Saturday, February 11, 2012

SBz Legendz: Rene Higuita, The Story of El Scorpio

By Adam Maher

The legend of Rene Higuita will last forever in the heart of Colombian futbol folklore. 

Perhaps the most confident goalkeeper of all time, Rene was an absolute conquistador of South American midfields throughout the late 1980s and early 1990s (the 2000s, eh, sort of).

Having grown up late 70s, early 80s in the nostril of the New World's cocaine addiction, Higuita was given two choices in life: sell coke, or play soccer.

Higuita chose the latter and quickly became a famous forward in Bogata. As he grew older, coaches chose to use his abilities in net. With his stallion build and flawless mustache, Higuita flourished as a goalie, becoming a fan favorite for Atletico Nacional at the ripe age of 21. 

He would invent his own style of goal-keeping, pioneering the "roaming keeper" position. 
Despite escaping the torments of a drug-induced youth, the ever-playful, free-spirited and animated Higuita, now 45, failed to maintain his healthy lifestyle during his twenties, as he quickly became known throughout South America for much more than his on-field magic and fantastic hair cut...

Hundreds of times throughout his career Jose Rene Higuita Zapata would storm from his goal line to quell off wimpy attacks, often seizing the ball with his head or chest before beating several defenders with his feet - it usually made for quite a frantic site, demanding the most creative work from some of the all-time great soccer announcers (a young Martin Tyler, for one). The Master of the Unpredictable as well took free kicks and penalty kicks during his 14-team, 25-year, South American club soccer career, scoring 38 goals in total - he scored eight times during his 68 Colombian caps.

In 1990, his on-field antics got him into trouble and earned him the nickname "El Loco" when he decided to try to dribble past Cameroon's forechecking Roger Milla at midfield in a do-or-die World Cup game. El Loco lost possession, and Milla slotted the ball into the empty net, sending Cameroon to the quarter finals, El Loco and his teammates, including the unmistakeable Carlos Valderrama,  back to Colombia.

Unlike his teammates, Higuita would not get a chance to redeem himself internationally. This time, however, due to his off-field antics.

In late 1993, the Colombian Caribou was incarcerated for seven months on charges stemming back to 1990. Rene, who was rumored to have life-long ties with the infamous Pablo Escobar after growing up in the murder and cocaine festered streets of Medallin, had received a $50,000 payout for helping to facilitate the kidnapping of a Colombian Cartel worker's 11-year-old daughter.

1990 Colombian World Cup Team
Valderrama bottom left, Higuita top right

The New York Times' Jere Longman covered the story in 1993:

SOCCER; Colombia's Goalie Caught Beyond the Law
Published Dec. 5, 1993

In a country where soccer, drug trafficking and kidnapping are linked like beads on a necklace, Colombia's flamboyant goalkeeper, Rene Higuita, finds himself not in net but in jail as his team prepares for the World Cup next summer in the United States.

Known for his bold forays from the goal mouth, Higuita has been accused of straying beyond the legal bounds of Colombia's controversial 1993 statute intended to stem the wave of kidnappings in a country where the privileged and the infamous insulate themselves with personal bodyguards the way American football coaches parade off the field behind a picket fence of state troopers.

Higuita is not accused of kidnapping, but rather of illegally arranging for and profiting from the release of an 11-year-old girl who was kidnapped last spring. Since June 4, he has been held without bail, as required by the new law, in a Bogota jail. While Colombia qualified for the World Cup and scored a stunning 5-0 victory over powerful Argentina in Buenos Aires in September, Higuita could only watch on television from his cell. In the past week, Higuita began a public protest of his unresolved incarceration by starting a hunger strike.

The Escobar Connection

His is a murky story with connections to Pablo Escobar Gaviria, the druglord who was gunned down by security forces on Thursday. Although he was an international villain, Escobar was seen as a Robin Hood to the poor of Medellin, Colombia's second-largest city, where Higuita grew up and where a statue of the goalie stands in his honor. Higuita's own reputation now carries a similar ambivalence. The Government has jailed him for violating an antikidnapping law, while his fans see him as a hero for saving the life of a young girl.

The prosecutor-general's office has concluded its investigation. A decision is expected soon on whether to prosecute Higuita, who is 24 years old, or to release him on grounds that he acted primarily for humanitarian reasons. If released, presumably Higuita would rejoin the national soccer team. If convicted, he could face up to 10 years in jail. If all else fails, his attorney hopes Colombia's Constitutional Court will overturn the new law by the end of the year.

Colombia has one of the world's highest kidnapping rates, and the demand for ransom has become big business. In effect, the government crackdown is intended to reduce the business value of kidnapping by forbidding ransom payments and prohibiting mediation fees for the victim's return. The government even goes so far as to freeze the bank accounts of the families of kidnap victims to discourage the demand and payment of ransom.

"We expect a complete acquittal because that law endangers the life of the kidnapped person and of the family," said Higuita's attorney, Fabio Lizcano. "It goes against human nature. Rene respected a basic human right -- for the kidnapped person to survive."

The Facts

The basic facts of the case are not in contention: In mid-May, 11-year-old Marcela Molina was kidnapped in Medellin. Her father, Luis Carlos Molina, suspected as a money launderer in the Medellin drug cartel, contacted Higuita and asked for his assistance in gaining his daughter's release. Higuita was called upon because he was famous and had a network of contacts in Medellin's poor neighborhoods. Connections were made with the kidnappers, and on May 31, Higuita paid a $300,000 ransom for the Molina family at a Medellin hamburger restaurant, and the girl was handed over to him. The kidnappers have not been caught.

In appreciation, the Molina family handed Higuita what appeared to be a toy box. When he opened it, Higuita found it was stuffed with $50,000 in United States currency, Higuita's attorney said. Higuita declined the money at first, Lizcano said, but the family insisted, and when the money was offered again, he accepted it.

But on June 4, he was charged with violating three articles of the antikidnapping law: illicit enrichment, mediating without authority and failing to inform the police that a kidnapping had taken place.

It Was No Secret

"Everybody knew what happened, that Higuita helped," said Ana Lucia Obregon, a spokeswoman for the Colombian prosecutor-general's office, in a telephone interview from Bogota. "He said it was for charity, that he could help humanity. But kidnapping is a popular crime in Colombia. The law goes against kidnapping, and everything around kidnapping. So we had to capture Higuita and put him in jail."

Higuita has said that he didn't know of the new law. Ignorance of the law is no defense, Obregon said.

"I don't know if he knew; Higuita only knows how to play football," Lizcano said.

The government demanded the $50,000 that Higuita received for returning the Molina girl, but he handed over only $16,220, so his car and his apartment were confiscated, Obregon said.

The Fringes of Propriety

This was not the first time that Higuita had moved along the shadowy boundary of what is permissible in Colombia.

In the summer of 1991, he visited Escobar, who was jailed in a lavishly appointed prison. So what, Lizcano said, it was not against the law. Yes, a friendship developed between Higuita and Escobar, but not a close one, the attorney said.

There is speculation that Escobar owned the club team for which Higuita played, but Lizcano denied that Escobar had ever been a soccer patron of Higuita's. Higuita had not seen Escobar since the drug kingpin escaped in July of 1992, Lizcano said.

"Rene is part of an underprivileged youth that grew up admiring Colombia's Robin Hood," Lizcano said of Higuita's relationship with Escobar. "Escobar built football fields with lighting, and constructed whole neighborhoods, which is more than the government ever did."

'A Mixed Feeling'

There has been speculation in Colombia that Escobar himself masterminded the kidnapping of the Molina girl, as part of a feud, but Lizcano discounted this, saying that the kidnappers are believed to be "common criminals."

That is what Higuita's stands accused of being, too. His attorney uses another word -- "scapegoat." The government has taken a bite out of Higuita's soccer career to show that the new law has teeth, Lizcano said.


Though Higuita missed the '94 World Cup, and would forever be tied to Escobar, he would soon redeem himself to soccer glory in September 1995, during an international friendly match against England.

Behold, The Scorpion Save:

Perhaps Higuita's career can best be described by ESPN's Robin Hackett:

Rene Heguita: El Loco
By Robin Hackett
Dec. 1, 2011

That goalkeepers are different is well established, but Rene Higuita was something else entirely. He was the livewire at the base of the renowned Colombia sides of the late 1980s and early 1990s, a pioneer whose eccentric style rarely failed to clinch headlines, for good or bad. He was also regularly in the newspapers for his off-field activities, and was to suffer greatly from his inability to distance himself from his homeland's drug problems.

Higuita was born into severe poverty in Medellin in August 1966, and had to be brought up by his grandmother after his unmarried mother died. His prospects were bleak. "Football is one way out of the ghetto, for the few," The Guardian reported in a feature on the city in 1990. "The other, for the many, is drugs."

Fortunately for Higuita, he had shown considerable talent in the former. He spent his early years as a centre-forward but, when circumstance saw him pushed into service as a goalkeeper, he found his calling - even though he would not forget the outfield skills that had marked his formative years. He was known for his goalscoring feats from penalties and free-kicks, netting 44 goals across the course of his career, but more significant was his desire to reside high up the pitch, regularly operating as a de facto sweeper and allowing his defence to push up, thereby forming a basis for the national team's progressive tactical approach. It was a plan that brought significant risks but, of the error that famously sent Colombia crashing out of the 1990 World Cup, when he was dispossessed by Cameroon's Roger Milla, manager Francisco Maturana recalled: "There was no point in anger because he was expressing the Colombian soul."

He was signed up by Medellin-based Atletico Nacional in 1981 and his professional career began in earnest in 1985 when he spent time on loan with Millionarios, one of Colombia's most successful clubs. 'El Loco', as he became known, swiftly established a reputation for scoring goals, and upon his return to Nacional became a key part of a side that would win two league titles as well as the Copa Libertadores and the Copa Interamericana.

It was under the tutelage of Maturana - who led both Nacional and Colombia from 1987 to 1990 - that he became a star. Higuita was one of many of the club's players Maturana called upon for the national side in the build-up to the 1990 World Cup and the new-look team, and their goalkeeper in particular, caused a stir worldwide. After a 1-1 friendly draw with England at Wembley in 1988, then-manager Bobby Robson said: "He left his penalty area five times during the game. He's come out to the touchline to tackle Gary Lineker; he's shown Peter Beardsley the ball and beaten him before taking it back into the box and picking it up." Robson had asked midfielder Steve McMahon what he made of the Colombians after the game, to which the Liverpool star shook his head and replied: "Different world, boss."

In 1989, Higuita enjoyed particular success. Nacional became the first Colombian side to win the Copa Libertadores when they beat Olimpia 5-4 in a penalty shootout in May, with Higuita saving four spot-kicks. In October, he was part of the Colombia side that saw off Israel 1-0 on aggregate in a play-off to qualify for their first World Cup since 1962. In December, in the Intercontinental Cup final against Arrigo Sacchi's AC Milan, Higuita lit up a match lacking in action when he repeatedly dribbled upfield, although Nacional lost 1-0 in the dying moments of extra-time.

When Higuita arrived at Italia '90, therefore, his ability to steal the show was already well-established.

"With the technical, practical and spectacle considerations of the World Cup and its physical demands, I see the outstanding players breaking into two groups," Maturana said a week before Colombia's opener against United Arab Emirates. "I see the geniuses and the madmen. The genuises, I see the No. 1 in that group as Maradona. And the madmen, that's Rene Higuita."

El Loco did not disappoint. Colombia edged their way through a group also containing West Germany and Yugoslavia, setting up a second-round meeting with Cameroon. The game was goalless after 90 minutes, but veteran striker Milla broke the deadlock at the start of the second period of extra-time. Three minutes later, Colombia's hopes were effectively over: Higuita received a backpass in the sweeper position and attempted to outwit Milla with a dragback only to lose possession, allowing the forward to score and for Cameroon to progress with an eventual 2-1 win. The goalkeeper's reputation was, unsurprisingly, in a state of disrepair. "People will talk about it and be quite right in talking about it," Higuita said afterwards. "It was a mistake. Everyone saw it. It was as big as a house. I have always played like this and I was confident I could win today. I have lost. It's too bad."

Roger Milla cruises to the World Cup
quarterfinals after stripping Higuita at midfield.

In June 1991, Higuita was embroiled in controversy off the field when he was filmed paying a visit to Pablo Escobar - apparently, but unofficially, the owner of Nacional - during the notorious drug lord's stint in a luxurious mountain prison. "Escobar built football fields with lighting, and constructed whole neighbourhoods, which is more than the government ever did," the goalkeeper's lawyer, Fabio Lizcano, later explained. "Rene is part of an underprivileged youth that grew up admiring Colombia's Robin Hood."

On the field, he had a brief spell abroad when he followed Maturana to Real Valladolid, but the move did not work out and he soon returned to Nacional. The move back to Medellin proved costly, though, when the Escobar connection resurfaced in dramatic fashion. In May 1993, the 11-year-old daughter of another underworld figure, Luis Carlos Molina, was kidnapped, and suspicion fell on Escobar. Molina enlisted the help of Higuita in securing the release, and the goalkeeper subsequently handed over the reported $385,000 ransom money. In gratitude, the Molina family presented Higuita with a gift: US bank notes apparently totalling $64,000. In accepting the gift, he had broken Colombian law, and he was facing three charges after his arrest in June: illicit enrichment, mediating without authority and failing to inform the police that a kidnapping had taken place. He was placed in prison pending a full case.

"All he did was help to get the girl released and make her family happy," his girlfriend, and later wife, Magnolia Etchverry protested. "In return they gave him some money. For that he was put in jail." After over five months in prison, Higuita began a hunger strike in protest at his incarceration, and in January 1994 he was finally released as a result of the authorities' failure to pursue the charge within the legal timeframe - under Colombian law, a trial had to begin within 120 days of arrest. Magnolia, along with a 200-strong crowd of supporters, greeted him as he walked free. "I feel a pain in missing all the moments, good and difficult, that Colombian football has been through," Higuita said.

With Maturana having returned to lead Colombia to the 1994 World Cup, Higuita would surely have been named in the squad and handed the chance to atone for his Italia '90 blunder, but in March it was confirmed that he would miss out as his legal situation meant he could not leave his homeland. "He has problems we can't solve," Maturana said. He was later cleared of wrongdoing and awarded $17,000 in damages, yet the bitterness remains. "They took away my chance to be with my national team, my family," Higuita told Sports Illustrated in 2008, "and when I was declared innocent, they published a small little item. Nobody knows I was cleared."

He bounced back, though, and was restored to the national side for the 1995 Copa America; indeed, for the most part he looked back to his best as Colombia finished third. In September that year, in a low-key 0-0 friendly draw with England at Wembley, he dealt with a tame Jamie Redknapp effort by unleashing the 'Scorpion Kick', launching himself forwards to repel the ball with his heels (the linesman had already flagged for offside, but the referee ignored it and allowed play to go on). An international star was reborn, and though Malcolm Berry, secretary to the English School's FA, labelled it a "crass and stupid way to go about making a save", no one else seemed to agree.

"It's the sort of thing only one person can do," a triumphant Higuita said afterwards. "I have a massive repertoire, but I don't plan them ahead." Former Arsenal goalkeeper Bob Wilson, at that stage working for ITV, revealed that Higuita's claims to spontaneity were misleading: "He did the same thing three or four times in the warm-up."

Once more the highs turned to lows: in 1996, he had announced that he was to quit because of his own dissatisfaction with his form, and he spent six months out of action. His Bogota home was bombed in January 1997, and he left the country for a spell in Mexico with Veracruz not long afterwards. He then returned to Colombia and, while a free agent in October 1998, was arrested after roaming the Medellin streets on his motorbike while holding a gun. He signed for Independiente Medellin in 1999.

A series of moves around his homeland followed but, in October 2002, while playing for provincial side Pereira, he was handed a six-match ban after testing positive for cocaine. He left Colombia for Ecuadorian side Aucas in January 2004, but in November that year tested positive for the drug once more. "Higuita said it was possibly residue from some time ago but I cannot confirm that," Aucas chairman Jaime Perez told Reuters. "We have terminated his contract."

Higuita was forced into retirement, and in 2005 he reinvented himself as a TV star. "I had to go into rehab," he later explained. "After that I started doing the reality shows. I have nothing against money." He featured in both the second and third series of the Survivor-inspired La Isla de los Famosos (The Island of the Famous), and later in the year appeared on Cambio Extremo (Extreme Change), in which he had extensive cosmetic surgery.

In August 2007, shortly before his 41st birthday, Higuita came out of retirement to sign for Venezuelan club Guaros, but it did not work out. He claimed he had been paid only one month's salary despite holding a contract until the end of the season, so walked out - "They can hardly complain" - and signed for Rionegro in Colombia's second tier. He called it "a good level to say farewell" but, after helping the team to finish in second place in his first season, he took the opportunity to re-enter the spotlight when he signed for top-flight side Pereira on a $10,000-a-month contract. He continued to inject flair into games, notably producing a Scorpion Kick in a game against Once Caldas shortly after his arrival, and finally hung up his gloves - and boots - after an official farewell appearance in January 2010.

His contribution to Colombia's successes has perhaps been overshadowed by his World Cup blunder in the eyes of international audiences, but El Loco - the eternal showman - has never made any attempt to play down the eccentricities that made him a star. "When I have finished my career," Higuita said in the mid-'90s, "my name will stay on people's lips as a player who brought a bit of magic into the lives of ordinary people."


Higuita might have his shortcomings, but if you watch him play, he'll surely make you smile every time. Unfortunately, most of Higuita's incredible YouTube videos are blocked for blogger use, so head over to YouTube and search him. There's literally hours of fantastic footage - you won't be disappointed.

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