More than just the Scorpion kick: Rene Higuita

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Pantomime villain Joey Barton recently received a 12 match ban for his behaviour on the last day of EPL season. The severity of the punishment has been debated at length but what is not in doubt is the recidivist nature of this repeat offender and his apparent refusal to learn from his mistakes.

From stubbing a cigarette in the eye of a youth player, attacking team-mates and opponents to serving 77 days in prison for common assault the QPR midfielder has a litany of misdeeds and he seems intent on adding to them in the future.

That being said despite having a record “as long as his arm” Barton still has a fair way to go to match the exploits of one of the most colourful goalkeepers of modern, football history: José René Higuita Zapata.

The goalkeeping idol impressed and horrified with equal measure and why he didn’t have his problems to speak off the pitch, in the main he was forgiven because he never failed to dazzle and entertain when playing for his country and many clubs.

For many the abiding memory of Colombia’s Rene “El Loco” Higuita will be his “Scorpion Kick” against England in the old Wembley Stadium in 1995. The game was inching along to a 0-0 draw when Jamie Redknapp mishit a shot/cross from the right hand side. Higuita, maybe bored with the evening’s events, needed only to catch the aimless ball but instead opted to dive forward and clear using the soles of his boots. It was a marvellous footballing moment which left the crowd and TV spectators enthralled and would become Higuita’s signature play piece .One that he would happily re-enact many more times in the future; mainly for the press.

“Some people say you have to be a little crazy to be a good goalkeeper,” Higuita told a journalist years later.

For “a little crazy” (or poco loco) we should read as mad as a bag of ferrets.

Alike many South American footballers a young Rene grew up in poverty. He was raised by his grandmother in a barrio of Medellin during a time when Colombia was plagued with violence and was fast turning into the world’s number one narco-state.

At 19 he made his league debut for Millonarios of Bogota, the historical giants of Colombian league football making 16 appearances and scoring 5 goals (a feat he would regularly go on to replicate).Despite this successful first season he opted to return home to Medellin and join his beloved Atletico Nacional who were being funded and largely controlled at the time by the infamous Pablo Escobar.

His new team-mates included the likes of Faustino Asprilla, Leonel Alvarez, Andres Escobar and Albeiro Usuriaga, who would all go on to be integral parts of the coming Colombian football renaissance. Under the tutelage of legend Fransisco “Choco” Maturana , Atletico became the first Colombian team to win the Copa Libertadores when they beat Olympia of Paraguay in one of the most famous of finals.

After clawing back a 2-0 deficit the 2nd league of the final in Bogota was tied 2-2 on aggregate and so moved onto penalties. The shoot-out presented the opportunity for Higuita to become the hero and it was an opportunity he did not waste. By this time Rene was a regular penalty taker so he stepped up to score Colombia’s third and save five of the opposition’s kicks, four of which were in sudden death. His last sudden death, penalty saves allowed Leonal Alvarez to claim the winner.

COPA LIBERTADORES FINAL 1989

When Choco Maturana took over Colombia for Italia 1990 he used Higuita and his Atletico team-mates as a base of the squad. Combined with Carlos Valderrama and Freddy Rincon they had an impressive squad of hungry, young players.

A 2-0 win against the United Arab Emirates, a 1-0 loss to Yugoslavia and a 1-1 dramatic, last ditch draw against West Germany saw them qualify for the next round for the first time. Their reward was a last 16 tie with the tournament surprise team Cameroon.

Almost as much as the “Scorpion kick” Rene Higuita is remembered for his mistake against Cameroon and their captain, Roger Milla.

To modern day supporters his daredevil antics near the centre circle appear foolhardy and selfish but that is to ignore the benefits of having a goalkeeper who also acted as a sweeper and creative influence upon the team. In addition to this he was an attacking option and a potent threat from set-pieces. Although his goal scoring record could not match a centre forward (or Jose Luis Chilavert) it puts many a defender or midfielders rate to shame. To have such an all-rounder must have been quite a weapon in your armoury especially as he was an accomplished shot stopper and top level goalkeeper to boot.

HIGUITA FREEKICK VS RIVER PLATE

His national manager (Choco Maturana) was certainly aware of these benefits claiming at the time:

“(Higuita) gives us something no one else has, and we take full advantage. With Rene as sweeper, we have 11 outfield players…. Jan Jongbloed, the Holland keeper in the 1974 World Cup, also operated as a sweeper. With a difference. The Dutchman came out just to boot the ball into the stands. Higuita can do much more.”

Unfortunately, this time Higuita came unstuck and was robbed of the ball far up the pitch leaving his goal open for Milla to slide home the decisive winner. He was made to look stupid as he scrambled back to his goal, this time his audacity and adventurous spirit resulted in Colombia’s elimination.

Rene vs Roger, Italia 1990

Despite their World Cup disappointment Colombia continued to blossom as an international force. Second and fourth places in the 1991 and 1993 Copa America’s were coupled with a first place position in the 1994 World Cup campaign.

A 5-0 final game defeat of Argentina, in Buenos Aires was the cherry on the cake. Now everyone had to sit up and take notice of the “Cafeteros”. Many, including Pele were touting them as favourites for the World Cup in USA.

But before this disaster had struck for Higuita struck in the form of Pablo Escobar and his corrosive, influence upon both the Colombian people and its football.

The fascinating documentary “the two Escobars” highlights the relationship between Rene Higuita and the infamous drug king-pin. The Zimbalist brother’s excellent piece of work directly correlates Colombia’s period of success with the Narco-lord’s age of rule and “El Loco” was right in the middle of this relationship.

FULL ESPN DOCUMENTARY “THE TWO ESCOBARS”

During the early nineties Colombia was actively trying to combat the narco -traffickers and improve its dreadful international reputation.

Escobar had been given a pseudo jail sentence by the authorities instead of extradition to the USA and a likely death penalty. His jail was a self-regulated palace located high in the mountains far away from the media spotlight. He still continued to control his empire and his power was such that he would summon the Colombian national team to play private matches in the “prison” courtyard/pitch. Whether the players wanted to play in these matches is debatable but I doubt many would openly defy the demands of noted gangster and mass-murderer.

Colombia’s Italia 1990 team

Higuita on the other hand seemed to enjoy a close relationship with Escobar: in much the same way as many of the 1960’s London based footballers mixed with the Krays and other cockney villains. When people grow up in poverty it creates a bond which is hard to break and forges lifelong friendships. While this may be incomprehensible to the more fortunate and higher classes it is normal for those less lucky. Regardless the goalkeeper felt no reason to publicly deny his and Escobar’s amity.

In 1993 when he decided to visit his old friend in prison the press were waiting for him. Footage of Higuita running from the reporters was beamed around Colombia and the world severely embarrassing the Colombian government and forcing them into action.

When Higuita was employed as an intermediary in a Medellin kidnapping case the authorities seized their opportunity to punish and exact retribution. Higuita received payment ($50,000) for his “go-between” duties and as a result it was argued that he had profited from the crime instead of informing the authorities.

The result was a seven month jail sentence which immediately ruled him out of the next year’s World Cup.

Without their goalkeeper USA 1994 was disastrous for Colombia. They were caught out against a counter-attacking Romania and the brilliant Hagi losing 3 – 1. Then came the 2 – 1 defeat to the USA and Andres Escobar’s own goal. In the end the 2 – o win against Switzerland was meaningless and they were home before the postcards.

It could be argued that a nervous Oscar Cordoba failed to inspire where Higuita had before, but considering the pressure they were under from personal and family death threats it was amazing they even entered the pitch. The murder of Andres Escobar shortly after further highlighted how poisonous life was for people at this time.

It was harsh lesson for Higuita. The government had deliberately made an example of the goalkeeper but at the same time they contributed to their football team’s demise. Although Carlos Valderrama was their captain Higuita was their leader and inspiration.

In much the same way as Alesandro Pirlo with his penalty against England, a leader can engender confidence in his team with acts of audacious skill and bravado. Nowadays commentators near wet themselves when a goalkeeper races up the pitch to try and meet a last minute cross or corner with a header. Higuita on the other hand could take the ball from his own box and dribble past the opposition or lay-off passes before even reaching the half way line.

With all that was hanging over them Colombia needed their talisman to bolster their shaken nerves. Incarcerating the footballer with trumped up charges was merely a smokescreen for the authorities’ displeasure of his relationship with Pablo Escobar.

His term of jail ended his World Cup career as by the time France 1998 he was much older and past his prime. For many of his former team-mates it proved also to be a tournament to far contributing again to early elimination. In 68 appearances he scored 3 goals for Colombia and played in the two Copa Americas and only one World Cup.

Although Rene ventured abroad during his career: Mexico (Tiburones Rojos de Veracruz or the Red Sharks of Veracruz), Spain (Real Valladolid) and Ecuador (Aucas) for single seasons it was Colombia that saw the best of Higuita with a variety of clubs, but most notably Atletico Nacional. He finally retired in 2010, after a couple of come-backs, with a total of 380 appearances and 25 goals a few and became a goalkeeping coach of Real Vallodolid then Al Nassr FC of Saudi Arabia earlier this year.

In a recent interview he professed his desire to continue in football saying:

“All athletes who play professional football have fun, and want to continue providing knowledge and keep having fun. I have the tactical, technical and physical knowledge, along with years of experience. God willing, some day I’ll have the opportunity.”

If he can somehow influence a next generation of players with his type of approach to the game through coaching or mentorship then maybe all is not lost.

He will always be associated with his acts of madness or genius by either admirers or detractors alike but what is of no doubt is there is a severe dearth of mavericks like him in the modern game.

Just like Maradona, Best and Gascoigne, Higuita was a flawed genius and it is probably these human deficiencies combined with their ability to marvel and astound that make us love and miss their likes all the more.

 

https://footballintheclouds.wordpress.com

July 9, 2012. Tags: , , , , , , , , , . Colombia, Copa Libertadores, football, Rene Higuita, soccer, South American football, World Cup Qualifiers. 2 comments.

More than a Fro – CARLOS “El Pibe” VALDERRAMA

Few people would have forgotten Carlos Valderrama and his appearance in 3 World Cups for Colombia. His trademark blonde afro made him one of the most recognisable World footballers in the 1990’s but his extravagant appearance belied his immense footballing ability.

Valderrama captained Colombia during their golden period in which they qualified for 3 World Cups (1994, 1998 and 2000) and boosted their FIFA rankings to as high as 4rth place in 1996. In this time Columbia also claimed two 3rd places in the Copa America and qualified in 1st place in the CONMEBAL 1994 World Cup qualifiers (courtesy of a historic 5-0 triumph over Argentina, in Buenos Aires).

This was in no small part due to their captain who had the ability to control the midfield with skill and inventiveness rather than violence and aggression. His lilting runs and deft passes opened many defences and supplied chances to the likes of Valencia and Asprilla. Although not a proficient goal-scorer Valderrama was also an accomplished free kick taker and assisted many of Colombia’s and his various domestic team’s goals.

You can watch Valderrama’s labyrinthine displays on youtube, where with deft touches he seems to glide past midfielders and defenders alike. For me he was similar to Ruud Gullit all being with a more languid, relaxed style and usually positioned in a deeper lying position. He also appeared to be strong in possession and difficult to harass.

However it was his passing ability that really attracted admiration. His slide rule short layoffs and through balls to the attack were executed with pin point precision. He seemed to be the creative focus of the team with the entire attacking force flowing throw his neat interlinking one twos.

During his lengthy career he blessed pitches in South America, where he won South American player of the year twice (1987, 1993), Europe (Montpellier) and a fledgling MLS (Tampa Bay, Colorado Rapids) but it is with Colombia that he is best remembered.

Although christened “El Pibe” or the Kid, Valderrama was not a child prodigy and had to wait until he was 24 for his first cap. Even then it was in a 2-0 defeat to Paraguay. Despite this inauspicious start Valderrama quickly cemented his place in the squad and later became captain at age 26. Under his command Colombia claimed 3rd place in the Copa America in 1987 then qualified for the World Cup for the first time since 1962.

Colombia were grouped with the United Arab Emirates, Yugoslavia and West Germany and were not expected to progress out of the group. They started their tournament with a 2-0 defeat of a limited but determined UAE. Valderrama had controlled the midfield without impressing or meeting his pre-tournament expectations. In 85 minutes he finally announced his attendance with measured shot from 30 yards low past the stretching Arabian keeper to double his countries lead.

A disappointing 1-0 defeat to Yugoslavia meant that Colombia were looking at an early flight home unless they could muster a result against a strong West Germany. Colombia struggled against a typically pragmatic and defensive German side but matched them until 88 minutes when Pierre Littbarksi smashed past a confused Rene Higuita. As the game tailed to the final whistle Valderrama conjured up one final piece of magic to slide through to Freddy Rincon who nutmegged Bodo Ilgner for the equaliser. It was a vital goal as the extra point ensured Colombia’s progress as a best 3rd place qualifier.

Their reward was a last 16 match against Cameroon and Roger Milla. Again Colombia suffered from their goalkeeper’s slackness when “El Loco” was robbed of possession far from his goal. Milla needed only to roll the ball into a gaping net to secure the win and the Columbian’s elimination.

Columbia’s World Cup 1994 will always be remembered for the death of Andres Escobar as a supposed punishment for his own goal against the United States. It is still unclear whether his assailant had sick retribution in mind when he gunned down Escobar or if it was more a reflection of the Uber- violent times of a post Pablo Escobar Colombia.

Nevertheless, the death of his close friend had a profound effect on Valderrama who later said;

“It’s very difficult for me to talk about him, ‘It’s very painful. He was very close to me. We were very good friends, very good friends. That has been my worst experience playing the sport.”

Colombia 1994 World Cup team

The World Cup USA was a disaster for Colombia. Before the tournament they were being touted as genuine favourites especially as they had topped the CONMEBAL qualifying table above Argentina. But they failed to meet expectations.

A 3-1 humbling to Romania was followed by the 2-1 loss the USA and while they beat Switzerland 2-0 it was not enough and they were eliminated bottom of Group A.

France 98 was to prove not much better for Valderrama. At 37 and now plying his trade for Miami Fusion in the MLS “El Pibe” was in the twilight of his career along with many of his team-mates. The Colombian squad look aged, tired and probably still shaken from the Andres Escobar experience in France.

As captain of his national team in 3 World Cups Valderrama could count himself with a very elite group of men but even this could not inspire his team to success.  Again Romania triumphed over Colombia, although this time 1-0, and an unimpressive 1-0 victory over Tunisia left Columbia needing to beat England to claim 2nd place.

Despite only needing a draw the English easily overcame the Colombians 2-0 through Anderton and Beckham sending Colombia home again at the group stage and ending Carlos Valderrama’s international career.

With 111 games (11 goals) he became Colombia’s most capped and greatest ever player and his career was further recognised in 1998 when Pele named him as one of the top players of the century and FIFA.

Valderrama ended his competitive playing career in 2004 with a star-studded tribute match that included the likes of Enzo Francescoli, Diego Maradona, Eric Cantona, Jorge Campos, and Iván Zamorano.

May 29, 2012. Tags: , , , , , , , . football, soccer, South American football, Uncategorized. Leave a comment.

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