Seventeen years ago, Colombian goalkeeper Rene Higuita astonished the football world with his now-famous ‘Scorpion Kick’ save in a friendly with England at the old Wembley Stadium. The save has achieved a life all its own, and regularly finds itself placing highly on ‘Greatest Sporting Moments’ or ‘Best Saves’ lists. One wouldn’t have been shocked had any number of ‘loco’ South American goalkeepers - Hugo Gatti, Jose Luis Chilavert, Ramon Quiroga - attempted such a trick. But only Rene Higuita did it.
Higuita was already a known quantity on the world stage, thanks to a piece of adventurous play that went terribly wrong. At the 1990 World Cup, he was dispossessed while outside his box by Cameroon’s Roger Milla. His despairing attempt to tackle as Milla coolly finished made him a figure of sympathy to some, but a laughingstock to more. Higuita had no intention of letting that moment define him.
Two things must be made clear from the start: first, the Scorpion Kick was not a great save, or certainly not a necessary one. The aimless ball Jamie Redknapp floated to Higuita could easily have been caught, or even - why not? - Chested down; and second, the Scorpion Kick manoeuvre itself is not particularly difficult. Higuita continued to do it in charity games into his forties. I’m forty-six years old and can do it.
Higuita has stated that he only attempted the trick because he saw the linesman flag for offside. The new interpretation of the law, however, meant that the flag was lowered when no England player ran onto Redknapp’s ball. If Higuita had missed his kick, the goal would have stood.
That’s what makes it a remarkable moment: having developed the bizarre trick, Higuita chose to do it in an honest-to-God game. We can call it a friendly, but professional footballers want to win five-a-side games in training. Put them in a historic stadium with a crowd of 60,000 and a live television audience, and I can assure you the Colombian players and fans at home would have been none too pleased had the trick gone awry.
But Rene Higuita didn’t just ignore the possibility of embarrassment or recriminations from angry fans. He ignored something much darker. Colombian football in the early nineties rode the wave of a boom funded primarily by drug money. Drug lords such as Pablo Escobar and ‘El Mexicano’ Jose Gonzalo Rodriguez Gacha used professional teams as money laundering vehicles. Escobar personally funded Nacional, Higuita’s team, bankrolling them all the way to the Copa Libertadores title in 1989, on the strength of Higuita’s saves in a penalty shootout. It was the first major international title by a Colombian team. Both the national team and domestic league flourished with the newfound riches.
But a reckoning was soon to come. Shortly after scoring a crucial own goal at the 1994 World Cup, Andres Escobar, a beloved player, was shot dead by a bodyguard working for one of the drug cartels. His murder was believed to be a simple case of revenge, as drug lords had bet heavily on the game. All of Colombia mourned Escobar; the cartels, unmoved, continued to terrorize the country (Escobar’s killer would be a free man by the time of the 2006 World Cup in Germany).
The dominion of the cartels even cost Higuita his place at the 1994 World Cup. He served as a go-between for Pablo Escobar and rival drug kingpin Carlos Molina, after the latter’s daughter had been kidnapped. Higuita had acted in good faith and helped secure the release of Molina’s daughter, but accepted payment for his actions, a criminal offense in a country plagued by kidnappings. He served seven months in jail, during which he lost his place in goal to Oscar Cordoba. Somewhat naively, Higuita had admitted to the Colombian press that he was friends with Pablo Escobar. It was not something Colombian authorities wanted to hear from one of their star players, not with the World Cup on the horizon. Rene gave them the opportunity to remove him from the picture, if only temporarily, and they took it.
By the time of the England friendly, in September 1995, the Andres Escobar murder was still a fresh wound on the national psyche, and Higuita was a man rebuilding both his footballing and personal reputation. The national side had won just two of their five World Cup qualifiers. They needed good news. They needed a good show. They needed entertainment. Higuita was not the only entertainer in the side, of course. Faustino Asprilla’s unpredictability, Freddy Rincon’s dynamism, and Carlos Valderrama’s almost comically languid brilliance made them good value for spectators, even in what turned out to be a goalless draw. But the game was enlivened by, and remembered today, for the Scorpion Kick.
Never did one moment delineate so clearly the difference, in perception at least, between South American and European goalkeepers. European - and especially English - goalkeepers were expected to do their job with a minimum of fuss. ‘Eccentrics’ such as Jan Tomaszewski and Sepp Maier were derided as clowns. And there at the other end of the Wembley pitch was David Seaman. A percentage keeper, Seaman played the angles, stayed on his feet, and was not given to theatrics. He was safe and (at that time) reliable. It’s no discredit to Seaman, but he would be at the very top of any list of keepers who most definitely would not try such a manoeuvre.
Rene Higuita tried it. Watch the clip again. You can tell that from the moment the ball leaves Redknapp’s foot, Higuita has made his mind up. His arms go out to his sides for balance; his feet coordinate a little skip to get set. His limbs appear electric, charged with adrenalin. Linesman’s flag or no, he’s doing it. Then, having pulled it off flawlessly, sparking a roar of surprise from the crowd, his reaction is modest, even a touch embarrassed. He raises both hands as if to apologize for his indulgence. But I like to imagine he was delighted.
Higuita once said of himself that he was “...an ordinary human being who had made mistakes, but who also had his good points, too.” It’s a phlegmatic and wholly unrepresentative description of a man who has never known how to be ordinary, hard as he may have tried.
You can read more from Justin at The Goalkeepers' Union.
Picture comes from the excellent Subbuteo Art website. More from them on IBWM soon...