Union goalie recalls slain Colombian teammate Escobar

Union goalie Faryd Mondragon also stars for Colombia's national team.
Union goalie Faryd Mondragon also stars for Colombia's national team.
Posted: February 15, 2011

EYES TO THE floor, his head moving from left to right in deep thought, Faryd Mondragon evidently wanted to ensure he didn't miss the tiniest detail of the most memorable period of his life.

In a time when soccer helped galvanize the true spirit of Colombia, a country overridden with terrorism, fear and despotic drug lords, the people rallied around their star-studded national team, a team Mondragon - the newest member of the Union - was a part of as a 23-year-old reserve goalkeeper.

In qualifying for the 1994 World Cup in the United States, Colombia lost only one game in all national competitions over a 2-year period, including a shocking, 5-0 victory over Argentina and a win over Brazil. Colombia had qualified for the 1990 World Cup in Italy after a 32-year absence, but its hopes for a championship were soaring when it arrived 4 years later in the U.S.

That was the high.

"Obviously, during the qualifiers, we arrived at our top level," Mondragon, now 39, said, mentioning teammates Faustino Asprilla, Carlos Valderrama, Fredy Rincon, Leonel Alvarez and Andres Escobar. Mondragon made his World Cup debut against England in the 1998 World Cup in France. "It's going to be a while before we ever see a team like that in our country again."

The lows quickly followed when the Colombians failed to meet mammoth expectations - death threats, kidnappings and, ultimately, the savage murder of defender and national golden boy Escobar less than 2 weeks after he accidentally kicked the ball into his own net in a 2-1 loss to the Americans.

Mondragon said Escobar was "like a brother." Pursued by top European club teams, Escobar had signed a precontract with Italian giant AC Milan. He had seemingly found his way out of the black cloud that engulfed Colombia's club teams, many of which were run by competing drug cartels. He was someone Mondragon looked up to, someone he'd hope to emulate. Someone who was viewed as a bright light around all that was wrong with Colombia at the time.

"As a player, he was an excellent player, but as a human being, he was fantastic," Mondragon recalled.

Mondragon was with the World Cup team behind stand-in goalkeeper Oscar Cordoba. Colombia's main goalkeeper, the flashy Rene Higuita, was kept off the squad for being imprisoned after visiting drug kingpin Pablo Escobar (no relation) in prison.

Despite a 3-1 opening-round loss to Romania, Colombia entered the Rose Bowl to play a U.S. team it had never lost to and was expected to trounce.

Mondragon recalled a sense of fear and anxiety fueled by threats of death and harm to family members from bettors and cartel members that overwhelmed Colombia's locker room before the U.S. match.

"At that time, we'd lost the first [group] game against Romania and we had a lot of pressure to win [the second against the U.S.]," Mondragon said. "We started playing a good game against the States, even with all that we had going on, but we missed a lot of chances, which was very uncharacteristic. And then came this goal that put us down the hole, and, after that, we didn't even have the chance to recover from ourselves."

That goal was one Escobar unintentionally put into his own net when he deflected a cross from U.S. captain John Harkes. Cordoba had no chance at a save. The 2-1 loss meant an unexpected exit in the first round and led to Escobar's murder at a nightclub just outside Medellin. Escobar was shot 12 times in his car by men many thought had lost money betting in favor of Colombia. Only one, Humberto Castro Muñoz, was charged with the murder; he was convicted in 1995 and released from jail in 2005 after his term was reduced.

"I was at a training session getting ready for our next [World Cup match, against Brazil] and the first thing that comes are a slew of reporters asking me what I thought about the Andres Escobar situation," Harkes said in a phone interview with the Daily News. "I said, 'I have no idea what you are talking about.' That's how I found out. It was a very tragic day, in the game of soccer as a whole. Today, we see that there are so many other surrounding variables that may have been the cause since then and there was so much going on behind the scenes with soccer in Colombia at that time. But to take soccer and make it a life-or-death extreme is just horrifying. You try to separate the two, you knew the challenge it was going to be [to play Colombia] and how highly they were respected. It might go down as the biggest win U.S. Soccer has ever had, but then you look at the events that followed; it does take away a lot, because it's so dampened with sorrow."

Mondragon summarized Escobar's life best.

"He was so proud, so funny," Mondragon said. "He was loved by everyone. He was like the baby of everyone. He was a very important part of who we were. We'd stay up late in the hotels just talking and laughing and he told the best jokes. He knew how to get your mind off of the bad things that were going on . . . it was tough that the one [who would be killed] was Andres."

The period from 1989 to 1995 was referred to as "narco-soccer." According to "The Two Escobars," an ESPN documentary about Pablo and Andres Escobar, Colombian club teams were well-financed by drug cartels, able to retain their best players and still bring in big-time imports. This quickly fueled the rise of Colombia's national team, which held a top 30 ranking from 1990-2002, going as high as No. 4 in the world in 1996 and No. 5 for a brief time after capturing the 2001 Copa America title.

Today, Colombia ranks 50th in the world and has not made a return to the World Cup since the first-round exodus in France in 1998. Many of Colombia's top players actively seek club contracts outside the country. Mondragon was playing in Germany before signing with the Union.

The Colombian pipeline to the Union has come through the work of top scout and assistant Diego Gutierrez, who is also Colombian. The team has signed four Colombia-based players: Juan Diego Gonzalez, Roger Torres, Carlos Valdes and Mondragon, and is said to be after more.

"We are not in the market to just bring over Colombian players," Gutierrez said. "It's just at the moment these players are an extremely good value, are in high demand and we have been able to put ourselves in a situation where we can actually go out and afford these players. We continue to evaluate the market and the players worldwide, and if the candidates that we want to bring in as we narrow down the list happen to be Colombian, well, we just want to bring the best players available."

Currently, Mondragon is the starting goalkeeper on the national team, which held the United States to a scoreless draw during a friendly last October at PPL Park. And while it's still an honor to represent his country, Mondragon can't help to think back on what was.

"That was a really top-quality team, and it was very important for me to just be [23] years old and to be around such talented players and be involved in my first World Cup," Mondragon said. "Nowadays, we have a lot of young players playing in Europe, playing in the most important leagues, but I think that the soccer that that national team played was top-quality and will always be respected and celebrated."

When asked whether Colombia will ever regain the prominence it held when sheer turmoil gave rise to world-class soccer, Mondragon, once again, went into deep thought before his answer: "Hopefully."

Coudet waived

The Union announced it has waived Argentine midfielder Eduardo "Chacho" Coudet. He was acquired through a free transfer from Argentina First Division club Club Atletico Colon last July.

Also, the Union acquired the rights to 21-year-old forward Chris Agorsor via a weighted lottery. He played at the University of Virginia and went on lengthy training sessions with Manchester United and CD Nacional in Portugal. *

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