Estadio Monumental, Buenos Aires
5 September 1993
Argentina – 0
Colombia – 5 (Rincon-2, Asprilla-2, Valencia)
In early 1990s, two things usually brought Colombia to newspaper headlines. First, a long and bloody conflict involving the country’s powerful drug cartels and second, Los Cafeteros, their national football team. World Cup qualifiers have often seen awe inspiring and surprising results but few could stand up to the widespread shockwaves created by Colombia’s thrashing of Argentina in 1993. It was a match which turned Colombia from a good team to “World Cup contenders” within a matter of 90 minutes and eventually led to tragic circumstances a year later.
Infusion of drug money had brought a golden period in Colombian club football in late 1980s. The clubs could now afford to retain their best players thanks to larger pay and better facilities. That coupled with a golden generation of players saw Colombia turn into one of the strongest teams in South America. Between 1985 and 1990 Colombian clubs reached Copa Libertadores final four out of five times and Atletico Nacional’s victory in 1989 was the zenith of Colombian club football. Colombia also qualified for their first World Cup in 28 years in 1990 and progressed to second round. They played a series of friendlies in early 1990s and rarely lost, showing signs of a team in constant ascendancy. The 1993 Copa America further emboldened that notion as they knocked out Mexico and Uruguay and almost upset Argentina before eventually finishing third.
On 1st August, 1993, Colombia began their World Cup qualification campaign with the country reeling in fires of a conflict between the drug cartels and the government. Grouped along with Paraguay, Argentina and Peru, Colombia won three out of five matches, including a convincing home win over Argentina. However, two draws against Paraguay meant they had lost some ground in a tight group.
Argentina’s most successful period started with their famous victory in 1986 World Cup and another runners-up medal in Italia 90. Copa America success came in early 1990s when they won back to back titles for the first time since 1959. The two titles were even more significant because for the first time in a decade Argentina was not depending on the genius of Diego Maradona in a major tournament. El Diego had picked up a 15 month long ban after testing positive in a dope test. His ban ended by 1993 but Argentine coach Alfio Basile chose this opportunity to groom his team without Maradona’s influence, refusing to call him up for 1993 Copa America or World Cup qualifiers. Basile’s plans were further bolstered by the rise of Gabriel Batitstuta who scored nine goals in those two Copa, including three in the finals. The blonde striker had joined Fiorentina in 1991 and had already notched up 31 goals in 65 matches in the best league in the world.
A loss against Colombia in the away match had hamstrung Argentina’s campaign and they were on 7 points from 5 matches, compared to Colombia’s 8. However, a victory in the final qualifier would ensure a place for Argentina in the World Cup. Basile’s men had reasons to be confident as La Albiceleste had never lost a World Cup qualifier at home in the tournament’s 60 year history. Maturana would have taken his heart from the fact that his team had already beaten Argentina once and also the 2-1 win over his opponents at the very same stadium in Copa America 1987.
Argentina: Sergio Goycochea; Julio Saldaña, Jorge Borelli, Oscar Ruggeri, Ricardo Altamirano; Gustavo Zapata, Fernando Redondo, Diego Simeone, Leonardo Rodríguez; Ramón Medina Bello, Gabriel Batistuta
Colombia: Óscar Córdoba; Luis Herrera, Luis Perea, Alexis Mendoza, Wilson Pérez; Leonel Álvarez, Gabriel Gómez; Carlos Valderrama, Freddy Rincón, Fuastino Asprilla, Adolfo Valencia
Argentina needed a victory to ensure World Cup qualification but Colombia could have progressed even with a draw. However, the South American champions were itching to set the record straight after their loss in Barranquilla which meant the game was off to an open and attacking start with both teams looking for an early goal.
The first few minutes belonged to the home team and three minutes into the first half, Argentina had their first chance. A futile run from Batistuta saw Cordoba take possession and pass to Perea, the central defender inexplicably passed towards Bello, who on seeing Cordoba out of position unleashed a long ranged shot which rolled wide of the goal. Colombia’s first chance came nine minutes later as Valderamma took advantage of a lazy pass from Ruggeri, held off three opponent challenges before finding Asprilla on edge of Argentina box. Asprilla tried to roll the ball towards an onrushing Valencia but the latter was caught offside. Seconds later the golden mane Colombian was involved once again as he turned Redondo inside out before slipping in a through pass for Valencia. Valencia took too long to take a shot as Argentine defenders eventually wrestled the ball off him.
On 21st minute Argentina wasted a golden chance. Batistuta took advantage of lax defending from Colombia, and entered into the box after a swift one-two with Bello. Unfortunately, with Cordoba at his mercy, his first touch betrayed him. This chance came minutes after Valencia had tested Goycochea at near post with a powerful shot. On 25th minute a delicious pass from Rincon released Asprilla but the striker’s cross aimed at Valencia was easily collected by Goycochea.
After a relatively calm spell, a delightful team move saw Colombia take the lead as Valderamma, evaded two challenges and with three defenders closing in, slipped in a diagonal through pass for Rincon, who rounded off Goycochea to calmly slot the ball in. A minute later Batistuta almost raced past the Colombian defence but instead of reaching the ball he was involved in a painful midair clash with Cordoba. The first half ended with Colombia unexpectedly leading.
Pumped up in second half for an equalizer, Argentina dominated the first fifteen minutes, forcing a number of big saves from Cordoba. However, it was Colombia who scored a goal from a delightfully simple move. Rincon’s looped pass was received by Asprilla with Borelli in front of him inside the box. Asprilla took one touch away from the defender, dodged inside with his second touch, wrong footing Borelli before rolling the ball between Goycochea’s legs. Four minutes later Asprilla took an advantage of Borelli’s heavy first touch and sprinted into penalty box but was blocked by a superb sliding tackle by Ruggeri.
Cordoba was called into action on 60th minute as Batistuta unleashed a shot from a narrow angle after a wonderful long pass from Redondo. Seconds later, the Fiorentina striker was denied by perhaps the best save in this match after his typically powerful left footer was punched out. Argentina was smelling blood now and a minute later Bello tested Cordoba but his shot lacked venom. The Colombian ‘keeper almost undid his good work on 66th minute. He rushed out to collect a cross from Zapata but missed the flight. Ruggeri was following up but his header went wide. On 68th minute Bello acted selfishly trying from a narrow angle when he had support at far post. Five minutes later Ruggeri once again messed up and failed to take advantage of a mistake from Perea despite being just few feet away from the goal. It would prove to be the last important save Cordoba made in this match.
On 72nd minute Asprilla started a long run from his own half along the touchline, outpaced Borelli but saw his shot saved by Goycochea. Alvarez, making a rare forward run, picked up the lose ball, sprinted inside the box and pulled back a cross which was put in by Rincon after his shot to an awkward bounce. Two minutes later a mistake from Borelli allowed Asprilla to chip Goycochea. 4-0 to Colombia.
Two of Colombia’s best players combined for the fifth on 84th minute. A defence splitting pass from Valderamma was picked up by Asprilla. With Argentine defenders focusing on him Asprilla picked up Valencia’s run. Staying true to his nickname Valencia hurtled in like a train with his first touch taking the ball past Goycochea.
15 years before this match Argentina had won the World Cup in the very same stadium. This victory was Colombia’s most important in their football history and Gabriel Garcia Marquez later remarked that it was one of the three most important events in the history of the country.
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Neither team approached this match to get a draw, which made the contest an open one where both teams created plenty of opportunities though only one team took theirs.
Colombia and Argentina started out with identical 4-4-2 formations on paper. For the home team Gabriel Batistuta played a much more mobile role, often dropping deeper and moving into channels between the central midfield and left flank. Bello was much more static and acted as the fulcrum for Argentine attacks but was often too static to cause enough harm to the Colombian defence. For Colombia both strikers remained fairly high up the pitch with Asprilla pressurizing Argentine central defenders, especially Ruggeri, and Valencia making short but fast late runs into the box, connecting to passes from Asprilla and Valderamma. Freddy Rincon was a wildcard for Colombia. He started in central midfield but was given a free role which allowed him to make box to box runs. For large parts of the match Argentine defensive players either focused on Valderamma or the Colombian strikers, allowing Rincon acres of free space which he exploited to devastating effect.
The main difference was made in central-midfield where Carlos Valderamma and Leonel Alvarez squared off one of the best central midfield pairings of 1990s in Diego Simeone and Fernando Redondo. Alvarez started off playing in middle of the park but seeing Batistuta’s movement in first few minutes he dropped deeper, operating almost as a sweeper. The contrasting movement of Rincon and Alvarez meant Colombia was at times operating in 4-1-2-3 system, sacrificing width to take control of the midfield from Argentina’s two central midfielders. This would have only been possible if Colombia had a player who was capable of holding possession as well as creating chances high up the pitch. This is where Valderamma came in. Never a particularly pacy or hard-working player, Valderamma’s biggest strength was his ball retention under pressure. On more than one occasion Valderamma held off challenges from one or both of Simeone and Redondo before spraying a defence splitting pass for Rincon or Asprilla. Redondo was given the task of marking him but Simeone also spent significant time on the Colombian captain. An off the ball incident in first half which saw both team’s #10s booked might have provoked Simeone. But with him focusing on Valderamma it eased pressure on Alvarez as well as created space for Rincon.
Cordoba should get a special mention as his saves between 65th and 75th minutes made sure Argentina was not allowed a leeway into the game in second half.
Man of the Match
Wildly skilled and wild in general, this was the inconsistent Colombian’s greatest ever international performance. He scored two beautiful goals, assisted the fifth and his long run was largely responsible for Rincon’s second goal. With him in prime form, both Argentine central defenders focused on him, giving ample space to Rincon and Valencia.
In a strange way, this match had a long standing negative impact on both teams.
The Argentine public and football fraternity was shocked beyond words after this result. As a knee-jerk reaction Basile chose to bring Maradona back, ignoring his lack of form or fitness, for Argentina’s crunch double header play-off against Australia. Sporting an arm-band, the little Argentine once again provided the goods when it mattered as Argentina qualified after a 2-1 tense aggregate victory. Diego Maradona travelled with the side to USA and scored in the opening victory against Greece, following it up with an iconic celebration. Few days later he once again tested positive for doping and was sent home. It not only ended his career but also had a demoralizing effect on his team-mates as they labored through the group stages before being knocked out by an excellent Romania in the second round. La Albiceleste’s era of supremacy also ended and they have not won a Copa America or World Cup till date.
The landslide victory in Buenos Aires snowballed Colombia’s status to a World Cup favourite. They were Pele’s pick to win it and there was a great sense of expectation around the football team as the government rallied around it to project a positive image of the country. This placed Colombian players under a burden of expectation they were not mentally equipped to deal with. A meltdown followed soon.
Colombia started their opening match against Romania well but was soon pegged back by the superbly drilled Easter Europeans whose counter-attacks had mechanical precision and were eventually defeated 3-1. Knowing they had to win against USA, Colombia went into the game in worst state of mind possible, with the players’ families receiving death and kidnapping threats from drug mafia who had bet on Colombia’s progress. Playing in a dazed state and unable to express themselves, Colombia’s World Cup effectively ended when Andres Escobar scored an own goal on 34th minute. The same Escobar whose defensive calmness brought him a chance to join a legendary AC Milan defence once the World Cup ended. USA eventually won and Colombia was out, a 2-0 win in their last group match notwithstanding.
The Colombian players were hounded and given death threats and they could no longer lead normal lives. On 2nd July, 1994 Andres Escobar was shot with .38 pistol six times outside a bar in Medellin. His assailants had shouted the word “Gol!” as they shot him, referring to the own goal. Football which had for so long been a positive projection of Colombia was tarnished.
Colombia did have some measure of success in 2001 Copa America when they became the first country to win it without conceding a single goal and winning all matches. However, none of their teams since then had the swagger of the class of 1994.