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WORLD CUP USA '94 : A Hard Lesson in Soccer Reality : U.S. team: Escobar's murder shows the type of strain players from other nations are under.

July 03, 1994|JULIE CART | TIMES STAFF WRITER

PALO ALTO — Locked into what they have frequently referred to as a "life-and-death situation"--playing Brazil on Monday in the knockout round of the World Cup--the players on the U.S. team were sobered by the news of a far more brutal reality, the murder of Colombian defender Andres Escobar.

It was Escobar's sliding attempt to stop John Harkes' pass that knocked the ball into his own goal, the mistake that somehow placed the responsibility of the 2-1 loss to the United States and even Colombia's failure to advance from the first round heavily on Escobar.

The U.S. team understands it operates under only a fragment of the pressure that other World Cup teams face daily. As they practiced in Mission Viejo on Saturday morning, the players talked about the news of Escobar's murder, with details just filtering in.

By the time the team arrived here to prepare for Monday's game, the shock had settled in.

Said Thomas Dooley: My first thought was, "Maybe better we lose the game against Colombia than he loses his life."

The U.S. Soccer Federation on Saturday faxed condolences to the Colombian federation and to Escobar's family.

"I grieve for his family," U.S. Coach Bora Milutinovic said. "I feel for his team. Our entire team felt the impact this morning. We feel very sad for what has happened. Sometimes, we just want to think that soccer is just a game."

That's the way it usually is for the U.S. team. But the events in Colombia brought home to the American players how seriously a World Cup loss is viewed in some parts of the world.

"It's a very, very unfortunate situation that doesn't belong in sports," goalkeeper Tony Meola said. "Unfortunately, some people don't realize that ultimately what we do, even though there is a lot of passion and pride involved, it's only a game. People who think like that are only crazy to take this further than the game."

For Harkes, it will be difficult to view the first World Cup goal of which he was a part in the same way.

"For me, it's a lot harder to think good thoughts (about the goal)," Harkes said. "You're talking about someone's life here, you're talking about three points in a World Cup game. There will be another World Cup in 1998 and Cups will happen every four years, but for him and his family, it won't. We're all very sad right now."

Harkes had taken the ball up the left side of the field and looked to his right, where Ernie Stewart was rushing into the penalty area. Stewart's run forced Colombian goalkeeper Oscar Cordoba to move to his left, leaving the net open.

Harkes crossed the ball in Stewart's direction but Escobar blocked the shot and, sliding, knocked it in off his right foot. Escobar collapsed and covered his face with his hands.

Own goals are a horrible fact of life for a defender, but the loss, coupled with Colombia's 3-1 loss to Romania in the opening match, meant the team that many had predicted would make it to the championship game would instead go home.

Escobar and other Colombian players already had received death threats before the game against the United States, but after the own goal Escobar became the lightning rod for criticism.

The nature of the pressure that Escobar and the Colombians endured made itself evident with Saturday's murder. After glimpsing the deadly seriousness that some fans bring to the game, the U.S. players spoke with renewed respect for the Colombian team.

"Those guys qualify for the World Cup and they are heroes in their country," Marcelo Balboa said. "And then something like this happens. It's incredible. I feel sorry for the Colombian team, because they are a great team. They just didn't have a great tournament."

Said Alexi Lalas: "It's terribly disappointing and disturbing and I know that all of our hearts go out to his family and everybody who loved him. It shows a complete lack of respect for life."

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