WORLD CUP USA '94 : COMMENTARY : It's a Tragedy When Sports Become More Than a Game


Maybe I'll stop apologizing to all these English guys about not knowing much about soccer. Maybe I don't want to know all that much about a sport that seems to foster hooligans and murderers.

Or maybe Andres Escobar's murder had little to do with soccer. This isn't sport. This is insanity.

It strikes me that we in the United States, as sickeningly violent as some elements of our society have become, have no clue about something like Escobar's death.

When Bill Buckner let that ground ball go through his legs in Game 6 of the 1986 World Series, did we expect him to be a gunman's target? How about when Chris Webber called that timeout when Michigan didn't have one, or when Marty McSorley tried to get away with the illegal stick in the Stanley Cup finals?

Did we talk about increased security for these guys? Did we send somebody else out to start their cars?

Of course not. We take our sports very seriously here, but they are still, after all, sports. Perhaps we figure our sports heroes who make bonehead plays suffer enough having to face the press afterward. We bury 'em in print, not in caskets.

I went back and reviewed some of the things written after the U.S. soccer team upset Colombia in the Rose Bowl on June 22, in the game in which middle defender Escobar, trying to kick away John Harkes' cross to Ernie Stewart, had the ball ricochet off his foot and into his goal. From Bogota, Colombia, Times staffer Tracy Wilkinson quickly captured the mood in her opening, and it was serious. She wrote: "Perhaps it was the silence that was most telling."

Later in the story, she wrote of the death threat to team member Gabriel Jaime Gomez: If Gomez played against the United States, his home would be blown up in Colombia. Gomez didn't play.

She also quoted a fan, Carlos Rios, as saying, before the game: "The team has to win. If they don't, they won't be able to come back. They'll have to look for work in a factory over there (in Los Angeles)."

Wilkinson also wrote that the government had banned the sale of alcohol and the carrying of guns, measures aimed at "cutting down on murders and traffic deaths that routinely occur after Colombia's games--especially after the victories." Note the word "routinely."

Wilkinson lives and works in El Salvador and visits Colombia frequently. She knew this stuff was more than just guys kicking soccer balls into nets while wearing the jerseys of their respective countries.

Others didn't know, didn't understand.

Harkes was quoted after the own goal as joking about how he actually had set that goal up and planned just how he would ricochet the ball off Escobar's heel.

I wrote a line a few days later about the losing ways of the Colombian team in which I speculated that goalkeeper Oscar Cordoba, who had made a series of mistakes in goal, might actually be the first person ever to look forward to moving to New Jersey.

There were lots of jokes like this, and they obviously were based on the knowledge that Colombia, and its drug lords, and its generally hot temperament, is not exactly a convent. Indeed, the murder rate there is eight times as high as it is in the United States, and we aren't exactly a country of Mother Teresas.

Clearly, what are throw-away lines for us are real-life situations for Colombians.

My conclusions are easy. Shooting somebody over a mistake in a soccer game is stupid. Caring that much about anything in any game is stupid.

I learned about Escobar's death from a wide-eyed 10-year-old boy Saturday morning. He stopped by some tennis courts to find somebody to tell. He was Latino. Perhaps he was Colombian. I was too stunned to ask him.

But I watched his reaction and realized that, as a big soccer fan, he had learned very early in his life that the sport he loves might be a sport, but it is also something that can get you killed if you mess up.

That's more than stupid. That's tragic.

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