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Murder of soccer player after own-goal 20 years ago still resonates in Colombia

Brazil Wcup Colombia Euphoria-1.jpg

FILE - In this June 22, 1994, file photo, Colombia's Andres Escobar, lies on the ground and watches a shot by America's Eric Wynalda miss the Colombian goal, during the World Cup match, in the Rose Bowl, Pasadena. The Unites States defeated Colombia by two goals to one. Escobar was shot six times by a man employed by two drug traffickers, who had been complaining to him about his blunder 10 days earlier in Los Angeles. Escobar had knocked Colombia out of contention by kicking the ball into his own net in game against the United States. (AP Photo/Draper, File)The Associated Press

The murder of a Colombian soccer player 20 years ago Wednesday after he accidentally scored a goal for the other side and helped eliminate his team from the World Cup stands in stark contrast to the national squad's celebrated success this time around.

It also demonstrates what a different country Colombia has become.

Colombia had entered the 1994 World Cup among the favorites to win it all, led by star goalie Carlos "El Pibe" Valderrama and forward Faustino Asprilla. But then the unthinkable happened. The squad lost 3-1 to Romania, midfielder Gabriel Gomez received a faxed death threat and the coach contemplated resigning.

But the worst was still to come. Defender Andres Escobar, known as "The Gentleman of the Field," accidentally put the ball in his own net in a game against the U.S., contributing to Colombia's rapid exit from the Cup and a massive national disappointment.

Ten days later, the 27-year-old Escobar was shot dead in a Medellin parking lot in a killing that sparked national outrage.

"Everyone wanted the crime solved, from the president to the most humble of Colombians," said Jesus Albeiro Yepes, the prosecutor charged with investigating Escobar's killing. "I think people would have lynched the three (suspects in the crime) if they had had the opportunity."

The crime reinforced Colombia's reputation as a violent country rife with drug cartels, leftist rebel groups and right-wing paramilitary militias. And the investigation of Escobar's murder reinforced the perception of impunity.

While triggerman Humberto Munoz Castro was sentenced to 42 years in prison, he refused to implicate his bosses who were with him at the time. He left prison after 11 years for good behavior.

To this day, Yepes wonders why his superiors archived the case against the bosses, the brothers Santiago and Pedron Gallon. Some have suggested a paramilitary leader who the brothers worked for bribed authorities to let them go, though Yepes says he has no information about that theory.

On the day of his murder, Andres Escobar had gone out with friends to a disco in Medellin to take his mind off the own-goal.

But in the disco, patrons yelled "own-goal, Andres, own-goal!" Yepes said.

Escobar left, and in a nearby parking lot people harassed him again.

Yepes said Escobar asked them why they were bothering him, and Santiago Gallon told the soccer player from his car that "he didn't know who he was messing with."

Munoz, the driver of Gallon's vehicle, got out of vehicle and shot Escobar six times.

Video from a security camera in the parking lot show Munoz shooting Escobar.

Twenty years later, the Medellin and Cali drug cartels have been dismantled. Paramilitary groups demobilized in 2006. And the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia is negotiating peace with the government.

During the current World Cup tournament, Colombians have become enthralled again by their team, which has reached the quarterfinals for the first time ever and faces host Brazil on Friday.

"Now we have a different Colombia," said Valderrama, "in terms of the country and the team."