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Colombia's maverick keeper who was friendly with Pablo Escobar

 

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Roger Milla from Cameroon runs past Colombian goalkeeper René Higuita (r) after stealing the ball to score a goal at the 1990 World Cup. Photo: AFP

Roger Milla from Cameroon runs past Colombian goalkeeper René Higuita (r) after stealing the ball to score a goal at the 1990 World Cup. Photo: AFP

Pablo Escobar

Pablo Escobar

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Roger Milla from Cameroon runs past Colombian goalkeeper René Higuita (r) after stealing the ball to score a goal at the 1990 World Cup. Photo: AFP

As a seven-year-old Irish child caught in the spell of a magic summer, the wonder of Italia '90 went beyond the O'Leary penalty, the Bonner save and everything the adventure represented.

With the passing of time, the joy of remembering living through the moment grows, especially as subsequent generations may never experience anything like it.

But a live vox pop on the heroes of the tournament wouldn't have featured a one to eleven of Jack Charlton's team.

This was the time when major international competitions made household names of footballers whose faces were only familiar from the Panini sticker albums collected in the weeks beforehand.

The football world was bigger, in the sense that the stars weren't all concentrated in a handful of leagues, and this World Cup was notable for the charismatic unlikely lads.

We had Toto Schillaci, the Italian hero with a surname that was subsequently attached to goal hangers in school yards. There was Roger Milla, the 38-year-old Cameroon striker, wiggling his hips at the corner flag after each goal. We had Carlos Valderrama, the skilful Colombian playmaker, and we also had his hair. And yet his Afro was only the second most interesting thing about that Colombian side.

Dribbling

It was nothing compared to their goalkeeper René Higuita dribbling the ball out of his box and linking play, when most of his counterparts were comforted by the warm bosom of the rule that allowed them to scoop up back passes.

There is an argument that Higuita's style accelerated momentum behind the seismic change to the rules. He was a man ahead of his time.

When Higuita was dispossessed by Milla for the goal that ultimately eliminated his side, he was mocked. To the bulk of a European audience, he remained something of a circus act. We didn't have the YouTube clips of the goals he scored or the skills he possessed.

This was a stereotype-altering phase for goalkeepers in his region, with Higuita, Jorge Campos and Jose Luis Chilavert jogging forward from their station for key set-pieces.

Higuita was gifted, yet the front cover picture of his football story is his scorpion kick at Wembley in 1995.

The gasps from the crowd in response to his audacious method of clearing an over-hit Jamie Redknapp cross - a simple catch that he converted into the opportunity for an acrobatic volley - made it a gift for the 'and finally' sections of nightly news bulletins worldwide.

Who couldn't warm to this maverick? Through impressionable eyes, the lack of respect for the rules was refreshing. He will always be discussed in affectionate terms as a consequence, but the reality of his tale chips away at his charm.

Higuita had controversially missed out on making the Columbia squad for the 1994 World Cup, but the horror of defender Andres Escobar being shot dead days after his return from own goal misery is naturally the story that is inextricably linked with Colombia's tournament.

Across the last decade, Colombia has opened up to the world and various documentaries and TV shows have allowed us to learn more about an extraordinary era. In 1990, I had no idea that Higuita was the keeper for an Atlético Nacional side that had claimed the Copa Libertadores a year previously with a cloud of suspicion hanging over their feat.

The fact that drug lord Pablo Escobar's cash had funded their rise attaches a significant asterisk. In Colombian football culture, referees weren't just intimidated - they were murdered. Andres Escobar wasn't the only football person to be senselessly gunned down.

Higuita was a friend of Pablo's. Indeed, the reason he missed the World Cup is because he received a lengthy ban for delivering ransom money as a go-between in a deal between Escobar and a rival Carlos Molina that resulted in the latter's daughter being freed.

The footballer had absolutely nothing to do with the kidnapping but was paid for his services as an intermediary and sent to prison for seven months.

As a consequence, he wasn't fit to go to the USA. Pablo was dead by then too. And, while one must appreciate that Atlético Nacional players were likely put under pressure to fraternise with their paymasters, the history books suggest Higuita was more enthusiastic than others.

The Netflix show, Narcos, is brilliantly made but is also occasionally guilty of portraying Pablo (inset) as a lovable rogue. They weren't alone in that.

Back in 2011, I visited Medellin, a complex place in a beautiful country, where Escobar tourism is lucrative and a recommended bus trip culminated in a stop-off at a house where we were introduced to a close relative of the cartel leader.

We were told he was only involved with the financial side of the business, and the organisers were at pains to stress that any Escobar-related memorabilia purchased would aid charitable causes and were in no way glorifying the acts of a violent criminal.

At the end of the tour, there was a Q & A session with the Escobar family rep. Questions about regrets and repentance were batted away.

It was all a bit strange, but my friend had picked up enough Spanish to exchange pleasantries with the bus driver. He'd crossed paths with Escobar's crew in their pomp and did not equivocate in offering his opinion on them.

"Scum," was the no-nonsense translation.

Higuita's choice of company really does taint his legendary status, and that's before factoring in the cocaine bans in the autumn of his career.

To paraphrase the old saying, you should never read up on your heroes.

In this series, our writers have selected their favourite sporting maverick, those who didn't always prevail but always added colour to the games we love