FOR MOST OF THE WORLD CUP TOURNAMENT he played superbly. A tall, skillful defender, Colombia's Andrés Escobar, 27, made only one grave miscue. During the game against the United States on June 22, he inadvertently deflected the bail into his own goal, setting the stage for a humiliating 2-1 loss for the Colombians.

With his team eventually ousted from the competition, Escobar—no relation to the late Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar—headed back home to Medellín, saddened but philosophical. "Please, let's not let the defeat affect our respect for the team and the sport," he wrote in a column for the national newspaper El Tiempo on June 28. "It was the most phenomenal and strange experience I've everfelt in my life. See you later because life is not over at this point."

Tragically for Escobar, life did end all too suddenly and soon. As he and two women friends left a Medellín dance bar at 3:30 on Saturday morning, July 2, he was accosted by three men and a woman. An eyewitness said one of the men shouted, "Thanks for the own-goal, son of a bitch!" Escobar apparently said something back. At that point two other men stepped up, and at least one of them pulled out a handgun. "All of a sudden we heard gunfire and then Escobar was on the ground, groaning and clutching his chest," said witness Jorge Arango. "The women with him were screaming. One of them was wearing a white dress, and it was covered with blood." Escobar, shot six times, was pronounced dead 25 minutes later.

His assailants fled, but police quickly rounded up three suspects, one of whom, Humberto Muñoz, confessed to the shooting. Authorities believe the killing was premeditated and are investigating whether it may have been ordered by drug traffickers who lost heavily in wagering on the Colombian team, which had been favored by many to win the World Cup. "We know they are accustomed to betting millions of dollars, and the Colombia-U.S.A. game represented what is probably the heaviest betting ever in this perverse history," said National Police Director General Octavio Vargas Silva.

Even in a country inured to bloodshed, the murder of Escobar triggered widespread shock and outrage. Colombians revere their soccer stars, and Escobar was one of the most popular players on the national team. Handsome and well-spoken, he supplemented his $5,000-to $6,000-a-month soccer salary by appearing as a television spokesman for a number of products, including Speed Stick deodorant, Leo underwear and Pony-Malta malt beverage. The son of a well-to-do businessman and a homemaker, he had been studying for a master's degree in economics. In a few months he was to marry his girlfriend of four years, Pamela Cascal, 23, a recent dental school graduate.

Above all, Escobar was widely respected as a steadying force on a contentious team. "He was a modest, calm and peaceful man," recalled his trainer, Juan Eugenio Jimenez. After the loss to the United States, a group of Colombian fans traveling with the team had presented Escobar with a scroll, traditionally a token given to the best player on the team, but in this case also a tribute to his sportsmanship. "You are our ambassador," read part of the inscription.

Regrettably, the example Escobar set was lost on the more violent elements in his country. During the World Cup tournament, the Colombian team had been plagued by threats, apparently from the cocaine lords. Just before the game against the United States, anonymous messages turned up on the computer at the reception desk of the Fullerton, Calif., Marriott hotel where the team was staying. If coach Francisco Maturana did not pull midfielder Gabriel Jaime Gómez, they warned, "we will set off bombs against your families in Medellín."

In the aftermath of the murder, police assigned guards to other players and their families, hoping to avert further violence. But erasing the country's shame over such a senseless act may prove more difficult. "It's hard to believe that a wrong goal could cost the life of someone like Andrés, who was a role model for the entire team," said coach Maturana. "Colombia is a nation of mostly decent people, but unfortunately the bad ones make the most noise."

BILL HEWITT
TOM QUINN in Bogotá

  • Contributors:
  • Tom Quinn.