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Political Football: Rene Higuita

By Channel 4 News

Updated on 08 May 2008

Rene Higuita became an example of how Colombia's drugs war invaded people's lives. Simon Kuper selects him to keep goal for our Political Football XI.

Rene Higuita might be a legend from a bygone age, but he's still playing football. In a small rural town in northern Colombia, between the posts at a second division club, is a shortish, tubby keeper who recently let a ball through his legs for a goal.

"First I had the challenge of being the youngest in professional football in Colombia," Higuita told a Colombian newspaper. "Now I am the oldest."

The 41-year-old is hardly a political theorist, but he makes our political footballers' eleven for exemplifying how Colombia's unending drugs war has invaded the lives of ordinary Colombians.

Snowed under

José René Higuita Zapata was born poor in Medellín in 1966. That combination of place and time is itself a tragedy. Just as the baby Higuita was landing in Colombia, so were cocaine and civil conflict.

Once one of Latin America's richer and middle-class countries - with briefly, in the 1950s, perhaps the world's richest football league - Colombia descended fast.

Football fans everywhere adored Higuita because he seemed to play for fun

From the late 1960s the country's traditional plant of coca, refined into cocaine, was smuggled into the US. Gradually a Medellín cartel captured much of the trade.

Colombia became ever more violent. Political guerilla fighting began. By one estimate, 10 to 15 cents of every dollar of cocaine sold ends up with Colombia's armed groups of right and left.

Meanwhile, raised by his grandmother, Higuita grew into a special goalkeeper. It wasn't just that he featured in Colombian football's golden age, both with the national team and with Atlético Nacional, with whom he became South American club champions in 1989. More than that: football fans everywhere adored him because he seemed to play for fun.

We remember him for his characteristic dribble at the World Cup of 1990 that ended with 38-year-old Roger Milla dispossessing him, scoring, and sending Colombia home.

Five years later, against England in a boring friendly at Wembley, Higuita didn't bother catching a ball that was heading towards his goal, but instead dived forward, curling up his legs like a scorpion's tail, and kicked the ball away with his heels. "The Scorpion" remains a legendary moment.

Those were the good bits. Sadly, during Higuita's best years drug barons controlled Colombian football. The notorious Pablo Escobar funded football in his cartel's town Medellín as a form of local PR. Escobar effectively ran Higuita's club Nacional.

In 1991 Higuita visited Escobar in jail. He also once phoned Escobar's jailed brother, Roberto, to ask for help after getting himself into trouble with Nacional for punching a reporter.

Charlie's angel

Fernando Rodriguez Mondragon, whose family ran the Cali drugs cartel, and whose recent book outlines the links between Colombian drugs and football*, says: "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."

Higuita's downfall came in 1993. An 11-year-old girl was kidnapped in Medellín, and because Higuita was known for his criminal contacts, the girl's father asked him for help.

In a Medellín hamburger restaurant, Higuita handed over a $300,000 ransom, and the girl was given to him. The girl's family then presented with what looked like a toy box, with $50,000 stuffed inside. Higuita accepted the money.

Email us your Political Football suggestions

Simon Kuper is in the process of nominating his Political Football First XI - 11 footballers whose lives have acquired a dimension outside the sport they play.

But we want to know who you would include. It doesn't have to be an entire team (although that would be fascinating) - just a player for whom life has meant more than a mansion in Belgravia and a fleet of 4x4s.

Email your suggestions to Channel 4 News by clicking here.

For profiting from a kidnapping instead of telling the authorities, he spent seven months in jail. That cost him the World Cup of 1994. It also made him a symbol of all the ordinary Colombians whose lives were infected by cocaine. The powder accounts for at most three per cent of Colombia's economy, but its impact on Colombian life is much bigger than that.

After being released, Higuita told the American magazine Sports Illustrated: "The best moments of my life are the ones I spent in jail. In jail I found a different kind of loyalty - from the so-called delinquent, the so-called narco-trafficker, the so-called terrorist. I learned to know his heart, and it is a noble heart." (To read the full article, click here)

There was more to Higuita's drugs entanglements than we'll ever know. Why, for instance, was a small bomb thrown at his house in Medellín in 1996? It was also clear he had sampled Escobar's product long before he tested positive for cocaine while playing in Ecuador in 2004.

A Colombian defence minister has compared the country's progress on drugs to a 'stationary bicycle'.

Colombia is slightly less troubled today. It only produces about 62 per cent of the world's cocaine now, down from 80 per cent before. The trade has also shifted: Buenaventura has replaced Medellín as the country's murder capital.

The US pays billions to have Colombia's cocaine fields fumigated, though that hasn't achieved much. A Colombian defence minister has compared the country's progress on drugs to a "stationary bicycle".

The drugs cartels are less present in Colombian football nowadays. Let's hope Higuita is less troubled too. However, as he told Sports Illustrated, "I'm just a survivor of the war our country lived. But I paid the consequences." And so say millions of other Colombians.

Channel 4 News Political Football XI (so far)

Goal Rene Higuita
Defence Franz Beckenbauer
Midfield Walter Tull, Neil Lennon, Diego Maradona, Zvonomir Boban
Forwards Matthias Sindelar, George Weah, Paolo Di Canio
President Silvio Berlusconi


*Fernando Rodriguez Mondragon, El Hijo del "Ajedrecista"

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