It Couldn't Be Stopped : In Colombia, Andres Escobar's Unsolved Murder Is Now Seen as No More Preventable Than the Own Goal That Preceded It

TIMES STAFF WRITER

As Danilo Aceval, Paraguay's goalkeeper, tried to clear the ball from the penalty area, he kicked it clumsily against the legs of one of his defenders, then watched in dismay as it ricocheted into the net behind him, an own goal that clinched Colombia's 2-0 victory Sunday night and a berth in tonight's Pan American Games soccer semifinals against Mexico.

At the opposite end of the worn, browning field at Estadio Ciudad de Mar del Plata, Oscar Cordoba could empathize. He was Colombia's goalkeeper at the Rose Bowl last June 22, when perhaps the most famous own goal in World Cup history was scored by one of his defenders, Andres Escobar, greatly aiding the United States in a 2-1 upset victory.

But to presume that the play Sunday night revived memories for Cordoba would be a mistake because, as he said last week after a practice session, thoughts of that fateful day in Pasadena, and its tragic aftermath as Escobar was shot and killed 10 days later outside a Medellin, Colombia discotheque, have never died for him.

"There is not one day that goes by that I do not think of Andres," he said through an interpreter, fighting back tears.

In the rest of the world, it has been accepted that Escobar was murdered because of the own goal. But in Colombia, where an eight-month-plus police investigation is nearing conclusion, the prevailing sentiment today is that Escobar became merely another statistic in the country's ever-expanding random violence.

"Upon reflection, I think it could have happened to any of us," Cordoba said.

On a Pan American Games team comprised primarily of players under 23, Cordoba, who turned 25 in February, is the only one who was part of Colombia's World Cup disappointment. He was the starting goalkeeper and Escobar's roommate.

As he recalled the loss to the United States, Colombia's second in as many games in the tournament and the one that doomed a team some experts considered a championship contender to first-round elimination, Cordoba said that Escobar reacted characteristically to the own goal--unemotionally and with few words.

"He said, 'Go on, take the ball out of the net, get going,' " Cordoba said.

Even after the game, at the Colombian team's hotel, Cordoba said that Escobar seemed to take the incident in stride, contradicting media reports later that the defender was so distraught he could not sleep for days.

"I don't think that's true, and I believe I would know because we were close," said Cordoba, who is from Cali. "No one else on the team blamed him because we knew he was trying to clear the ball, and he was experienced enough to know that it was just something that happens in a game."

What occurred after the team's return to Colombia, however, was not part of any game. In the early morning hours of July 2, after an evening of dining, drinking and dancing, Escobar became involved in an argument with several other men. When he left, they were waiting for him outside and he was shot 12 times.

Escobar, 27, a local hero in Medellin, a drug- and violence-plagued city that has few to spare, died where he fell in the street.

The immediate speculation by the Colombian national radio network, relying on Medellin police sources, was that he was killed because of the own goal, a report that was repeated throughout the world and further contributed to the country's image as a place where one could be murdered for any transgression, even one as insignificant as contributing to a soccer loss.

In a comment that speaks volumes about the fragility of life in Colombia, Cordoba said that he did not initially dismiss that possibility.

"I was nervous," he said. "If they came after Andres because of the own goal, I thought they might come after me. After all, I was the goalkeeper who let the ball go through."

Colombia's soccer federation also took the perceived threat seriously, assigning security to the national team players for several days after the murder. Even before the game against the United States, another player, Gabriel Gomez, received a death threat by fax at the team's hotel. The origin and reason are unknown.

But as news of the police investigation into Escobar's death emerged, it became increasingly apparent to federation officials it had more to do with words spoken in the heat of an argument inside a discotheque than his actions on the field.

"There is no reason to even try hiding that we live in a culture of violence in Colombia," said Gustavo Moreno Jaramillo, head of the team's delegation to the 1994 World Cup and the Pan American Games. "This was a common street incident, probably caused by the fact that Escobar and the men he was arguing with were drunk. We don't know what the argument was about. Some witnesses have said it was about the performance of the team in the United States. But we no longer think he died because of the own goal."

A sports reporter here for a Medellin newspaper, Wilson Sanchez, was more guarded.

"There are still a lot of hypotheses," he said. "The investigation is not completed, and the police will openly admit that they don't know what really happened."

A suspect, who surrendered to police, has been in jail since July.

As for Colombian soccer, it lurches forward. Several veterans said they would not play for the national team again after the World Cup. But all except 32-year-old star midfielder Carlos Valderrama have reconsidered and probably will represent the country, along with five or six players from the Pan Am team that has won three of four games by a combined score of 9-3, in this summer's Copa America in Uruguay.

It appears, even to Cordoba, however, that he will be replaced in goal by Rene Higuita, the former No. 1 keeper who missed the World Cup while in prison on a kidnaping charge on which he was not convicted.

"The people of Colombia are frustrated and sad about the World Cup," Moreno Jaramillo said. "They are waiting to see progress, but not patiently. They will not get over it until the next one in France in 1998."

Asked what happened to the team in the United States, he said, "Lack of humility."

Cordoba rejected that, saying: "We were the same during the World Cup as we were before. It was just that, when you are losing, people pay more attention to your behavior and try to read things into it."

So what was wrong with the team?

"I don't know," he said.

The Medellin reporter, Sanchez, again reserved comment when asked about speculation that the players were influenced by bets placed on or against them by the Colombian drug cartels. But Moreno Jaramillo denied it.

"People try to blame everything that happens in our country on the drug dealers," he said.

Agreeing, Cordoba said, "I feel sorry for the press that it has to be so sensationalistic and irresponsible to stay in business."

When he steps on the field, he said, he does not fear for his life because of what might happen in the game, and neither, he believes, do other Colombian players.

"The people of Colombia, like in most South American countries, are fanatics about soccer," he said. "But they represent no danger to us. What happened to Andres was coincidental, an isolated incident."

Asked if he is saddened that his country has become synonymous with violence, even in sports, Sanchez said, "I am almost immune to it by now. I am no longer sad, just angry."

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