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WORLD CUP USA '94 : COMMENTARY : 'A Dreadful Mistake'

July 03, 1994|MIKE PENNER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

I am watching the tape again, replaying the 34th minute over and over, the same way I did that night after returning home from the Rose Bowl and United States 2, Colombia 1.

I never thought I'd be watching it again this soon, or for this reason--searching for the motive in a murder.

John Harkes, the U.S. midfielder, appears on the bottom of the screen, lugging the ball down the left flank, dribbling into a phalanx of three Colombian defenders. Teammate Paul Caligiuri circles behind Harkes and sprints toward the left corner flag, drawing one defender, Luis Fernando Herrera, with him.

At the top of the screen, U.S. striker Ernie Stewart is sprinting into the penalty area, a step and a half ahead of a beaten yellow shirt.

And drifting back into the penalty arc is hapless Andres Escobar, aware of the defensive collapse to his left but keeping his eyes on the ball and Harkes' left foot.

Harkes plants outside the left corner of the area and delivers a hard cross for Stewart. The ball skids across the grass, like an overplayed putt on a slick green, moving too fast, it appears, for Stewart to reach.

Escobar, however, has his back turned to Stewart. He has no way to know if the ball is long, or about to be delivered right on stride.

All he sees is a blue blur slicing through the area, with no defender behind him, and he can only assume the worst.

Escobar reacts instinctively--and desperately. He slides, feet first, at the ball, meeting it just to the left of the penalty spot. He tries to block the ball with his right foot, but is only able to graze it.

Escobar's inner arch acts like a billiards bumper, and a ball moving diagonally is abruptly redirected.

All . . . . the . . . . way . . . . into . . . . the . . . . Colombian . . . . net.

ESPN's broadcast team is absolutely ambushed by the play. Roger Twibell, the play-by-play man, is chatting idly about another game, the just-completed Romania-Switzerland match, expecting nothing extraordinary as Harkes sets up and fires.

Twibell: "Harkes now . . . with Caligiuri overlapping on the far side . . . sends it in front. . . .

"It's. . . .

"AN OWN GOAL!

"THE USA GETS THE SCORE!

"ESCOBAR ON THE OWN GOAL AND THE UNITED STATES LEADS COLOMBIA, 1-0!"

As the replay flashes across the screen, Twibell turns to analyst Seamus Malin and muses, "You will take them, Seamus, any way you can get them."

Malin: "A tremendous drive by Harkes . . . and a dreadful mistake by Escobar."

The replay winds down. Escobar is flat on his back. Oscar Cordoba, the Colombian goalkeeper, thrusts both hands to his head and crumbles to the ground in anguish.

The camera zooms in for a tight angle on the ball.

It is lodged in the back webbing of the net and it is spinning, and spinning, and spinning, for an inordinate amount of time. It's an inflammatory image. The ball seems to be thumbing its nose at 22 Colombian soccer players and 35 million Colombian soccer fans.

My first view of the goal was from the press area in the Rose Bowl. Seated in the row behind me was Cal State Fullerton soccer Coach Al Mistri.

"Escobar messed up," he flatly assessed. "He misjudged the speed of the ball and he opened up his foot too wide. The keeper comes out to guard the post against Stewart and the guy deflects it into his net."

Mistri shook his head.

"It shouldn't happen," he said. "But it does."

The goal eventually proved the difference in what has been roundly described as the greatest upset in the history of the World Cup and afterward in the press center, gallows humor abounded.

So, when is Escobar defecting? Wonder if Escobar can get a job here as a factory worker. Might be a good time for Escobar to change his identity. The laughter stopped Saturday morning with the news of Escobar taking 12 bullets outside a restaurant in Medellin.

I rerun the tape one more time. Escobar hits the deck again, wrong-foots the ball and sends it trickling into the net behind Cordoba's back.

"And the nightmare continues for Oscar Cordoba," Twibell intones.

No one in the booth dares say what it might mean for Andres Escobar.

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