Rene Higuita and Pablo Escobar: the most unlikely of friendships

The Scorpion Kick goalkeeper owed his entire to the Colombian drug trafficker.

Pablo Escobar and Rene Higuita together.
Rene Higuita and Pablo Escobar Friends or colleagues?

Rene Higuita is the goalkeeper known to millions of England fans for pulling off the perfect, if entirely unnecessary, scorpion kick in a Three Lions friendly against Colombia back in 1995.

It was a moment that summed up the fine line between genius and stupidity that Los Cafeteros’ greatest ever goalkeeper often tread.

Higuita was a one-off, the original sweeper keeper, only too happy to have the ball at his feet, but he was also reckless.

Even today, his cataclysmic error for Colombia against Cameroon in the second round of the 1990 World Cup makes for difficult viewing.

But Higuita was more than just your average footballer.

Born into poverty in Medellin in the same year England would lift the World Cup, 1966, cocaine and civil unrest dominated his early life though he did have one outlet that offered hope: football.

Raised by his grandmother as a disciplined athlete, Higuita soon emerged as one of the stars of club side Atletico Nacional, helping the team become South American club champions in 1989.

On the international stage, meanwhile, he was part of a talented crop of rising Colombian stars the likes of which had never been seen before.

Carlos Valderrama, Freddy Rincon and Faustino Asprilla were among the stars of a team that, in September 1994 made history with a sensational 5-0 away victory against Argentina sealing automatic qualification for the 1994 World Cup.

Coming against a talented Albiceleste oufit featuring Gabriel Batistuta and Diego Simeone among others, it would prove to be the pinnacle of Colombia’s achievements in that era.

And yet Higuita was nowhere near the game that day.

To explain why, you have to go back to the beginning and the unfortunate truth behind Higuita’s and Colombia’s meteoric rise in the beautiful game.

And it involved one man whose name is familiar to millions: Pablo Escobar.

One of Colombia’s biggest drug barons of the 1980s and early 1990s, Escobar was also an avid football fan. Keen to launder his ill-gotten gains, he invested heavily in the game, funding football in Medellin and Higuita’s team Atletico Nacional.

Pablo Escobar was a big football fan.

It was Escobar’s money that helped Higuita escape poverty so it made sense that the goalkeeper would be eager to show his thanks and return the favour in whatever way he could.

Higuita would engage in specially-organised matches set up on Escobar’s estate, he even visited the Colombian drug kingpin in prison and regularly turned to him for help.

Cali drugs cartel chief Fernando Rodriguez Mondragon summed it up best in an interview with Channel 4: “Escobar was like [Higuita’s] father, he did everything for him. Everything he had, Escobar gave to him: houses, cars, trips, everything! He could have had a better career if he hadn’t been so close to him.”

By 1993 it had all come tumbling down for Higuita though.

Asked to help a father deliver ransom money for an 11-year-old girl kidnapped in Medellin, the goalkeeper went to a local burger joint to hand over some $300,000 in cash.

“Escobar was like [Higuita’s] father, he did everything for him”

The transaction went as smoothly as possible but then the story took a turn for the strange, as Higuita accepted a “reward” of around $50,000 from the girl’s family for his part in the deal.

The authorities soon got wind of the transaction and the result was a custodial sentence of some seven months for profiting from kidnapping.

Forced to sit out the conclusion of the qualifying campaign and World Cup campaign, the incident saw Higuita forever tarred with the brush of Escobar, crime and, in turn, cocaine.

And though there is plenty of evidence to support the suggestion he considered Escobar a friend, it remains unclear whether his association went beyond that and whether the kidnapping plot was part of some larger plan or just a misunderstanding.

One thing is for sure: in his absence Colombia struggled with stand-in Oscar Cordoba enduring a nightmare of a World Cup that culminated in Andreas Escobar’s fateful own goal that saw Colombia eliminated at the expense of hosts and tournament minnows Team USA.

Higuita would return to the team and Pablo Escobar would eventually lose his stranglehold on the game but, damaged by goings on in ’94, that crop of Colombia players would never reach the same heights again.

Pablo Escobar and Rene Higuita together.
Rene Higuita and Pablo Escobar Friends or colleagues?

Higuita’s career ended messily too.

Having retired from the national side in 1999, he went on to test positive for cocaine while playing in Ecuador in 2004.

A year later, things became even stranger with Higuita signing up to reality series La isla de los famosos: Una aventura pirata  which translates as The Island of the Famous: A Pirate Adventure and is basically Colombia’s answer to Survivor.

Later that same year, the funds earned via that appearance went into a series of drastic plastic surgeries that completely altered the goalkeeper’s appearance.

Rene Higuita before and after.

Having officially retired from the game in 2010, at the ripe old age of 44, Higuita now works as goalkeeper coach for Al-Nassr FC in the Middle East but has previously expressed a desire to move into politics.

But after a career that has seen him flirt between genius and madness, perhaps the political arena is not the best of venues for a man who once called Pablo Escobar a friend.

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Loaded staff writer Jack Beresford has produced content for Lad Bible, Axonn Media and a variety of online sports and news media outlets.