Higuita: I achieved something even Pele, Maradona and Messi haven't

  • ​Rene Higuita shares his philosophy on goalkeeping

  • Former Colombian talks on his key error at Italy 1990

  • The famously eccentric keeper casts his eye over their Russia 2018 hopefuls

Former Colombia international Rene Higuita has never gone unnoticed. On the pitch he had his own unique style, taking a daring approach to goalkeeping and making an indelible mark on the position.​

He is equally flamboyant and extroverted off it, making his strongly held opinions known and proving himself to be every bit as much a character as he was during his playing days.

FIFA.com spoke to him about his style between the posts, his influence on today’s keepers and Colombia’s chances at the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia™.

FIFA.com: You defined an era in goalkeeping but only played the one FIFA World Cup, Italy 1990. What did the tournament add to your career? Rene Higuita: Lots of really nice things because that team really made up for lost time. Colombia had gone 28 years without appearing at the World Cup, so it put us back on the map in many ways: as players and as a country. It was an awakening for Colombian football. When you go to the World Cup, really good things happen. It’s the pinnacle of your career. It’s not the same to play in international tournaments with a club from your country as it is to play in a World Cup.

You were held responsible for your side’s elimination. Do you remember much about Roger Milla’s goal in the last 16? By the end of my career there were more positive things than mistakes, though one of them was that passage of play against Cameroon. But, then again, it was only after people saw Rene Higuita play that way that the rules were changed. It was decided that goalkeepers had to play with their feet. You play the ball back to them now and they can’t pick it up. Not even Pele, Maradona or Messi have achieved that.

Along came a Colombian and he more or less said to everyone: ‘This is Higuita’s Law. This is how keepers have to play.’ There were mistakes, of course, but that’s what we did. We put the focus on the ball and being brave.

A bold but risky approach “We were 1-0 down [against Cameroon, a match played in Naples on 23 June 1990] and we had to take risks. We were inexperienced too. If we’d lost 2-0, 3-0 or 4-0, there wouldn’t have been a problem. The problem came when [Bernardo] Redin made it 2-1. So the media went back and said, ‘If Higuita hadn’t messed up, we’d have drawn.’ It wasn’t fair that I came in for so much criticism because there’s no past in football, only the present. And that present is 90 minutes long.”

Do you think people have overlooked Milla’s part in the goal? Of course. You see it one way from the outside and another way from the inside. I remember Milla running towards me when [Luis Carlos] Perea played the ball back to me. It was almost like a foul… as if to foul me, and he came away with the ball. He won the ball! So all credit to Milla, though unfortunately for us it was the second goal. And Redin’s goal only highlighted the mistake even more! But I didn’t make that many mistakes. That was my position and that was how we played and went about our football.

Today I’d be happy playing for a team like Barcelona, hitting the ball to the player furthest away, playing one-twos, finding players in space, etc. It’s a type of football that’s developing every day.

Where did the Higuita style come from? It’s natural. At the time people said I modelled my game on Hugo Gatti [the former Boca Juniors and Argentina keeper]. I remember going to the stadium as a little boy and seeing good keepers who, when they got to the ball before the forwards did, would kick it out to the side. They were great keepers between the posts and I thought: ‘Can’t they play with their feet? If the ball’s not out, then it’s in play and while it’s in play the team’s always got a chance of scoring. So why are we going to give it to the opposition?’

So it all comes down to your fascination with the ball? To me the ball was a toy, a gift they give you every Christmas and you don’t want to let go of. And if you do let go of it, then there’s a fight for it. I didn’t want to fight for the ball; I wanted to have my ball. And I wanted my team to have that ball. That’s how I read the game and that’s how the rules changed.

Which of today’s keepers do you like? Manuel Neuer, the German. He keeps it simple. He comes, plays and helps his team. He’s excellent. These days you have to work keepers harder with their feet. It’s essential. And what I can say is that I contributed a lot to that, that others came along and copied and analysed things. I’m happy with what I did, with all my mistakes. But I wasn’t clowning around or deliberately putting the team at risk. I felt it and I saw that it was the best way for my team to win.

Colombia will travel to Russia intent on going further than they did at Brazil 2014. How far can they go? You always wish them the very best. And now that they’re at the World Cup, the least we can ask is that they cause a surprise, fly in under the radar and then stand tall, with players like James Rodriguez, [Radamel] Falcao and the others who play abroad. I’ve got complete faith in the boys and their coaching staff.

Is James the natural leader of Jose Pekerman’s team? He is a natural leader. That’s why he’s the leading representative of the national team and our country and we hold him in high regard for that. He’s achieved things thanks to his ability, humility and work rate. He’s the complete player: he scores, he’s got a lot of technique and he’s a team player. He knows how to put a good cross in, find the back of the net and arrive late. He can play for any team in the world.

Can you compare him to anyone from your generation? With El Pibe [‘The Kid’, Carlos Valderrama]. People wanted him to be fast, but he was fast with his mind. He was mentally quick, the one who stood out in our era. And the one with most experience. He’d already played in France when we were just leaving the country. The whole market opened up after that and it gives us a lot of satisfaction to see so many Colombians playing around the world now.

And what does David Ospina have to offer in goal? Like James and Falcao, Ospina forms part of the spine of the team. He’s good with his feet, though he doesn’t have to come out much or take too many risks because of the system. But when he’s had to come out, he’s done it. Look, if there’s a situation where you can control the ball and play it out, then that’s great, but there’s nothing wrong with sticking it in stands either. It’s all good. The important thing is to stop the opposition scoring. Saves alone don’t make you secure between the posts; to be secure you have to take risks, and it’s the one who has the ball who takes risks. There’s more than one way to defend and I had mine.