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El Loco : Rene Higuita

Written by Johnny Proctor

El Loco 1

If you were to come up with a footballing first eleven dedicated purely to the colourful, wonderful, edgy and slightly unhinged players ever to have played the beautiful game, one Jose Rene Higuita Zapata would undoubtedly find its way on to most lists. As certain that you would find a Cantona, an Edmundo or a Robin Friday, the colourful crazy Colombian wouldn’t be out of place in such company. He would find his way in the team,

I assume on principle, through one particular moment of psychotic entertaining madness that he showed the watching world in 1995 when on duty at Wembley Stadium in a friendly international between England and his native Colombia. One Scorpion Kick later and he found himself an instant household name in the UK by the next morning. This however, was only the tip of a prodigious iceberg when it came to “ El Loco “ dabbling in the psychotic, the entertaining and the madness.

El Loco 2.Higuita born in the tough Barrio Castilla area of Medellin, began his career in 1985 with Bogota side, Millonarios. In his debut season he finished the term having made 16 first team appearances, scoring 7 goals. If a striker can have stats of almost 1 goal every 2 games that would be considered a decent return. For Higuita, a goalkeeper, in his first season of professional football, to be the one posting such a haul would be considered taking the piss! Such performances naturally caught the eye of Colombia’s bigger and more successful domestic sides and through this his time at Millonarios was to last only one season. The start of the 1986 “ Primera A “ league saw him lining up at the Estadio Atanasio Girardot in the colours of his boyhood side Atletico Nacional of Medellin.

This is where the legend of Rene Higuita started to grow. He wasn’t like other keepers, I can’t overstate that fact enough. During matches he was the equivalent of one of those mothers who knows their role in the house but still can’t help getting involved and doing everything else for the rest of the family. For ‘ Mum it’s cool, I’ll do the washing up, go and sit down, have a cup of tea or something ‘ read any random Atletico Nacional defender who played with him, ‘ Rene, get back in your fucking box you’re 80 yards out man?! ‘. He was a maverick, a man who played the game in such a cavalier fashion with so much self assuredness that he must’ve put years onto the lives of every coach who ever had him under their charge. He was, though, quite literally a game changer in every sense of the word. Never before or after has there been a goalkeeper who has been as comfy with the ball at his feet. Actually, SO comfy that a lot of the time on the pitch he didn’t want to give it away to any team mates so kept it to himself. His technical ability to dribble past opponents as he made his way up the pitch soon became the stuff of legend in South America.

Look up some of his dribbles on YouTube, the sight of the super freaky Rick James lookalike Colombian taking defenders on in the most riskiest of ways is about the biggest opposite you’ll find when it comes to how you will visualise a goal keeper is going to behave during the 90 minutes of a game. Tactically, what he brought to the team, in the sense of at times playing as an additional sweeper, helped shape the playing style of the first Colombian “ golden generation “ in the late 80’s and early 90’s. With a team of superstars including, Tino Asprilla, Freddy Rincon, Carlos Valderama and of course Señor Higuita the team headed to Italy for the World Cup in 1990 having secured their place via a play-off win against Israel. They went there tipped by some pundits as dark horses for the competition outright. Throughout the qualifying campaign, Colombia coach, Francisco Maturana employed a system that relied heavily on Higuita’s unique style of goalkeeping and leading up to the start of “ Italia 90 “ was quoted as acknowledging his keeper’s importance to the system.

‘ 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 kick the ball into the stands. Higuita can do much more ‘. Maturana meant well with the comments but Higuita, his talisman, was about to throw him under a bus with his catastrophic mistake in the first knock out round match of the tournament against Cameroon. Trying his trademark mazy dribbling skills in a match of such magnitude showed that the man really did not give one single fuck when it came to displaying his more flamboyant side. Higuita blew it on the biggest stage yet in his career. Caught out yards from the halfway line, losing the ball to the equally mystical Cameroonian, Roger Mila ( was he 29? was he 39? Was he 49? Did he even know his age? ) who accepted the gift, scoring what would turn out to be the decisive winning goal to send Colombia out of the tournament.

Reputations can be made or broken at World Cups, sometimes grossly unfairly, but players on the world stage in front of billions can be judged on a split second of decision making. That unfortunate moment against Cameroon left Higuita looking like nothing more than some Rick James lookalike nut job goalkeeper who simply went a bit radge for a moment. Pre- internet, for most people, the first time they would get to see an international player in a live match would be during a World Cup and first impressions last, even more so in World Cups. Due to his abominable mistake being seen by billions across the globe, he left the World Cup with a reputation of being just some eccentric keeper who appeared to be a liability to his team. Around this time the nickname “ El Loco “ was given to Higuita, a name that stuck for the rest of his career. To his credit he never hid from what happened in Italy and his clanger. A clanger that could’ve finished off a player without the abundance of self confidence he possessed. He held his hands up for the error that saw his country knocked out and apologised. To be fair he had made an absolute arse out of himself in front of millions of people so what else could he do but hold his hands up?

Cameroon left Higuita 222.Despite the early elimination for Colombia there was a sense around the camp that being knocked out so early in the competition was simply a case of a very small fly in the ointment. With the confidence and expectation that they were capable of much bigger things they looked ahead again to the next World Cup, USA 94. Going on a run of only one defeat in 34 matches including the famous 5-0 victory in Buenos Aires (Argentina’s first ever WC qualifying defeat on home soil ) Los Cafeteros travelled to America having eclipsed the dark horse tip from 4 years ago. Experts were now openly tipping Colombia to win the trophy. Pele one of them. Then again Pele predicted that an African team would win the World Cup by the year 2000, he also predicted that Nick Barmby would become one the greatest players in the world, so if you’re looking for any gambling tips it’s probably best you avoid taking advice from Edison Arantes Do Nascimento.

Their iconic goal keeper would not make the trip with them.

Back home in Colombia in the 1990’s following the World Cup the country started to be known as “ Locombia “, the crazy country. With the powerful drug cartels practically running things at times it was a country struggling to cope with the political and social problems spiralling out of control. The war on drugs tore the country apart for many years, for some of the Colombian public it was a confusing war of sorts. When they were seeing drug cartels building schools and roads for the public to benefit from, and someone like Pablo Escobar actually offering to pay off Colombia’s national debt, an offer which was refused, it would bring sympathy from some of the public who believed that the cocaine industry could benefit the country. The result being Colombia taking top position for the highest murder rate in the world at the time. In 1992 Higuita left Nacional and Colombia for the first time to play his football in Spain with Real Valladolid. This was to be nothing more than a cameo appearance of a signing. He featured in only 15 games over that season in La Liga, still bagging 2 goals though mind! By 1993 he was back at Nacional and once again returning to the madness of Medellin, at the time a city where judges, journalists and politicians, in addition to the general public, were being murdered all too frequently.

Apart from the daily murders in Medellin by the various cartels all vying for supremacy, kidnapping was at its highest. Colombia in fact was able to boast that their country had one of the highest rates of kidnappings in the world, which I suppose is like my own country, Scotland, being able to shout that we have the top spot in having the highest cholesterol in the world. With hardly any time to even re-acquaint himself being back in the homeland, El Loco found himself dragged into the world of the infamous Medellin Cartel in ways that would go on to seriously impact on his personal life, every bit as much as it would his playing career for both Nacional and the international side with World Cup year fast approaching.

In May, 93 Higuita was approached by Luis Carlos Molina, a suspected money launderer for Pablo Escobar’s Medellin Cartel. Molina’s 11 year old daughter Marcela had been kidnapped in Medellin. Through Higuitas’s links to Escobar directly in addition to his contacts in the barrios in Medellin, Molina was surreally, yet completely sensibly, seeking help from Colombia’s most famous player to secure the release of his daughter! To his credit Higuita offered to help Molina and through his connections contact was made with the kidnappers. Higuita himself handing over the $300,000 ransom to the captors in a downtown Medellin burger bar on May 31st with Marcela Molina subsequently handed over to him unharmed.

For his part he was paid $50,000 by the Molina family as gratitude. According to Higuita’s lawyer, the offer of money was turned down initially by Higuita but the family were insistent that he accepted their thanks and on the second offer his client accepted the money. Within a week he had fallen foul of the authorities over violating three articles of the Colombian State anti-kidnapping law : illicit enrichment, mediating without authority and not having informed the police that a kidnapping had taken place. As much as how the operation between Higuita, the Medellin Cartel and the kidnappers had been under the radar, the Medellin police had found out about it and had to make the international keeper an example.

Higuita trial.

Thrown in jail, Higuita claimed that he knew nothing of the new anti-kidnapping laws that had come into force and that all he knew was how to play football. Yes, that defence was taken as seriously by the authorities as you can imagine it was. He proclaimed his innocence resolutely, at one point even going on hunger strike but there was no reversing the decision to put him inside. Stuck in jail and with World Cup year approaching, suspicions started to surface that Higuita was not there in jail over being accessory to a kidnapping and that he was in fact there due to his links to the Medellin Cartel and specifically one Pablo Emilio Escobar Gaviria.

Pablo Escobar, a man so often on the FBI most wanted list he should’ve taken up some ad space with the feds website, the señor known as the world’s greatest outlaw and the most hard to catch cocaine trafficker on the planet. Someone who loved his football with a deep passion, this brought him directly into contact with most of the continent’s top players, Higuita included. Escobar would on occasion fly in teams of players to his ranch which contained a full sized purpose built football pitch for “ closed doors “ matches that would involve scandalously sized wagers against other wealthy drug lords from across the country. Escobar, it was said, bankrolled Higuita’s Nacional and it was his money who helped them, for the first time, win the Copa Libertadores, the South American version of the Champions League. With the power he had in the region, mixed with his link to Atletico Nacional, Escobar and Higuita were always going to cross paths.

pablo escobarBy visiting Escobar in prison in 1991, Higuita inadvertently put himself on the radar of the Colombian drug enforcement authorities. With Escobar at the time on the run, having escaped from prison, Higuita was being accused of assisting Escobar’s cartel as intermediary in the kidnapping negotiations. He was incarcerated at the infamous Carcel Modelo De Bogota jail for 7 months before he was eventually released without charge. Nothing has ever been proved in terms of those 7 months he spent in prison and why he was held for so long without charge. Government officials, upon his release, admitted that Higuita had been treated harshly. The excellent and very well informed Zimbalist brothers documentary “ The Two Escobars “ claims that while inside Rene Higuita was never even questioned about the kidnapping and that his arrest was simply a convenient way of holding a person of interest the authorities thought they could use to assist in catching Pablo Escobar. This was taken out of the equation 6 months into Higuita’s stay when Escobar was killed in a roof top shoot out with police in a Medellin barrio. Colombia’s keeper was released soon after Escobar’s death.

Higuita was released to a hero’s welcome, on one hand the Colombian authorities had jailed him for violation of anti-kidnapping laws, on the other was the mass public reaction to him being released, that their El Loco was a hero for risking his own life to save the life of a young girl. Paradoxically he was looked upon in the same way as Medellin’s poor reserved for Pablo Escobar, their very own Robin Hood. Released from an unjust 7 months inside, Higuita had 5 months to get his mind body and soul right for the USA World Cup. Unfortunately he never quite made that leap. The reason given for his exclusion from the squad travelling to America by the Colombian FA was down to Higuita’s lack of fitness. Reading between the lines though I think what they were actually saying was that there was no fucking way that American immigration would be letting someone into their country who was linked to Pablo Escobar, someone who, up until recently, had been held in a tough Bogota prison under anti-kidnapping offences!

Whatever the real reason for him being denied the chance to play in the World Cup, Higuita was to stay in Colombia that summer and watch the tournament from home. It was to be a “Copa Mundial“ that the Colombia players could’ve badly needed a Rene Higuita there in the trenches with them for all kinds of reasons. Following their opening defeat to Romania, all of the squad and coaching staff received menacing death threats from a drug cartel back in Medellin. According to Maturana the drug cartel somehow managed to hack into the Colombian players and coaches TV sets inside their hotel rooms. One minute they’re watching an episode of Baywatch and the next they’re looking at some Cartel member telling them that if they don’t beat America in the next match then there will be grave repercussions for them and their families. I’ll admit that I thought that taking over a TV signal trick was something only possible in an episode of The Simpsons but according to Maturana it actually happened, and it ” freaked him out “ apparently. As something like your television set being taken over by a Medellin Cartel hit man who tells you that if you don’t do as he says you’re going to die would, I guess.

The incident understandably sent the whole squad into a tailspin, some players wanted to go home immediately. There was also the added feeling of intimidation when news of defender Chonta Herrera’s brother being killed in a suspicious car accident after the first game 3-1 defeat from a Gheorghe Hagi inspired Romania. Cool, confident and experienced heads were needed, the exact qualities that they forfeited when they left Higuita out of the squad. Captain Andres Escobar eventually persuading the players to stay and beat the Americans. Going into the game against America, with the pressure they were under it was no surprise or indeed shame that the players couldn’t handle everything they were facing, America running out 2-1 winners in front of a full house. Tino Asprilla, years later admitted that when the teams were standing singing their national anthems he was looking around the stadium wondering where the sniper was going to be! With no points after 2 matches Colombia were out of the tournament. Thoughts then turned to the threats that had been made and the promise of revenge should Colombia lose the match, and in turn lose the cartels millions in gambling losses.

/andres escobar colombia world cup

Tragically it wasn’t long before one of the squad was to lose his life in what was, and still is, the most shocking and saddening story to grace a World Cup. During the America game, with the teams still tied at 0-0, but with Colombia in the ascendency, their captain, Andres Escobar, scored an own goal while trying to cut out a cross during a rare American counter attack. The goal proving pivotal in his team’s defeat, and his side’s elimination from the competition. In that moment, my nine year old son turned to me and said: ‘Mommy. they’re going to kill Andres’, “ Escobar’s sister Maria said in an interview years later. I replied: No sweetheart, people are not killed for mistakes.’ Everyone in Colombia loves Andres.” Within days of his return to Medellin, Escobar was shot dead outside a nightclub, after an incident inside the club, where another group were taunting him over the own goal, which escalated outside as he tried to leave.

After all the threats from the Medellin Cartel prior to the defeat from the USA, the obvious knee jerk reaction to Escobar’s killing was that it had been related to gambling losses lying at the door of the cartel. This theory was reinforced further through witnesses accounts, testifying that the gunman had said ‘ thanks for the own goal ‘ before putting 6 bullets into him. As it was to turn out, his death came through an argument that spun out of control, he talked back to the wrong person and paid for it with his life.

Such is the status of Rene “ El Loco “ Higuita in Colombia. There is still the belief in some quarters that had he been there alongside his team mates at USA 94, things would’ve ended up completely differently. That Andres Escobar wouldn’t have been killed in what was a tragic example of just how cheap human life was in 90’s Medellin. Killed over a mistake that ironically, was every bit as glaring as Higuita’s 4 years earlier in Italy. After the disappointment of missing the World Cup, Higuita carried on as keeper with Nacional for 3 more years until leaving in 1997. 10 more teams were to have him sign on for them as his career took on the look of a footballing nomad. Only one out of the ten sides, Deportivo Pereira, would have him around for more than 1 year. Special mention goes to the one year he spent with Independiente Medellin where he scored 11 goals in 20 games. Apart from going through more clubs than Captain Caveman, he still managed to squeeze in a cocaine scandal when testing positive while with Ecuadorian club Aucas.

El Loco 55.He finally called time on his playing career in 2010, aged 43 while with Deportivo. And with that, one of the all time legend’s of the Colombian game was gone. The first goalkeeper in history who had international managers building their tactics around him, someone who could score almost 1 goal in 2 games if given the opportunity, a player who could make the most devastating mistake on the world’s biggest stage yet was still loved by all regardless. Someone who had plastic surgery in the middle of his playing career to completely change his appearance?! Now THAT was a good one! Just imagine Joe Hart running out one day for Manchester City, only, wait a minute he’s not Joe Hart? Is it him? It says his name on the back but he looks nothing Joe Hart? No, you can’t imagine it because it’s too outrageously random to even begin to predict. Yet that’s what El Loco did. Completely changed his looks to the point that even his own mama wouldn’t recognise him. And it was all played out to the Colombian public on the reality show Cambio Extremo, operation by operation.

‘I’m tired of being ugly Rene, I want to be handsome Rene’ he said. Pre op / post op, to the citizens of Colombia he was “ just Rene .” The man they called El Loco. One of those types of people where the mould was broken the moment they had been created. Hunter S Thompson could have easily been speaking about Higuita instead of his attorney in Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas when he wrote: “ There he goes, one of God’s own prototypes. Some kind of high powered mutant never even considered for mass production. Too weird to live and too rare to die! “

It was a blast watching you Rene, ever exciting, persistently unpredictable and never ever boring. Thanks, you sexy bastard!


Read 7487 times Last modified on Thursday, 07 May 2015 19:55
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Johnny Proctor

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