 1989 in Medellín
Alvaro Ortega was assassinated on October 1, 1989 in Medellín

Today, however, we are going to discuss about the perennial bad boy in class.

There is one country in Latin America that has created a football pedigree of its own—a decades-long legacy. Colombia is as Latin American as they come, with a football history that’s intertwined with that of a famous drug cartel.

However, like many other great characters in timeless epics, Colombian football is rather neglected on the world stage, despite producing one of the greatest football stories ever written.

This article looks at two landmark events of Colombian football that helped shaped its fate—Colombia’s first World Cup outing in 1962 and the ill-fated World Cup campaign in 1994. These two events showcase the entirety of Colombia’s football journey, including its glorious highs and tormenting lows.

Chapter 1: El Dorado

When music and football both decided to rebel

There are strange things happening everyday
Oh, the last man, judgment day
when they drive him all away
there are strange things happening everyday” [1]

In the late 40s and early 50s, before the days of Elvis Presley and Bil Haley, rhythm and blues had started to rule the music universe. It was the music industry’s first step towards a rock and roll culture.

1949 was a landmark year for music. From 1945 to 1949, records produced largely by black artists were catalogued and ranked as Race Records.  In 1949, Jerry Wexler and Billboard established the more politically correct Rhythm and Blues charts.

Meanwhile, Colombian football decided to change too.

Fun Fact: The Colombian national league is considered to be the second-best in the world according to IFFHS ranking, and is supposed to be the best domestic league in South America.

So, how was 1949 a landmark year for the game in Colombia? Well, they decided to break away from FIFA.

DIMAYOR (División Mayor del Fútbol Profesional Colombiano), the organizer of the league, broke away from FIFA after a dispute with Adefútbol, the existing amateur football authority in Colombia.

What that meant for Colombian football was that no domestic team could take part in international tournaments henceforth. The Colombian national team was also under heavy sanctions. That sounds pretty bleak, right?

Well, guess what happened? The Colombian league enjoyed its first golden era during these years.

Rocket 88 is a song created by Jackie Brenston and his Delta Cats. Legend says that the band’s guitar amp fell off the back of their pickup truck as they travelled to Memphis to cut this—their first record. The bass cone busted on the amp, so the guitarist stuffed a piece of crumpled up paper into the gap. Sun producer Sam Phillips liked the resultant rattling, and this became the first instance of guitar distortion and, for many, represented a starting point for that which we call rock and roll.[2]

A freak accident led to what many consider to be the first true rock song ever. The Colombian national league needed such an accident after its FIFA suspension. In 1948, the Argentine Football Association faced General Juan Domingo Perón and began a strike[3] that caused the migration of several of the most important Argentinian footballers to the Colombian league. Also, since the league was not affiliated to FIFA, the Colombian clubs weren’t required to pay transfer fees under FIFA rules.

These two factors saved the nation’s football league.

Millionarios, one of the biggest clubs in Bogota, started to take advantage of this situation. They bought Alfredo Di Stéfano. La Saeta Rubia , which translates to “The Blond Arrow” (as Di Stefano was fondly known) started pumping goals left, right and center. During this period, Millionarios played some dazzling football with a squad that was known as The Blue Ballet. It featured great players such as di Stefano, forward Adolfo Pedernera, defender Néstor Rossi, and other figures (mainly) from River Plate. Thanks to their great football skills on the pitch, Millonarios were named the best team in the world in the early 1950s by several European and South American media outlets.

Alfredo Di Stéfano on his arrival in Colombia to play with Millonarios de Bogotá/
Alfredo Di Stéfano on his arrival in Colombia to play with Millonarios de Bogotá

All other clubs decided to hop onto this football train. Santa Fe signed Neil Franklin and George Mountford from Stoke City, Charlie Mitten from Manchester United, and Hector Rial from Real Madrid. Rial was part of the Real Madrid team that won five consecutive European championships. All this led to Colombia being suspended by FIFA due to the illegal recruitment of international players. The teams were forced to return all expatriate players that had participated in the tournament through irregular means. The Colombian national team was also banned from the 1954 FIFA World Cup for the same reason.

In 1950, DIMAYOR agreed to end El Dorado[4] through the Pacto de Lima with FIFA, but with the requirement that foreign players would return to their countries in 1954.

Chapter 2: Adolescence

 World Cup and bend it like Marcos Coll

“There’s battle lines being drawn
Nobody’s right if everybody’s wrong
Young people speaking their minds
Getting so much resistance from behind”[5]

60s was a time when rock music finally started to grow beyond its original boundaries. Britain successfully invaded the rock and pop territory with a band from Liverpool taking charge. The Beatles craze that swept the world had its own specific name—Beatlemania.

But it was someone else who decided to explore new shores. Psychedelic music’s LSD-inspired vibe began in the folk scene. Los Angeles-based group The Doors was all things dark and everything against social norm. Although its charismatic lead singer Jim Morrison died in 1971, the band’s popularity has endured to this day.

Colombian National football started being internationally recognized as well. It was time for World Cup 1962. Given that Brazil had already qualified as the defending champions and Chile was the host country, Colombia had their work cut out. Seven teams were in contention to qualify for the World Cup. Paraguay were drawn to play in the CONMEBOL (Confederación Sudamericana de Fútbol)/ CCCF (Confederación Centroamericana y del Caribe de Fútbol)/ NAFC (North American Football Confederation) intercontinental play-off. The remaining six teams were pitted against each other in three head-to-head ties.

Even after all this, it would have been hard if Colombia had faced Argentina or Uruguay.  But Colombia was to play against the humble Peru.  One win and one draw helped the former secure their place in Chile. Colombia was the young face in the football arena. Nobody  had any real expectations from them.

The dream of Colombia playing in the biggest possible stage came to fruition in 1961, when the team defeated Peru in a two-game play-off and became one of the 16 teams that went for the crown in Chile in 1962.

The team had grit, thanks to a handful of footballers who managed to excel in a league of foreigners. Credit must also be given to one of the most important outsiders in Colombian local football in the 50s—the Argentine Adolfo Pedernera.

The 35 pre-selected players found a comfortable training camp in Bogota. “The only problem was that there was no hot water, we got up at 6 in the morning to bathe in cold water, some of them did not bathe before training, and then they had to take it because the water was still cold.” recalled Aceros, one of the players in Colombia’s World Cup squad. [6]

Of the initial 35, manager Pedernera finally selected his 22-men squad. Only a couple of them had ever played outside the country. The trip to Chile was an incredibly novel experience for most in the team, getting away from the atrocities at home.

The trip was long. The Colombian national team undertook a 62-km bus ride, from Bogota to Arica, with stops in Lima and Tacna. Arica was chosen as the base of World Cup’s Group 1 because the organizers had assumed Peru would be one of the contenders. In fact, Arica was Peruvian territory. In 1879, Chile declared war on Peru. Four years later, with the Treaty of Ancon, the Chilean forces withdrew. However, Arica remained a Chilean domain for ten years. After this allotted period of time, there would be a plebiscite that would determine whether this city and Tacna remained within Chile or Peru. The plebiscite was never held and in 1929, Arica was still officially within Chile.

“At the beginning, the reception was very cold, but afterwards, people began to make us laugh, even though Uruguay was also in that group, and those who did not play ended up on the rostrum bar, “[9] recalls Hernando Tovar, one of the players in the squad.

Group 1 of the tournament had Yugoslavia, Soviet Union, and Uruguay. Among these, Soviet Union was the inaugural Euro champion, Uruguay was the then-reigning South American champion, and Yugoslavia would eventually finish fourth in the tournament. Colombia lost their first match against Uruguay 2-1. It was the second match that marked the nation’s arrival at an international footballing stage. Colombia staged a legendary comeback against the mighty Soviet Union. The former was 4-1 down after 60 minutes. Lev Yashin, arguably the greatest goalkeeper of all times, was guarding Soviet Union’s post. Even then, Colombia managed to end the match at 4-4. An impressive performance from a fledgling team.

Team Colombia during 1962 FIFA World Cup

In this process, Marcos Coll achieved the impossible. He scored an Olympic goal—a corner that goes straight into the net—against Lev Yashin. It has remained the only Olympic goal to be scored in a World Cup till date.

Fate switched sides in the next match. Colombia’s last match was a rather display, as they were demolished 5-0 by Yugoslavia.

It had not been easy for Colombia to reach the World Cup. So, even though they only managed to get one point during the entirety of the tournament, the Colombian fans were overjoyed. “Marcos Coll’s Olympic goal and 4-4 made people come in. There were a lot of people at the airport and then, on the way to downtown Bogota,” [9] Rada said.

Colombia would not feature in a World Cup for the next 28 years—a decidedly long hiatus. Even today, with more options to qualify (because the number of teams that can qualify was expanded to 24 in 1982 and 32 in 1998), getting to the World Cup remains a difficult challenge for Colombia. That is why the 22 players commanded by Pedernera are still deservedly remembered as heroes.


Colombian players kept on reminding everyone about their football prowess—with or without the World Cup. The best example of this came in 1975. Colombia’s rampant display against defending champions Uruguay in 1975’s Copa America semifinal will always be remembered as the biggest advertisement of Colombia’s football pedigree before the 1980s.

The Medellin drug cartels led by Pablo Escobar rose to prominence in the 80s. An era of terrorism and glory began. Colombian society and law enforcement that opposed the cartel faced the wrath of Pablo Escobar. An organized and ruthless army of Sicarios (assassins) turned Medellin into Pablo’s favourite hunting ground. In 1985, Pablo Escobar allegedly backed Palace of Justice Siege [*], an incident that shook Colombian justice and law, and strengthened Pablo Escobar’s reign beyond imagination. Forbes magazine estimated Escobar to be one of the richest people on the planet. This endless fortune of drug money acted as the catalyst Colombian football had been waiting for. Just how much did drug money influence football?

 Chapter 3: Smells like teen spirit (Soccer, drug and The Escobars)

“The sky was gold, it was rose
I was taking sips of it through my nose
And I wish I could get back there, someplace back there
Smiling in the pictures you would take
Doing crystal meth, will lift you up until you break[7]

In the late 80s and early 90s, USA was grooving to the beats of Nirvana. The band’s lead singer, Kurt Cobain was the voice of the new generation—proclaiming himself to be “carefree” and “out of any shackles”. However, a listless generation took this as an invitation to do drugs. For addicts, perhaps even a hint of excuse is enough. All of USA was flooded with contraband drugs.

Well, here we were, discussing football. What might a drug lord have to do with it? For that, you have to understand the socio-economic scenario of Colombia—an ailing country that was torn apart by guerrilla warfare and oligarchy. The rich were getting richer and the poor were getting poorer. The communist guerrilla war only managed to rack up dead bodies. Pablo Escobar’s drug cartel brought sanity and order to Colombia’s underground world. The rule was simple. If you want to do something illegal, take Pablo’s approval. During his heyday, Escobar’s daily earning was close to USD 50 million. Why would a person like this be interested in football?

The answer is simple. When one is earning that kind of money, one has to know how to launder it as well. Ticket sales in stadiums generated a huge amount of cash. Now, suppose one sold tickets worth USD one million, and showed it to be USD two million on paper—effectively converting USD one million from black to white money. This method also worked during player transfers. One could always claim that a player was sold for much more money than he was actually sold for.

Narco Soccer

Pablo Escobar was not the only drug lord who needed to launder his money. There were others too. While Escobar invested heavily in Atletico Nacional, El Mexicano (another head of the Medellin cartel) invested in Millionarios. Miguel Rodriguez, a Colombian drug lord, one of the leaders of Cali Cartel, invested with America De Cali. Football became a form of cold war between Colombian drug lords. However, it completely changed the Colombian national league. Now they had the money to attract foreign players, while retaining their best players and developing a healthy infrastructure for the sport. All Colombian clubs began growing fast. (Fun fact: Pablo Escobar,  along with his associated, used to attend almost all of Atletico’s matches.)

It is a hard world for a referee when drug lords are backing clubs whose matches they are officiating.

During the 1989 tournament we referred to at the beginning of this article, the bookies favoured the Medellin club and lots of money was involved. But guess what? Their opponents, America de Cali, won the match. That infuriated Escobar. He allegedly threatened to kill everyone for the loss of his beloved club, and instructed his associated to murder the referee. With such a dictator at the helm, it’s not surprising that 1989 was the year of Atletico’s famous Copa Libertadores run.

Andre Escobar, young but valiant, (but no way related to the drug lord Pablo) was part of this team.  Atletico went down 2-0 against Paraguay’s Club Olimpia in the first leg of the final. They turned the table after that, with a 2-0 victory at home. After a stalemate, young Andre Escobar was sent to take the first penalty—and he scored. Rene Higuita was blocking everything that came his way, but the Atletico players couldn’t capitalize. Finally, it all came down to Leonel Alvarez, who scored a goal to win the match for Atletico. This was the first time a Colombian club had triumphed outside Colombia. It was the finest hour for Colombian football.

The mighty America De Cali of the late 80s
The mighty America De Cali of the late 80s

Andres Escober, Rene Higuita, Carlos Valderrama, Freddy Rincon, Leonel Alvarez—this young group of men gradually formed the backbone of Colombia’s national team. To this formidable combination, Arnoldo Iguaran added his much-needed experience. 1989 was truly a watershed year for the nation’s football. Along with Atletico’s Copa Libertadores victory, the Colombian national team qualified for the World Cup to be held in 1990. After topping its qualification group, Colombia was set to play against Israel. The former won the match by a narrow margin, and announced its return to the World Cup.

Colombia’s 1990 World Cup campaign was nothing short of a Broadway play. It was the only team not to lose against the eventual champions West Germany. A win against the UAE and a draw against West Germany ensured Colombia’s progress to the round of 16 as one of the best third-placed teams. In fact, their World Cup dream could have expanded even further if not for the intervention of a 38-year-old legend. In one of the best extra-time clashes World Cup has ever witnessed, Cameroon’s Roger Milla decided to stop the world and make it his own. In a game that finished 2-1 in favour of Cameroon after extra-time, Milla’s second goal against Higuita is considered one of the biggest goalkeeping goof-ups World Cup has ever seen.

But that is a story for another day.

A year after Atletico secured the Copa Libertadores, Colombian domestic football was suspended when a Uruguayan referee accused Escobar’s men of putting him under pressure to “ensure that Atletico won the tournament.” The official died a year later—his meal at a restaurant had been laced with rat poison. Referee Alvaro Ortega was killed by two gunmen after officiating an Independiente Medellin v Club America match. Two goalkeepers were shot dead in 1993 after letting in soft goals during league games. As Andres Escobar put it, there was a “culture of fear” in Colombian football.

The Fans

Fans are undoubtedly one of the stimulants that elevate football to a whole new level.

Latin Americans, especially, are passionate fans. The biggest names in Colombian football are Atletico and Millonarios, for obvious reasons. However, like the Millwalls and the West hams, it is the small clubs that produce the fiercest rivalries between fans.

Add guns, drugs, and salsa to this potent mix, and you might get an idea of the rivalry between America de Cali and Deportivo Cali.
Frente radical Verdiblanco of Deportivo and Baron Rojo Sur of America are among the most notorious hooligans football has ever seen. Backed heavily by drug money in the 80s and 90s, what started this rivalry was the oldest reason of them all—wealth.  Deportivo and America had deep cultural differences based on their economic backgrounds.  The working class fans of America are called los Escarlatas and the middle class crowd of Deportivo are los Azucareros. These disparities of wealth have characterized the region since Spanish colonizers overwhelmed and enslaved indigenous tribes of the Cauca Valley in 1536. Quickly recognizing the cash bonanza in sugar cane, Spain imported thousands of slaves from Africa to Colombia. Cali steadily grew in importance, attracting both sugar and coffee magnates as well as poor farm workers. But it was when the railroad rolled in at the beginning of the 20th Century that the city truly began to flourish.

At this time, the sons of the wealthy tycoons returned from studying in Europe with a new game and formed the Cali Football Club in 1912. In contrast, América originated from literally the other side of the tracks. Established by Pablo Manrique—a sports teacher at a poor college in the southern shanties—on behalf of the city’s workers, it took nine years and three name changes (Júnior, Racing, and Independiente) before the club was officially founded on 13 February 1927.

Frente radical Verdiblanco of Deportivo marching towards stadium to attend the Cali derby
Frente radical Verdiblanco of Deportivo marching towards stadium to attend the Cali derby

The greens of Frente radical Verdiblanco and the reds of Baron Rojo Sur still flood the city of Cali on match days. The intensity is so mind numbing that these two sets of fans won’t even look at each other.

Football hooliganism is the dark underbelly of this beautiful game.  Like other hooligan rivalries, this too has resulted in deaths.  17 November 1982 will always be remembered as a sad day in the history of Colombian football.

That day, América and Cali drew 3-3 at the Pascual Guerrero Stadium. Reportedly, drunken thugs urinated on enemy fans below, causing a stampede. 24 people died and 163 were injured. After this incident, Gilberto Rodríguez Orejuela, the kingpin of Cali cartel, made America one of the most successful clubs in 80s and 90s till USA’s anti-drug Clinton bill brought them to their knees.

Dreams of a Nation

Andres Escobar, René Higuita, Leonel Álvarez, Fernando Herrera—almost half of that legendary Atletico team came from slums, where Pablo donated football fields and created organized football leagues. For most of these players, Pablo was not a drug kingpin, but the guy who gave them hope. Wealth did not matter in football fields. Prowess with the ball decided one’s fate. Whole communities would forget their worries just to see their local heroes in action. Shunned by society, handicapped by poverty, football was their escape route, their Holy Grail. Players had a strong relation with Pablo. He was the Robin Hood paisa[8], Inviting players to his ranch for entertaining evenings and football matches.

Andre Escobar, on the other hand, was a righteous man. He liked to stay away from drug money. He loved his country. Colombia was synonymous with drugs, pornstars, kidnappings, and guns. Andre Escobar knew that football was the only way to redeem its name. Atletico had an amazing team. Rene Higuita, Carlos Valderrama, Andre Escobar, Faustino Asprilla, Leonel Alvarez, Freddy Rincon—the best of Colombia in one single team. Leading up to the 1994 World Cup, they played 26 matches throughout the world and lost only one.

The entire nation was rooting for their team this time. They had already become the best team in South America—with a FIFA ranking of four. The expectation was so much that president Gaviria used the national team in a million dollar P.R. campaign to clean Colombia’s drug-infested image. Legend has it that Colombian paramilitary and communist guerrillas together watched their national team play.

During qualifications for 1994’s World Cup, it all came down to the ultimate showdown between Argentina and Colombia. The winner would get a direct admission to World Cup 1994. Naturally, it was the biggest match in the history of Colombian football. When the Colombian national team reached Argentina, they were treated with abuse and even physical assault by local fans. In the match, however, Faustino Asprilla danced through the Argentine defence. Valderrama was unstoppable, Escobar was unbreakable.  The final result was so astounding that the entire world came to know of Colombia as football’s new royalty. Argentina was demolished 5-0. The entire stadium gave the Colombians a standing ovation. They qualified for the World Cup as one of the tournament favourites.

One Goal, Six Bullets

All avid followers of football know that Colombia’s 1994 campaign was cursed. But what exactly happened that led to such debacle? Saying a team collapsed under the pressure of a country’s dream is true, but not even tip of the iceberg. Let’s try to dig deeper.

In 1991, Escobar was responsible for kidnapping the daughter of Carlos Molina, a rival cocaine baron. Higuita helped secure her release by delivering a ransom of USD 300,000 to his friend—Escobar. Higuita spent seven months inside jail on charges of profiting from a kidnapping. The charges against him were later dropped, but Higuita’s chances of playing in the fateful 1994 World Cup were over.

Apart from that, Higuita gave an interview while going to visit Pablo at La Catedral. That potentially proved Pablo’s influential presence in Colombian football—the only thing that the Colombian government was trying to portray as drugs-free. So it is only justified that the government would block Higuita from representing Colombia.

After the death of Pablo Escobar, Colombia was burning. Every small-time drug dealer had become his own boss and chaos reigned supreme. The infamous PEPEs (Perseguidos por Pablo Escobar, which translates to Persecuted by Pablo Escobar), a vigilante group of almost all of Pablo Escobar’s enemies, would kill anyone related to Pablo. Daylight burglary, murder, and bomb blasts were common occurrences. Andres Escobar and his fiancée narrowly escaped a bomb blast.  Andres was about to move to Milan after the World Cup. The bomb blast unsettled him even further. Chonto Herrera’s three-year-old son was kidnapped. It was a complete nightmare on all fronts.

Colombian players still managed to suit up and appear for the finals. Their first match was against Romania. Barrabas and Leonel passed the ball to Valderrama and Rincon, and they moved the ball forward. That’s how Colombia functioned. The Romanian players managed to cut off the midfield link, thereby disrupting Columbia’s passing game, and then hit them on the counter. Romania scored their first goal through one such counter attack. After that,Gheorghe Hagi scored an unbelievable long ranger to double their advantage. There was no turnaround for Colombia.

After such a devastating start, what Colombia needed was a confidence boost from somewhere. But what they had in store was something else. Before the second match against USA, all Colombian players received death threat through their hotel televisions. The message was clear—if you play Barrabas, we will kill you all. Imagine a death threat before the one game that could potentially throw you out of the World Cup. Barrabas was pulled out of the game.

All clubs wanted to see their players play so their value would increase. Regional rivalry reigned supreme over national integration. Riots back home, family under police protection, unsettling death threats—the Colombian players were going through all these. If this was any Hollywood flick, Colombia’s national team would go on to snatch the World Cup. But the person who writes our story is a sadistic narcissist.

The rest of this historic match has been well-documented everywhere. Against the Americans, Valderrama and Asprilla hit woodwork. As John Harkes crossed the ball for teammate Ernie Stewart, a stretching Escobar diverted the ball past a stunned Oscar Cordoba. After this own goal, Escobar’s nine year old nephew exclaimed to his mother, “Mommy they are going to kill Escobar.” Dismay of a child, or may be a nation’s dictate.[9]

A desperate cross, a wrong-footed Cordoba, and an honest mistake. Six gunshots and the death of a gentleman that announced the end of Colombia’s football dreams—at least for a decade.

After the 1994 FIFA World Cup, Escobar decided to return to Colombia instead of visiting relatives in Las Vegas, Nevada. On the evening of July 1, 1994, five days after the elimination of Colombia from the World Cup, Escobar called his friends, and they went to a bar in the El Poblado neighbourhood in Medellin. Then they went to a liquor store. Shortly afterwards, they arrived at the El Indio nightclub. His friends split up. At approximately 3:00 the next morning, Escobar was alone in the parking lot of El Indio, in his car, when three men appeared. They began arguing with him. Two of the men took out handguns. Escobar was shot six times with a .38 caliber pistol. It was reported that the killer shouted “¡Gol!” after every shot, once for each time the South American football commentator said it during the broadcast. The group then drove away in a Toyota pickup truck, leaving Escobar to bleed to death. Escobar was rushed to the hospital where he died 45 minutes later.

The murder was widely believed to be a punishment for the own goal. In the UK, the BBC issued a public apology after its football pundit Alan Hansen commented during the match between Argentina and Romania that “the Argentine defender warrants shooting for a mistake like that”, on July 3, a day after the murder of Escobar.

“Drugs, porn stars, kidnappings, guns,” Metiche laments. “That is how the outside world views Colombian football. Let’s be honest. If Higuita or Asprilla had been shot dead back in 1994, no one would have been surprised, given the company they keep. The shocking thing was that Andres Escobar was always horrified by corruption in the national leagues. Why do the innocent always suffer?”[10]


Andrés Escobar: Life beyond bullets in 30 unseen pictures

The unfortunate life of Andrés Escobar in unseen pictures.

Nicknamed “El Caballero del Fútbol” (“The Gentleman of Football”) Andrés Escobar Saldarriaga was a center back in the the 1989 Copa Libertadores champion club Atlético Nacional of Colombia. He represented the national team in 1990 and 1994 FIFA World Cup and 1989 and 1991 Copa América.

“We are all working for a common cause – to make our country proud,” he said, upon arriving in the USA for 1994 World Cup. “We’re trying to not focus on the violence. I find motivation in the good things to come. I try to read a bit of the Bible each day. My bookmarks are two photos. One of my late mother, the other of my fiancée.”

Escobar’s infamous own goal against the United States in 1994 World Cup is still vivid in our memory. Andrés, who was under radar of A.C. Milan and dubbed by many as successor of great Franco Baresi, stretched to cut out the pass from American midfielder John Harkes but mistimed the slide and deflected the ball into his own net.

Few years later Escobar’s sister, María revealed in an interview, “In that moment, my nine-year-old son turned to me and said: ‘Mommy, they’re going to kill Andrés. I replied: ‘No sweetheart, people are not killed for mistakes.’ Everyone in Colombia loves Andrés.” Unfortunately, the reality turned out to be different.

“This sport illustrates the close relationship between life and the game. 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.” Andres Escobar once said these words to Colombian journalist Gonzalo Medina to explain why he enjoyed playing football. Unfortunately, football took his life. Today, on his 23rd death anniversary, we at Goalden Times are remembering Escobar. “Life doesn’t end here”!

Andres Escobar of Colombia and Rudi Voeller of Germany in action during the World Cup match between Germany and Colombia on June 19, 1990 in Milan, Italy. (Photo by Bongarts/Getty Images)
Andres Escobar of Colombia and Rudi Voeller of Germany in action during the World Cup match between Germany and Colombia on June 19, 1990 in Milan, Italy. (Photo by Bongarts/Getty Images)
Colombian defender Andres Escobar lies on the ground after scoring an own goal past goalkeeper Oscar Cordoba in 1994
Colombian defender Andres Escobar lies on the ground after scoring an own goal past goalkeeper Oscar Cordoba in 1994
Andres Escobar with Víctor Hugo Aristizabal, Pacho Maturana, el “Bolillo” Gomez and”El pibe” Valderrama

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Andres with Faustino Asprilla
Andres with Faustino Asprilla

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Andres Escobar’s father Dario Escobar holding his son’s photo.


Photographs: The photographs are not owned by Goalden Times and we do not claim ownership of these images by any means. All the images are sole property of the respective owners. We are thankful to FIFA, El Heraldo, El Tiempo, Colombia AS.

The Miracle Workers – Colombia 2001

Colombia has rarely been considered as a front-runner to dominate the South American Championship, which is now known as the Copa America. But for once, they had proved everyone wrong. Debopam Roy looks back at Colombia’s turn of the century miracle – an unbeaten Copa America title. You can read the other stories of the Copa America series here

Francisco Maturana is a man of miracles. ‘Pacho’, as he is affectionately called, could not have imagined that it would be aerial ‘invasion’ that would halt his march towards his destiny. Here he was, leading Colombia into the final of the Copa America – only the second time ever that Colombia had reached the final and barely had it started that there were a couple of parachutists landing in the middle of the field. They were part of the closing ceremony, but arrived fashionably late. In a tournament which was already marred by the organizational nightmares, that was probably the last straw. It would only be that man, Pacho who would redeem the tournament by producing another miracle of his own – winning the Copa with an all win record and that toowithout conceding any goals, a feat unmatched in history under modern group cum knockout format.

Touchdown (Source: AFP)

The Organization Hiccups

The 2001 Copa tournament was awarded to Colombia amid much resentment. The long drawn drug fuelled violence had claimed more than 40000 civilian lives just in the 1990s and it was hardly a location to inspire confidence. The final straw was the kidnapping of Hernan Mejia Campuzano, the vice-president of Colombian Football Federation by the country’s largest Marxist rebel group, the FARC. Brazil and Venezuela were proposed as alternative hosts but at the last minute CONMEBOL decided to go ahead with Colombia. It was a victory for Colombia’s President, Andres Pastrana, who had brought the Copa America to the political forefront by dubbing it the “Cup of Peace”.
Most of the teams though had planned to send their second string to the tournament saving the first team for the ongoing qualification for 2002 World Cup. Argentina,the runaway leader in the World Cup qualification (they won a whopping 13 out of 18 matches), were at the forefront of this resentment. The Argentine FA claimed that there were death threats to their players. Whether that was a fact, no one knows. But only seven days prior to the start of the tournament, Argentina and Canada withdrew. They were replaced by Costa Rica and Honduras at the last minute and Honduras team barely reached before the start of their first match. Without Argentina, the tournament lost its most charismatic pre-tournament favourites and it was up to Pacho’s band of merry men to salvage the tournament. It was even more ironic that the Argentine pull out came exactly seven years to the date from the killing of Andres Escobar.

It was even more ironic that the Argentine pull out came exactly seven years to the date from the killing of Andres Escobar.

A Man of Destiny

There’s a bit of history with Pacho.  An unremarkable no-compromising defender, Pacho came to management early, at the age of 36. With his first team Once Caldas, he had impressed enough to be given the charge of Colombian national youth team. He did a good job and was promoted to take charge of the senior team and his first Copa in 1987 was memorable as Colombia finished third beating the hosts Argentina – their best ever since finishing second in 1975. The next few years were even more glorious for him. Pacho came back to manage his club side Atletico Nacional and led them to be the first Colombian side to win the Copa Libertadores in 1989 and lost in the Intercontinental Cup to AC Milan at the last minute of extra time. He led Colombia’s national team into the 1990 World Cup after a hiatus of 28 years. The following year, in his charge,Colombia had their best performance(later bettered in 2014) in World Cup competition by reaching the Round of 16. In the Round of 16 match against Cameroon, Rene Higuita’s error proved costly for the Colombians as Roger Milla scored the decisive goal for the African nation. Pacho returned for a second stint at the charge of Colombian national team in 1993 and got them qualified for a second time in a row to a World Cup, with a historic triumph over Argentina in Buenos Aires by 5-0 in a World Cup qualifier. The events at the World Cup, with the unfortunate killing of Andre Escobar, would leave a poor taste. 2001 was the third time calling for Pacho and Colombia. He would make it his most memorable yet.
For the tournament, Pacho had gathered a largely young squad. Only five players played outside Colombia and only one in Europe was Captain Ivan Cordoba. There was also Mario Yepes who was with River Plate and goalkeeper Oscar Cordoba with Boca Juniors and forward Jairo Castillo with Velez Sarsfield, another Argentine club. There was old hand Victor Aristizabal who at 29 was one of the oldest members of the squad. Apart from these four, none of the other members of the squad would even get to play in any of Europe’s top leagues. It was as unremarkable a squad as any you would see. Many would never play a World Cup at all, as Colombia didn’t qualify for the World Cup in the 2000’s.  But with Pacho’s motivational skills, the team would become transformed.

Group Stage Efficiency

Colombia was drawn in a group with Chile, Ecuador and Venezuela in group A. Chile and Venezuela were going through a dreadful World Cup qualifying campaign and would be the wooden spooners later, but Ecuador was having a dream campaign, as second behind Argentina and would eventually qualify for their first World Cup ever in 2002. In the first match, Colombia met Venezuela. They had had a disappointing 2-2 draw at Venezuela only three months back in the World Cup Qualifying campaign. In the end a hesitant Colombia would win 2-0 against Venezuela. The second match would pit them against Ecuador. Ecuador were a traditional minnow but again Colombia had a goalless draw with them in the World Cup qualifier. Chile the third team, had already thrashed Ecuador and with another win against Venezuela were atop the group. Colombia had to stay in touch. A dominant performance saw them win by a goal where the Ecuador goalkeeper Jose Cevallos saved several certain goals.
It was now the summit clash. Colombia had beaten Chile away in the World Cup qualifier. Chile had a superior goal difference. Also,the winner of the group would most likely fall in the same half as the winner of group B – a group that included two-time defending champion Brazil but a Brazil that had lost its first match to Mexico. So when the teams were meeting, Mexico was top and Brazil second in group B. Whoever finished top in group A, would avoid Brazil if both Brazil and Mexico won their last matches, and whoever lost, would end up meeting the second team from group B, which was Brazil at that moment. So there was additional urge to win. In the end it was an ill-tempered match marred by a 34th minute brawl which resulted in a player from both team being shown the red card. The match itself ended 2-0 for Colombia but Chile tried hard after the unfortunate penalty for the first goal.
Colombia thus qualified unbeaten and with a clean slate.  In a remarkable turnaround, the next day, Mexico lost to Peru while Brazil duly despatched Paraguay. Thus it was Chile who were to now face Mexico while Colombia were in the same half as Brazil. In fact it was Peru, the third best team in group B, who were to face Colombia in the quarter-finals.

Knock out hoodoo

Colombia had a remarkable period under Maturana when they finished third in the ’87 Copa. They would emulate that in ’93 and ’95. However the previous two Copa, in’97 and ’99, had seen them go out at the first knockout round to unfancied Chile and Bolivia respectively. So there was some apprehension when Peru was lined up against them. There were numerous suspensions too – Ivan Cordoba and Eudelio Arriaga had seen two yellows. Elkin Murillo was shown the red card against Chile. A tight first half only increased the pressure.  And then Victor Aristizabal stepped up. He had threatened all night and only a stout Peruvian defence had held the fort. He scored two and Colombia had three in a 19-minute-period of the second half and a spot in the semi-final was guaranteed.
Up next was the winner of Brazil vs Honduras match. The same Honduras who had arrived with barely enough players on July 13, 2001 in an airplane provided by the Colombian Air Force after the tournament started and just few hours before their first game. They duly lost that match against Costa Rica but amazed everybody to win the next two matches against Bolivia and Uruguay. And then what was probably one of the biggest upsets ever in Copa history, Honduras won 2-0 against Brazil in a match which saw Brazil captain Emerson Ferreira and Honduras defender David Carcamo were sent off for fighting .And Colombia managed to avoid Brazil once again.

The same Honduras who had arrived with barely enough players on July 13, 2001 in an airplane provided by the Colombian Air Force after the tournament started and just few hours before their first game.

The semi-final got off to a blistering start as left-back Gerardo Bedoya scored an absolute screamer in the sixth minute. Aristizabal duly added another in the second half whichmade him the top goal scorer of the tournament. Colombia won the match 2-0. It was only the second time they had reached the final and the first time since the inaugural Copa America tournament in 1975(the earlier versions were called South American Championship).

The Final

The final was played in the Estadio El Campin in Bogota and the 47,000 capacity stadium  was packed to the brims. Mexico had been the form team in that they had defeated Brazil and Uruguay – two teams that had won the last three Copa tournaments. In Jared Borgetti, they had top striker who had scored against both those champions. The final began in the bizarre fashion where the parachutists arrived late to halt the play for three minutes. It was a scrappy final with fouls aplenty. Mexico had Juan Rodriguez sent off in the 80th minute for a tackle from behind on Jairo Castillo, and Gerardo Torrado dismissed in injury time. The winning goal was scored midway through the second half as Ivan Lopez’s free-kick was glanced home by captain Cordoba to send the crowd into raptures.

Colombia, Copa America Champions, 2001
Colombia, Copa America Champions, 2001

Colombia thus became the seventh country to win the Copa America .

The Aftermath

Colombia had five matches remaining after the Copa in the World Cup qualifying. They lost to Peru and drew with Uruguay and even after winning the final two matches, finished with just a goal difference away from qualification. Both Uruguay and Colombia finished on 27 points but Uruguay advanced to the CONMEBOL/OFC play-off where they beat Australia to go to the World Cup proper.
Francisco Maturana, would go on to manage Colombia once more time in 2002-03 without many wins. None of the Colombian winning members would break into Europe except Cordoba and Yepes who had stellar defensive stints at elite clubs in Europe. Victor Aristizabal, the man who top scored in the tournament with six  goals would finish his Colombian stint within next two years. He managed only nineother goals in his 60 other career matches.
The unbeaten win of the tournament without conceding, would always place the 2001 Colombian vintage at a high pedestal. However the fact that they achieved it without facing Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay at all – the three bigwigs of South America, would always provide a postmark on the win. It was probably the collective zenith for a group of players and a country amid unprecedented chaos and they achieved something which transcends the mere statistical realms and which has never been achieved before or since in Copa America history.

Life From 12 Yards: Palermo Misses

Penalty. A term, that can ruffle the feathers of even the calmest of beings. A term, that in any walk of life, shocks and triggers signals of doom and punishment for some, and hope or satisfaction for others. Football, is no exception. Goalden Times bring you a series where we look at the more unfortunate events of missed penalties (and their aftermath??). Enjoy the ride with Subhashis Biswas.You can read the other stories of the Copa America series here

Image Source -
Image Source –

Player: Martin Palermo, Argentina
Opponent Goalkeeper: Miguel Calero, Colombia
Match Venue & Date: Estadio Feliciano Cáceres, Luque, Paraguay, 4th July, 1999, Copa America Group C.

As we have already illustrated in our “missed penalty” series, missing a penalty in a football match makes a heavy dent in the confidence of the player and can demoralize the player with long lasting effect. Now consider this: if this happens three times in a match! Imagine missing three penalties in a single match! Imagine how severe that effect can be on the player’s mind.

In the fifth segment of our missed penalty series, we bring you the story of Martin Palermo,the player who missed three penalties in a single match – against Colombia, in the group stages of Copa America 1999. Martin Palermo is an interesting character, with a career marked with many interesting incidents. But this one would be near the top of any list of football related trivia.

Argentina faced Colombia in the second  match of the Group C in 1999 Copa America on 4th of July in Estadio Feliciano Cáceres, Luque, Paraguay. Both the teams had won their inaugural matches. Argentina was going through a transition under the coach Marcelo Bielsa. Key players like Gabriel Batistuta and Hernan Crespo were not available, and Martin Palermo along with Killy Gonzalez shared the duty of forward line.

In total five  penalties were awarded in that match, and only one was scored. Palermo missed three, Hamilton Ricard of Colombia missed one. Ivan Cordoba of Colombia was the only one who could convert his penalty.

Now let us move on to the penalties that were missed by Palermo.  The first penalty was awarded to Argentina as early as the fifth minute. Palermo tried to connect to a cross from the left wing with his head. Alexander Viveros, the Colombian defender tried to be too clever by putting his hand up in the air to defect the ball. Referee caught the infringement and awarded a penalty to Argentina. Palermo himself stepped up to take the penalty. Goalkeeper Miguel Calero stayed in  the middle of the goal line, and was jumping a little towards either side from his position. Whenever goalkeepers do this, there is a general tendency to shoot down the middle, in anticipation that the goalkeeper is committed to dive in one direction.

Palermo struck the penalty with his left foot. Goalkeeper Calero, after his initial topsy turvy dances, chose to dive to his left, after an initial step towards the right. This is again a common choice by the keepers, as generally when shooters take a penalty with the left foot, they try to place it to the keeper’s left, i.e. the shooters right.

Palermo probably read the mind of Calero too, and hit an elevated shot placed slightly to the right of the centre. His placement and thinking were correct, but the shot had a little more power than what he would have liked, and it hit the cross-bar and went out. Palermo stepped back, without displaying too much frustration.

Within three minutes, Ivan Cordoba scored for Colombia via his spot-kick. Colombia had another penalty kick awarded to them in the 47th minute, but this time German Burgos, the Argentine keeper, saved Hamilton Ricard’s effort. It is not clear why Ricard, instead of Cordoba, took that penalty. May be they believed in rotation. Argentina did not believe in rotation though. So Martin Palermo again stepped up to take the second penalty that was awarded to Argentina in the 76th minute, with a chance to level the match 1-1. This time also Viveros handled the ball, as Palermo was trying head in a Juan Riquelme cross. Colombians argued with Referee Ubaldo Aquino, but to no avail. Marcelo Bielsa was really excited on the sideline, and apparently pointed to Palermo asking him to take the penalty.

This penalty was actually almost a mirror image of the earlier penalty. Same sort of topsy turvy movement by Calero, but instead of diving to his left, he dove to his right this time. Palermo again chose the right direction. This shot was again elevated, but this time, a little to the left from the centre of the goal. The placement and thinking was correct but the execution again was not perfect.The elevation was a few inches higher than Palermo’s plan and this time the ball went over the cross-bar. Palermo put his hand on head, visibly frustrated this time.

If you read Palermo’s psychology, he almost stuck to the same plan, and managed to outwit the goalkeeper both the times. But in both cases, he was may be a bit too excited and imparted too much power. One basic tactical mistake he made was that, in both cases, he chose to hit the ball with power, when he knew he will shoot above the ground, almost down the middle. Generally when penalties are taken down the middle with elevation, too much power is not good, as there is always a chance that the shot will fly above the cross-bar. We have seen it in the cases of Roberto Baggio and Asamoah Gyan. Both the penalties by Palermo were missed due to the same mistake.

Things that were happening in this match had frustrated the otherwise cool-headed Javier Zanetti, who received the only red card in his Albicelestes career in this match in the 69th minute. If that was not enough, what followed was even worse for Argentina.

Coming back to the match, Edwin Congo and Johnnier Montano scored for Colombia on 79 and 87 minutes to give Colombia a 3-0 lead, and the match was almost over for Argentina. But nevertheless, the Albicelestes were fighting hard, and in the 90th minute, Palermo received a through ball from midfield, and continued his run towards the Colombian penalty box. Probably the urge to make up for the missed penalties was strong in his mind, as Palermo fell down inside the penalty box after a very gentle shoulder push from Cordoba on his back. The Paraguayan referee Aquino was also probably desperate to see Palermo score at least one penalty in the match. He himself was probably feeling let down by the fact that only one penalty was converted among the four awarded by him during the match. Thus he awarded this last penalty and more than Palermo, referee himself probably wished that Palermo will take the third penalty and would convert this time.

Palermo stood outside the box, taking deep breaths, licking his lips probably to calm his nerves. Calero was doing the customary initial topsy turvy movements. Palermo stepped up to take the shot, with his left foot. Now let us pause and try to read into Palermo’s mind at that moment. The previous two shots were down-the-middle, elevated ones that missed the target vertically. So he would be understandably wary of repeating the same routine and would shoot closer to the ground. Now Palermo had to decide which way he would shoot it, left or right. He would get more power with his left foot (yes power was always in his mind whether it is  a grounder or above the ground) if he shoots to the left of the goalkeeper, that is to his right. So he decided to shoot to the goalkeeper’s left.

Calero misread the previous two attempts which went over the bar. This time he guessed it correctly. Palermo’s shot was close to the ground, towards the left of the keeper. But Palermo should have placed the shot a little more towards the corner. It seemed Palermo was always wary of placing the ball towards the corner, as he may have been afraid of shooting wide. This penalty was not far from the middle, and Carelo easily saved the shot diving to his left. It was difficult to say who was more frustrated after the penalty, referee Aquino or Palermo himself.

It was difficult to say who was more frustrated after the penalty, referee Aquino or Palermo himself.

Argentina lost the match 0-3, qualified to the next round as group runners up behind Colombia, faced Brazil in quarterfinal, and bowed out of the tournament losing 1-2 to their arch-rivals. If all of Palermo’s penalties would have gone in, Argentina would have avoided Brazil in quarterfinal.

Palermo had a colourful football career. He scored more than 100 goals for Boca Juniors, he once broke his leg celebrating a goal for Villarreal. He came back from exile to score a last second goal against Peru to put Argentina into the 2010 world cup finals, and became the oldest Argentine to score a goal for Argentina when he scored against Greece in the 2010 World Cup. (Incidentally this goal broke the record of Diego Maradona, Argentina’s manager in the 2010 World Cup,who was until then was the oldest Argentine to score in a world cup, also against Greece in 1994). But as long as football and its crazy moments will endure, people will remember Martin “Loco” Palermo for the “alternative hat trick” against Colombia in a dreadful night in Asuncion.

Tik Tact Tales

World Cup 2014 is still fresh in our memory. So what new did we come across? Which teams impressed us with their discipline or attacking flair? And which managers did impress us with their tactical maneuvering? Debojyoti Chakraborty analyzes all these and more here with GT.

With the FIFA 2014 World Cup finally coming to a close, there has been a great deal of debate going on about whether this World Cup was the greatest ever. There were several indications that it was definitely one of the best in post world war era. If on the one hand we had loads of goals  (at least in the group stages), plenty of drama and endless emotions, captivating us for more than a month, on the other hand we also witnessed some fascinating tactical battles throughout the campaign. Let us take a look at some tactics that left a lasting impression.


Germany started the competition in 4-3-3 formation with Philipp Lahm, possibly the best right back in the world playing as midfield anchor. Joachim Löw had a fluid front three of Mesut Özil, Mario Götze and Thomas Müller with the licence to roam and interchange at will.

Germany formation in the final - dictating the middle of the pitch
Germany formation in the final – dictating the middle of the pitch

Germany stormed through to the second round but looked slow and susceptible against an attacking opponent. In the round of 16 match against Algeria, the German full backs –Höwedes and Shkodran Mustafi, centre backs in their club teams, started venturing forward but without any substantial impact. It exposed their centre backs and Löw , the mastermind, unleashed Manuel Neuer in an extremely aggressive sweeper keeper role. It was a move which could have backfired but he trusted his keeper who never let him down with 17 perfectly timed clearances outside his penalty box. Germany, however, looked more threatening and settled as Lahm moved to his natural right back role to replace the injured Mustafi, thus paving the way for Sami Khedira in the midfield. The latter added much needed pace in the Die Mannschaft middle third while Bastian Schweinsteiger looked far more comfortable in the deep ball playing role than his captain –  the move ultimately elevated Germany to another level but happened more by chance than planning.

Löw made another decisive switch in the next match against France by introducing an out and out striker in Miroslav Klose upfront. He provided a focal point to the German attack, and allowed Müller to start at his usual right hand channel and drift inside. Although Klose had little impact on the game in the attacking third and more precisely, inside the penalty box, he helped push back the French centre backs, and thus freed up the space for German midfielders to maintain the goal threat.

With Khedira getting ruled out during warm up and his replacement Christoph Kramer having a poor game before leaving the field due to an injury , Germany were set back in the final with the shortage of central midfielders. Özil had to fall back to the midfield trio where he was never at ease. Löw  though had the final say as his super subs André Schürrle and Götze combined to clinch the title.

Germany had a very peculiar team – from an ultra-modern goalkeeper to the old-fashioned goal poacher. But just like the previous two winners Italy and Spain, Germany also had a variety of attacking threats– they seemed to find a goal scorer from virtually every corner of the field during critical moments. Joachim Löw should be credited for not only winning the World Cup, but also nurturing so many young talents en route.


Alejandro Sabella made a huge tactical error as he started the campaign with a 3-5-2, but he quickly went for damage control at half-time. With Bosnia and Herzegovina using only a lone striker upfront, Sabella spared an extra man from the back to add more solidity and control in the midfield. Lionel Messi definitely enjoyed the hybrid 4-3-3 formation and his own false 9 role.

Angel di Maria taking on Swiss defenders succesfully – Source: Squawka

Sabella drastically changed things around in his next match and moved to a 4-2-4 system against an Iran side expected to sit back and defend for their lives. Iran showed tremendous discipline and robbed Argentina of any space. Once again Argentina failed to impress.

Finally Sabella addressed the core issue, albeit through an injury to front man Sergio Agüero. Ezequiel Lavezzi was introduced and though he did not produce a tangible end product, he was honest in his wide position and provided a proper 4-2-3-1 balance to the team which gave Messi the licence to roam around. Messi, as expected, was heavily marked throughout the World Cup. However, he constantly managed to drag at least two of the opponent midfielders out of position, which was opening up a vast area between the lines for others to drift into. Unfortunately, more so after the injury to Ángel di María, none of his team mates managed to take advantage. All of Argentina’s movements were distressingly linear playing into opposition hands.

Messi dictated much of the tempo for Argentina. His reserved, calculated and sudden burst of speed while attacking meant that Argentina’s tempo changed from the qualifiers, where they preferred breaking quickly. This tactical shift was very critical for La Albiceleste – the more classic eloquent Latin American display with Messi playing  an archetypal Argentine #10 devoid of any strong European influence.

Pegged by injuries to key players, Sabella opted for Lavezzi and Enzo Pérez– a central midfielder –on the wings, semi final onwards. Lavezzi, a forward, was naturally more effective venturing forward. It showcased how two makeshift wide players, given virtually similar roles, carried them out quite differently. Especially against Germany in the final, Sabella missed a trick by not asking Lavezzi to stick to the right side taking on an uncomfortable German left back Benedikt Höwedes, a right central defender.

In the finals against Germany, Sabella made an inexplicable change at half time, a switch which tilted the balance of the game in Germany’s  favour – in came a half fit Agüero for a very lively Lavezzi and Argentina changed to a midfield diamond.  They lost all the width and pace down the flank, and played to the German hands by being extremely narrow in the central areas. Sabella opted for a star player sacrificing the team shape and it cost him the World Cup.


Louis van Gaal deployed three centre backs with a high-risk strategy – high defensive line, ready to keep possession in deep areas in own half and launch direct balls forward bypassing the opponent midfield and defensive lines. There was clear instruction for two outside centre halfs to track down the two most forward players from the opponent team, even if it meant going beyond own midfield line. This paved the way for a high pressing game with an open channel for kick starting quick counter attacks.

This strategy had some loopholes though. Australian midfielders were ready to make runs deep from their own half to exploit the zone vacated by Dutch centre backs high line. But this, in effect, opened up the game more as Robin van Persie and Arjen Robben found themselves one on one against the opponents’ mid fielders. Van Gaal closed down the game by bringing in a pacy winger Memphis Depay to keep the Australian full backs more occupied. A change of formation to 4-3-3 also deprived the Australian front three any open space, resulting in a slower game, where gap in quality eventually won.

Dutch center backs - de Vrij and Martins Indi - tracking quite high up the pitch in both the halves against Spain
Dutch center backs – de Vrij and Martins Indi – tracking quite high up the pitch in both the halves against Spain – Source: Squawka

One masterstroke by van Gaal was using Dirk Kuyt, a forward by position, as an auxiliary wing back. It allowed the Oranje to transit seamlessly from a three centre back to classical 4-4-2 during different phases of the match. This was pretty apparent in the round of 16 match against Mexico. After a stalemate in the first half where both the teams cancelled each other out in a 3-5-2 set up and were producing a slow drab game, Van Gaal switched Kuyt to a conventional full back and introduced an out an out winger. The team played an immensely attacking 4-2-1-3 formation, though at the cost of a weaker midfield , as the Dutch won the game through wide areas by pushing the opponents’ wing backs even further – rather 3-4-1-2 to very attacking 4-2-1-3.

A very courageous move was already made by substituting Van Persie for Klaas-Jan Huntelaar, a natural penalty box poacher, perfect for getting on the end of crosses. But the move of the match came during the water break, after which Kuyt moved upfront from his right-back position, with Georginio Wijnaldum covering the right of the pitch. This tactical switch resulted in the late Dutch dominance and a 2-1 comeback win.

The Dutch were good against teams taking the game to them which meant more space to work in counters. But in the quarter final they faced Costa Rica, a mirror image of themselves,  albeit with less attacking flair and prowess. It could have produced a stalemate but not with Netherlands involved. Van Gaal moved his wing backs further up to push back the opposition wing-backs, stretched his forwards with Wesley Sneijders’ across the pitch and kept the Costa Rican centre backs occupied to basket their build-up play.

Costa Rica were content at keeping their shape at the back, and hence did not have anything to offer going forward. The Dutch were controlling the game but had a redundant defender in a 3 v 1 at the back, with none of the three centre backs stepping up into midfield to dictate the game. The Oranje, surprisingly took second half of the extra-time to address this issue, but rightfully changed from a 3-4-3 to a 4-2-4, with and Huntelaar coming on up front at the expense of Bruno Martins Indi.

Then came the most talked about substitution of this World Cup. within the 119th minute, van Gaal substituted sub goalkeeper Jasper Cillessen  with Tim Krul. It was more of a psychological move than anything else : Krul is not a penalty specialist, but the iota sub convinced Costa Rica that he was.

And what an inspired substitution it was! Except for the first kick, Krul came out of his goal every time the striker walked towards the penalty spot to place it, normally walking to one side. Then Krul dived in the opposite direction of his walk. And Krul guessed it right every time, saving two in the process.

Netherlands were brilliant throughout the tournament, with van Gaal relying upon an uncommon, tight man-marking system. He was refreshingly flexible to change his formation each game to match his opposition midfield, with wing backs dropping back to have an overload in defence.


Luiz Felipe Scolari changed the way his three attacking men lined up, a tactic that surprised everyone. Oscar, most effective when operated centrally, was drifted to a wider role on the right. Neymar loves to operate from left but he was effectively used as a support striker to centre forward Fred. Hulk, who started right behind the lone striker Fred during, last year’s Confederations Cup win was shifted to the left wing. This change may be due to Neymar’s increased stocks since last year which prompted Big Phil  to offer his star player more time with the ball. But this overhaul complicated things for their most creative player, Oscar, who was visibly not comfortable playing out of position.

There is no denying the fact that nowadays Brazil lacks real skilful, creative, attacking footballers, and Scolari, hence, rightly set up the Seleção as a primarily counter-attacking team. He showed his experience by playing a midfield shuttler in Ramires and sacrificing one of the front men against teams fielding three men at the back.  But sometimes he was let down by the inexperience of Neymar, who played more like a second striker than a number 10, making himself vulnerable to marking.

Brazil front four heat map during first 30 min of match against Germany
Brazil front four heat map during first 30 min of match against Germany. Not tracking back even when the defence surely could do with some help – Source: Squawka

In the annihilation at the hands of Germany, everything that could go wrong for the hosts went wrong. The most perplexing decision was the inclusion of Bernard  in the starting XI. There has been questions on whether it was solely because he is a local Belo Horizonte boy, and Scolari, having lost Neymar already, was desperately trying to cash in on his popularity.  The whole team performance was bizarre. Brazil were atrociously broken into two sections –six defenders, four attackers, and no midfield link between them. The defence could not pass the ball to the attackers, and the front four could not retain possession much longer to ease the pressure on the back six.

In the second half, Scolari made some changes – Paulinho and Ramires replaced Hulk and Fernandinho, switching to more of a 4-3-3, with Luiz Gustavo behind Ramires and Paulinho. In hindsight, this is probably the team and shape Scolari should have started with.


Chile were one of the most versatile sides in the tournament. Jorge Sampaoli dished out a midfield diamond with plenty of variations. Marcelo Díaz, the holding midfielder would often drop deep making it a three centre back allowing the full backs to operate more like wingbacks. From there, long diagonal switch of play across the width of the field was one of the characteristics of quick Chilean counter attacks. Up front, at top of the diamond, Jorge Valdivia played further up more like a false nine rather than in a number 10 role. Striker duo of Alexis Sánchez and Edurado Vargas regularly drifted wide dragging the opponent centre halves with them and creating space for Valdivia to run into. Sampaoli also proved his worth as a clever tactician by introducing a fast, direct centre forward Jean Beausejour late in matches and switching to more traditional 4-3-3 to exploit tiring defences.

At times, Chile showed they can be reactive and can adapt very quickly. Sampoli fielded 3-4-1-2 against Spain, to replicate the Dutch pressing game against Spain. He was not copying blindly though – Chile were cautious, giving due respect to Spain as often they sat back deep to form a five man defensive line. But they overloaded when attacking and quickly changed play by passing the ball from one flank to another, a highlight of their famous win.


Jose Pékerman, the veteran Argentine coach, was widely expected to field a narrow 4-2-2-2 in the World Cup but was handicapped by last minute injury to star forward Radamel Falcao and shifted to a 4-2-3-1 formation. Star of the campaign was James Rodríguez – not only he dazzled forward but always came deep to collect the ball and play some glorious through balls. Rodríguez was thought to be uncomfortable in a converted winger position but he showed tremendous adaptability and his longitudinal awareness was absolutely brilliant. It also helped that they had two skilful full backs in Juan Camilo Zúñiga and Pablo Armero who besides providing width and making overlapping runs, were comfortable with the ball deep in opponent territory, holding and dribbling past defenders. Colombia displayed tremendous discipline with the back four and the two holding midfielders, and lit the stage with Rodríguez and another trickster in Juan Cuadrado. But they suffered up front as both Jackson Martínez and Teófilo Gutiérrez failed to impress. Had they got a decent striker in the final third to support Rodríguez, Colombia might just have gone all the way.

Costa Rica

Costa Rica shocked everyone the most with their honest and disciplined display of tactical football. Jorge Luis Pinto, in his second stint as the national team coach, deployed a back three in a counter attack based system. This was in stark contrast to all other teams in the tournament having a three centre half system – Netherlands, Mexico et al were comfortable with the ball, pressed higher and had a possession based approach. On the other hand, Pinto’s team defended deep and relied on direct counter attacks – not through long balls but refreshingly eye catching speedy passing to wide areas. Sometimes they did press high up but generally they allowed the opponent teams to come at them, get exposed at the back and then break free.


Costa Rica were brilliant at setting up off side traps – their tally of 41 successful traps till the quarter final stages was more than double of the second ranked team (Germany) in this category. It shows how cohesive their defensive unit was. But the same unit struggled to switch to a conventional flat four after going down to ten men against the round of 16 match against Greece. Pinto’s tactical shift to 4-4-1 took a while to get going as the wing backs continued to play very wide instead of playing close to the centre backs. They eventually rectified themselves by playing narrow, helping out the stoppers and leaving the flanks to be taken over by the wingers. They eventually won the match on penalties, but did not have enough tricks up their sleeves to progress further in the competition.


Didier Deschamps succeeded in bringing France out of the 2010 World Cup debacle and spearheaded a well-knit unit. France’s star performer was Mathieu Valbuena who occupied the right-sided position in a three men attack but often drifted inside into pockets of spaces in more central positions. He carried out the double role of a right winger as well as a perfect #10 – on top of a midfield diamond – with aplomb.

Benzema did not track back and his passing also was lacklustre when played wide - again Nigeria in Round of 16
Benzema did not track back and his passing also was lacklustre when played wide – against Nigeria in Round of 16 – Source: EPLINDEX

But Deschamps struggled to fit in his striker duo of Karim Benzema and Olivier Giroud in the starting XI efficiently. First of all, Valbuena had to be shifted in the left wing where his utility was compromised. Then, Giroud could not hold up the ball up front effectively enough, and often he mistimed his runs to create space for others. Benzema also became less effective whenever asked to operate from the left in a 4-3-3 system, did not offer any width at all, and could not go behind the last defender into goal scoring positions. In effect, his narrowness resulted in Valbuena’s diminished return.

But Benzema playing as a wide man was even more problematic due to his minimal defensive contribution. Against less disciplined teams such as Switzerland (at the group stage) this approach was still workable, since Swiss right-back Stephane Lichtsteiner was regularly getting caught in the French half and Benzema could exploit the space in counter-attack. But against more tactically sound sides like Nigeria in the round of 16 match, Efe Ambrose had a more balanced role to carry out. He attacked the French left wing with no one tracking him and combined well with Peter Odemwingie to create problems for Patrice Evra.

Les Blues were playing a lop-sided 4-4-2 and were going nowhere. Deschamps addressed the issue by taking off Giroud, introducing Antoine Griezmann, and shifting Benzema upfront in a classic 4-3-3. This move changed the game – Griezmann’s directness and verticality in possession proved decisive as he linked well with both Benzema and Valbuena. France won courtesy a Paul Pogba header from a corner but ran out of ideas in the quarter final against eventual winner Germany.


Marc Wilmots biggest tactical genius was perhaps the use of his substitutes. In the opener against Algeria he struggled in the first half with a 4-4-1-1 and an inept toothless attack. At the half time, Kevin de Bryune was shifted to a central position, and Belgium now had a potent target man with super sub Marouane Fellaini playing as the second striker. Fellaini did not disappoint and pulled Belgium level with a brilliant header.

Wilmots then put up an example for everyone – he did not hesitate to start with Divock Origi upfront, ahead of his number 1 striker, an underperforming Romelu Lukaku in the knock out stages. But he was not stubborn to prove himself right as he changed things whenever required. The round of 16 match against USA was turning out to be a frustrating one for the Belgian faithful. USA kept on losing the ball frequently and Belgium kept on squandering chances against an impregnable Tim Howard. Wilmots could do nothing much but still he shook things up by introducing a bit of pace by introducing Kevin Mirallas in place of Dries Mertens. In extra-time Lukaku was called off the bench to inject even more pace upfront at the expense of Origi. And Belgium finally got the crucial breakthrough as Lukaku teed up De Bruyne on the break. Ten minutes later the reverse sequence happened and Lukaku’s cameo helped Belgium overcome a stubborn USA side. Belgium created a lot in the match, but a clinical striker made all the difference late in the match.

Wilmots was handicapped with the lack of natural full backs – everyone in his back four was a centre half.  So there was no consistent overlapping runs, no overload in the wide area and one cannot succeed at the World Cup without such a basic weapon.

Notable mentions:

    • England coach Roy Hodgson excited all of us with four attackers in a 4-2-4 system. But obvious downside of this formation was lack of defensive responsibilities and less protection for full backs which cost them a lot. Also Wayne Rooney’s positioning was an issue – he was shifted constantly during and in between matches from either flanks to the behind the striker position. World Cup was no place to decide the best position for the team’s most influential player.
    • Paulo Bento used Cristiano Ronaldo more as a second striker and shifted Raul Merieles towards the left to cover for his vacated space. This was effectively a 4-4-2 but with neither forwards tracking back, it was always a lost battle in the central midfield where the opponent always created a 3 on 2 overload.
    • Greece are one of the most defensive sides the World has ever seen. But they showed their attacking flair too against a 10-man Costa Rica while trailing by a goal. Like any other side, they introduced strikers, moved up the # 10 to play more like a 4-2-4. But they did not simply hit the long balls – instead they pushed the ball wide, stretched the play, forced Costa Rica to work hard, tired them out, and lashed some brilliant crosses into the box. They were patient throughout and finally were able to equalize.
Greece chasing the game in last 30 min against Costa Rica in Round of 16 - Long balls to stretch the play
Greece chasing the game in last 30 min against Costa Rica in Round of 16 – Long balls to stretch the play – Source: Squawka
    • This World Cup saw a return of three centre back formation. But at the end, many of the teams shifted from 3-5-2 to 5-3-2 as the wing backs were instructed to be more responsible defensively. At the end of the day, it was evident that the same system could look very different by the roles carried out by individual players.
    • Another notable aspect was that how cagy an affair it can become when two sides fielding the same 3-5-2 formation lock horns (Uruguay vs Italy in the group stage, Netherlands vs Costa Rica in the last eight). Strikers become well marked by the insurance of an extra sweeper; there is no free width to be exploited as the wide areas are well guarded by the wing backs creating 1 v 1 all the time. Midfield area becomes too predictable and three CMs cancel each other out.
    • As we advanced in the tournament, teams got more cautious. Full backs / wing backs were instructed to track their opposite numbers more closely rather than being used as an outlet for attack. This reduced the possibility of having a 2 v 1 overload in the opposition wide areas and the game got more predictable.  Same was the scenario in the middle of the pitch – the midfield triangles were formed much lower; sometimes entirely well within own half by the central midfielders and very few ambitious balls were played forward.  As a result goal scoring opportunities diminished and so did the goals.

At the end of the day it really comes down to the individual players. The coach can always come up with the best of plans to tackle the opponent. But it depends on the players’ adaptability and discipline if they can execute that plan. And how well individuals can execute the tactics differentiates the winner from the rest of the bunch.

Jack Greenwell – The Original Journeyman of Football

While the world has its eyes on the new FC Barcelona manager, Kinshuk Biswas revisits an almost forgotten anecdote in the archives of international football and recounts the remarkable story of the globe-trotting enthusiast who got the ball rolling close to a century back

Tito Vilanova recently resigned as the manager of FC Barcelona, after only a year in charge following the success of the Pep Guardiola years, to continue his battle against cancer. The appointment of Gerardo ‘Tata’ Martino as the new manager has been the subject of headlines all over the media. Management of Barcelona has always been in the news because of the club’s philosophy and history. Let us today look at the life of its first full-time manager who made his mark globally.

Jack Greenwell - Barceona Total Football

19th century Barcelona seemed light years away from Crook, a small village in County Durham district in the northeast of England. It was in Peases West, just north of here that on January 2, 1884, John Richard Greenwell was born. His father was a miner as the entire region was a coal mining area. He was popularly named Jack and started working at the mines himself at the age of 14. It was a hard life punctuated by his passion – Football. Jack played in inter-mines tournaments and was asked to join Crook FC when he was 17. Mainly an old-fashioned wing-back, he could use both his feet and had a good football sense. He was drafted as a guest player in the West Auckland Town FC in the 1909 Thomas Lipton Cup which was one of the earliest international club tournaments. His team won the trophy. He played his last match for Crook in 1912 and joined Barcelona. Very little is known about how he joined Barcelona. However, it is believed that Joan Gamper, the founder of FC Barcelona had seen him play in the Thomas Lipton Cup and managed to persuade him to move to Spain. In those days, people were afraid of moving to big cities in their own country and this man left his home and moved to a country with a different language and culture. It may seem insignificant in the age of big international transfers but we should remember there was no air travel or television those days and it took seven days to travel from London to Barcelona. He struck up a good understanding with a young player named Paulino Alcántara and the team went on to win the Catalunya Championships in 1912-13 and 1915-16. Jack had met and married a Jewish lady named Doris Rubinstein in Paris in 1913 and they had a daughter named Carmen in 1915. Jack retired after the victorious 1916 season. John Barrow was appointed as the first ever full-time manager of Barcelona. He was not liked by the players, supporters or the officials and was sacked after just four months. Greenwell was appointed as the official coach of the club by Gamper, immediately after his retirement on the recommendation of the players.

John Richard “Jack”Greenwell (l) and Paulino Alcántara Riestrá (r)

Greenwell managed Barcelona for seven continuous seasons from 1917 till 1923. Only one person has managed the club longer – the legendary Johann Cryuff. The duration of Greenwell’s management was the first golden age of the club. The team won five Catalunya Championships and two editions of the Copa del Rey. There were calls of his dismissal when he was experimenting using players in different positions early in his management career. He was trying to evolve a system where any of the team members could play in any position in case of injuries as there was no concept of substitutions back in the day. It could be speculated that he was trying to create a system similar to Total Football which came more than 50 years later. This gives us an insight into the great footballing mind this man possessed. Greenwell spoke fluent Catalan and Spanish and was a very popular figure at the club. Great players like Ricardo Zamora, Josep Samitier and Franz Platko loved playing under him. Alcántara was a close friend and confidant. He left Barcelona to manage smaller teams like UE Sants and CD Castellón whom he improved from lower table relegation scrappers to the top half of the league. In 1927, he joined Barcelona’s local rivals RCD Español. He led them to a seventh place finish in the inaugural La Liga in 1928. The La Liga disappointment was forgotten when the team won the Catalunya Championships and the Cop del Rey in 1929. He was reappointed as Barcelona manager in 1931, post his stay at RCD Mallorca, guiding them to a sixth Catalunyan championship. He managed Barcelona for a total of 492 games when he left to manage Valencia CF in 1933. His stint at Valencia was not that successful except a Spanish Cup final loss to Madrid CF, the forerunner of Real Madrid in 1934. Incidentally, his old players Samitier and Zamora played for Madrid. He then managed Sporting de Gijón in 1935-36.

After 1936, Spain was in the throes of a bitter civil war. Greenwell was considered an ardent supporter of Catalunyan nationalism. The nationalists led by General Francisco Franco were unleashing a reign of terror in Catalunya. In this charged and dangerous atmosphere he moved to Turkey to continue his football management career. His daughter lived with his mother in South Wales. Very little is known about Greenwell’s time in Turkey. But the looming spectre of war in Europe saw him seek employment 6000 kilometres away in Peru, South America. He was asked to help the Peruvian national team manager Alberto Denegri with tactics for the 1936 Berlin Olympic Games. Peru was eliminated in the quarter-finals by Austria in highly controversial circumstances. In 1939, he was made manager of the Peruvian national team and Universitario de Deportes club. The Copa America in 1939 was held at Peru. The hosts met Uruguay in the final which they won 2-1. Jack Greenwell thus became the first Englishman to manage a national team to win an international tournament. He is till date the only European manager to win the Copa America. He is also the first foreigner to win a trophy managing a national team.  He is still considered a revered and cult figure in Peruvian football.  So many records yet very few people in his home country know about him.

Crook Town photo before Greenwell’s last game with the team

After his exploits in Peru, Greenwell moved to Colombia in 1940 to take over the management of the national team for the Central American and Caribbean Games of 1942. The Games were postponed due to the war. He then joined the Independiente Santa Fe club. Colombia did not have any league or FIFA affiliation at that time. Greenwell guided the side to the final of the Torneo de Cundinamarca where they were beaten by America de Cali. On October 5, 1942, Santa Fe defeated local rivals Deportivo Texas 10-3. Two days later, while returning home after a morning session he had a massive cerebral haemorrhage and passed away before any help could arrive. It is said the entire city of Barcelona wept when they received the news of his demise. Paulino Alcántara said he had lost his soul.
It is not the achievements of Jack Greenwell which make him an all-time great in my opinion. It is his love for the game. He was often asked why he was in Colombia, a country not even recognised by FIFA. His answer was a counter-question; did the people of Colombia not deserve the beautiful game just because FIFA deemed so?  Two things he always carried with himself, an image of St. George killing the Dragon, although he preferred the name St. Jordi like the Catalans do, and a small piece of cloth, of Barcelona team colours, in his pocket.
A true legend who left behind a sparkling legacy. Not just a man, he was ‘More than a Man’!