Even on a continent mad about soccer, Colombia stands out as a nation obsessed almost beyond
reason. Months before a pivotal
World Cup game between their country and the United States in Pasadena, Calif., on June 22, Colombian sports commentators were predicting almost certain victory. The game would be an international coup, they said, a chance to show the world that there is more to their country than drugs and violence. But the Colombians played poorly, and lost.
Overnight, the heroes became villains, with the sharpest barbs reserved for Andrés Escobar, a 27-year-old star defender who inadvertently scored on his own goal while trying to block an American pass. Ten days later,
Escobar was murdered outside a Medellin nightclub by a man shouting, ‘Thanks for the own goal, you son of a bitch.” Devastated Colombians last week tried to understand how soccer fever could turn into soccer psychosis.
Some blamed Colombia’s violent culture and the close ties between some soccer teams and drug cartels. Others, like Roman Catholic archbishop Darío Castrillón Hoyos, accused the media of stirring soccer passions to a fevered pitch. “One must not exacerbate Colombian emotions so much,” he said. “It is very dangerous.”
For the first time, North Americans are being treated to the live spectacle of the world’s finest players competing in the planet’s most popular sport. Against a backdrop of spectacular soccer, there is an added flavor of sportinspired passion rarely seen in North American contests. Certainly, U.S. and Canadian sports
enthusiasts are well acquainted -
with zany fans and violent riots inspired by football and hockey. But these sports have nothing like the emotional power of soccer. And although the Escobar assassination is clearly soccer passion at its darkest, the sport does seem to burrow deeply into national psyches like no other, turning a win or loss into an event that is deeply felt by individuals. “Sports like soccer become personal in a way
that politics seldom do,” says University of Toronto psychology professor John Bassili. “When fans shout, We’re number 1,’ it means more. It means, they think of themselves as being the best.” North Americans, of course, got caught up in the celebratory atmosphere as the monthlong World Cup tournament drew closer to its July 17 climax in Pasadena. In Toronto and elsewhere across Canada, throngs of merrymaking fans carrying Italian and
Brazilian flags invaded ethnic neighborhoods in the wake of their teams’ secondround victories. But the most passionate behavior—acts of wildly exultant celebration mixed with bizarre violence—occurred far from North American shores.
People in Colombia say it has gone too far. National soccer team coach Francisco Maturana and some of his players received death
threats prior to the Pasadena game. After Colombia’s elimination, Maturana resigned. And assistant coach Hernán Darío Gómez reportedly refused to take over, saying that he feared for his life. Other players on the national team received police protection.
Those developments helped fuel speculation that Escobar’s murder was engineered by drug cartel members who may have bet heavily on the U.S. game and were seeking revenge for their losses. But police insisted that the killing was spontaneous. They said that a chauffeur named Humberto Muñoz confessed to shooting Escobar—no relation to drug king Pablo Escobar who died in a police shootout last December—and that two brothers were being held as accomplices. Muñoz was employed by a man rumored to have bet on the Colombian team. In the aftermath of the murder, Colombians appeared united in their grief and shock. “People here are crazy,” said Patricia Chillan, a dentist in the capital, Bogotá. “I was saddened to see how it has harmed the image of the country.”
The Colombian tragedy, though, was only the most dramatic in a spate of unlikely soccer-related incidents around the world. Last week, Italians, ecstatic over their team’s victory over Nigeria, celebrated from one end of the country to another. During the festivities, a sevenyear-old boy was killed in Herculaneum, near Naples, after his uncle jubilantly fired a pistol in the air. In Mexico, President Carlos Salinas de Gortari publicly chastised losing coach Miguel Mejia Baron for not using substitute players at a critical point in Mexico’s secondround match against Bulgaria. And in Ireland, when team manager Jack Charlton said that he could not attend a homecoming party for his players, Prime Minister Albert Reynolds had to intervene to persuade him to change his mind.
The game, according to at least one die-hard fan, creates powerful emotions partly because of a grassroots camaraderie among those who have played it. “Everyone knows how hard it is to score that goal,” says Jason Kyle, a 26-year-old transplanted Scot and avid soccer player who now lives in Vancouver. “And when you have the ball, it’s such a feeling of freedom.” Even so, Kyle appreciates the bewilderment that many North Americans still feel in the face of soccer fever. “Soccer fans,” he concedes, “are a wee bit crazy, to be sure.”
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