By Kevin Baxter Los Angeles Times
BRASILIA, Brazil — Colombia will mark two soccer milestones this week.
One is happy, the other tragic. One inspires pride, the other sorrow.
And chances are one doesn’t happen without the other.
Today, Colombia plays in a World Cup quarterfinal for the first time — against host country Brazil. Colombia, with four wins in as many tries in this World Cup, has won more Cup games in 12 days than it had in its previous four tournament appearances combined.
“We are making history,” said Colombia’s playmaker James Rodriguez, the best player on the best team in this World Cup.
Andres Escobar is also part of Colombian soccer history. July 2 was the 20th anniversary of the murder of Escobar, a Colombia defender, in the parking lot of a bar in Medellin, punishment for the own goal against the United States that knocked Colombia out of the 1994 World Cup in the first round.
Escobar was taunted by three men, two of whom took out guns. He was shot six times, with one of the gunmen shouting “Gooool” as Escobar writhed on the pavement.
The killer couldn’t have known it then, but that moment was a turning point in Colombia, where soccer hasn’t been looked at the same way since.
More than 120,000 mourners attended Escobar’s funeral. A statue was dedicated to him in his hometown of Medellin and his family honored him by founding a soccer program for disadvantaged youth.
And here’s where the two events — with the joy and the tragedy, the pride and the sorrow — intersect.
Escobar’s death was pinned on the leaders of a drug cartel who had bet heavily on Colombia and lost. Colombia’s rapid rise in world soccer in the 1980s and ’90s was funded largely by the cartels, which expected to profit from their largesse. So Escobar and his teammates were playing in the U.S. that summer under almost unbearable pressure — not to mention threats and intimidation, which eventually led to murder.
The country and its fans learned the obvious lesson. So while this year’s team, the first from Colombia to make the World Cup in 16 years, has captured the country’s imagination, fans there have greeted the success more with enthusiasm than expectation. With plaudits, not pressure.
The team has responded in kind, playing with more joy and passion than any other in the tournament in victories over Greece, Ivory Coast, Japan and Uruguay. Colombia, in fact, is playing the kind of attractive, free-flowing soccer normally associated with Brazil, its quarterfinal opponent.
And it’s the tragedy that fuels the joy.
“Go Colombia. Win in honor of Andres Escobar” one fan wrote on Twitter, using the hashtag AndresEscobar. Others, continuing a tradition that began 20 years ago, have toted oversized pictures of Escobar — his face forever frozen in a wry grin, one eyebrow arched — to the games or public viewing parties.
“We will never stop thinking about him or feeling that he is one of our own,” former Colombia defender Jorge Bermudez told a news agency this week. “Every Colombia triumph will also be, in some way, his.”
And so the Colombian team will take the field Friday not weighed down by history but inspired by it. Contrast that with its opponent, Brazil, which is facing enormous pressure to win and justify the $11.5 billion the country has spent to stage the monthlong World Cup.
If one word could sum up the mood around the Colombian players it would be dream. And their Argentine-born coach Jose Pekerman has done a masterful job managing that mood, keeping his team focused on one game at a time.
“When you have a dream and you really pursue it and picture things like this happening, then it can become a reality,” said Rodriguez, who is having a superb World Cup with a tournament-high five goals. “If you want something and you work hard for it, then it can happen.”
Which isn’t to say Colombia hasn’t faced adversities of its own. It has.
Radamel Falcao, the team’s unquestioned leader and star striker, was left off the World Cup team because of a knee injury. That was expected to cripple Colombia, which came into the tournament a 33-1 longshot to win. But Rodriguez, a 22-year-old midfielder, has stepped up to fill that void, scoring in each of Colombia’s four wins. And now the dream team is two wins away from the final.
“For me, special talents are those who do things that are completely out of the ordinary,” Uruguay Coach Oscar Tabarez said after Rodriguez scored both goals in Colombia’s 2-0 round-of-16 win over its South American neighbor. “Diego Maradona, Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez, James Rodriguez — they do things because they have certain gifts that make them special.
“I believe he’s the best player at the World Cup. I don’t think I’m exaggerating.”