Twenty years ago, on 5 September 1993 to be exact, Colombia turned the football world upside down with a performance that has lived long in the memory: their 5-0 defeat of Argentina in Buenos Aires, which sealed their place at the 1994 FIFA World Cup USA™ and made them, in the opinion of Pele, “favourites” to prevail in North America.
Things would turn out very differently for the side coached by Francisco Maturana, however. Knocked out in the group phase after losing to Romania and USA, Los Cafeteros returned home to a country embroiled in social problems and violence.
In the second part of an extensive, exclusive interview with FIFA.com, Maturana reflected on that epoch-defining win in the Argentinian capital, their abortive bid for glory in the USA and the subsequent killing of Andres Escobar.
FIFA.com: This September saw the 20th anniversary of the Colombia’s 5-0 win over Argentina in Buenos Aires. Do you get tired of talking about that game?
Francisco Maturana: I don’t speak much about it because the way I see it, we were just trying to get enough points together to make it to the World Cup. The result was just one of those things. None of us could believe it. I know people have got every right to say what they want about it, but I can tell you that it didn’t change the Colombia players and coaching staff one bit. We just see it as a game that produced a special result, but it didn’t change our lives in any way.
Colombia only needed a draw to qualify for USA 1994, but you came away with a 5-0 win, which is not something that happens every day at the Estadio Monumental. What do you remember about the mood in the dressing room before and after the game?
The atmosphere was easier to handle before the game. That was a generation that really gelled. We’d already played twice against Argentina at the Copa America in Ecuador and drew with them both times. One match was a fight and the other was a proper game of football. We’d also played them in Barranquilla and produced what I reckon was a much better performance than we did in Buenos Aires. We had to work out how we were going to play that game, whether we’d go in hard or play football. Colombia were up for it and, as someone once told me, we had great players who were strong, fast and knew where the goal was. And they got up in the right frame of mind that day, while (Oscar) Cordoba was on top form too. And that’s that really. We felt we would qualify for the World Cup, though I don’t know if we thought we’d win or not. We were sure we wouldn’t lose, though. Winning was a bonus, but we had what it took to make sure we went through.
And you did what no one else had ever managed there: to get a standing ovation from the Argentina fans.
But that happens, you know what I’m saying? It happens all the time in countries where they know their football. When I was young I played for Nacional in Belo Horizonte. It had been 14 years since Cruzeiro had last lost there and we ended up beating them. We could see all these people congregating outside and I started to fear the worst. I was thinking: ‘We’re going to have to make a run for it here’. Then someone said to me: ‘Francisco, people who know about football don’t react like that. They’re going to applaud us, you’ll see’. And applaud us they did. The same thing happened then too. If we’d been in a country that doesn’t have Argentina’s history, then I’m sure we’d still be running. But in Argentina people know how to recognise class when they see it.
You once said that Colombia side united the country at a time when it was riven by violence and discord. Do you still think that was the case?
Yes, and that’s the magic of football. It’s a team that people still remember because the players, quite apart from the way they expressed themselves on the pitch, were wonderful human beings who earned a place in the hearts of the Colombian people because of the example they set and the way they were. Every Colombian felt the players were a reflection of them on the pitch and in everyday life. More than anything else they were well grounded people and very respectful, because you need respect if everyone is going to get along.
Many people say that Colombia’s heavy defeat of Argentina worked against them at USA 1994. However, not much has ever been said about everything else that was going on it the time, far removed from football, and which may well have influenced the way things turned out. What is your view on that?
Winning doesn’t usually do you any harm. The thing is that when you don’t win you leave yourself wide open to criticism and for anyone to come along and say whatever they want in explaining why you lost a game. We just see it as part and parcel of football: they beat us and that’s it. It doesn’t matter if we were in good form or bad form – that’s neither here nor there. The fact of the matter is that when the referee blew the final whistle, Romania had beaten us. I can’t say if they were better than we were. They did some things better than us. The real problem was, though, how we responded to what happened. We lost that game and didn’t know how to react or to lift ourselves again. We just weren’t there.
Could you expand on that a little?
At the 1990 World Cup in Italy we lost an important match against Yugoslavia, but we were able to set that right. It wasn’t a drama for us. We kept nice and quiet in our training camp, did what we had to, came to terms with the defeat and went out and drew with Germany and played our best game against them. The opposite happened in the USA. We lost a game and the people around us went for us. There was no common ground for analysing what had gone wrong, just confusion. But it’s very difficult for people to understand that. It’s easier to say that we got carried away. It’s easier to pin the blame on the witches, on the chairs, on anything. But it all happened for football reasons.
It’s impossible to talk about USA 1994 and not ask you about the murder of Andres Escobar after the tournament.
It doesn’t matter because it’s the kind of subject where people get the wrong end of the stick. You have to remember that it was a difficult time for Colombia as a country. It was a social thing, nothing to do with sport. When it happened there were people who wanted to link it something, to say it was because of the World Cup. But it wasn’t! It was an argument that any Colombian person could have had at a time of a lot of intolerance, a time when people didn’t talk, but fought instead. And they didn’t use their fists either. The first thing they did was pull out a gun. And Andres had the misfortune of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. He was one of the icons of the day. Lots of doctors, dentists and journalists were no doubt killed that day, but you don’t hear about that because those stories didn’t have the same impact as that of Andres. And all these things got mixed up. It doesn’t make any sense because the only connection was the reason for the argument. But it wasn’t something that was planned because we don’t do things like that. We don’t do one thing or another just because we didn’t win. No. It was a time in the country’s history when anyone could have been killed.
Times have changed obviously, but bearing in mind everything you have just said, how important a role does football in general and Colombia’s qualification for Brazil 2014 in particular play in society?
A very important one. Albert Camus said that the national football team is nationhood. I heard somewhere else that when the national team does well, then the whole country seems to do well. And that’s true. The national team belongs to everyone. It belongs to all the good people, the bad people, the workers and the layabouts. It makes people happy and brings them hope for the future. It shows that lots of things can be done, lots of good things. I don’t know. I think every Colombian will get on board with it. They’ll understand the whole thing and it will inspire them to be better in every respect.