Rincon, Valderrama and the tragedy of Colombia's glittering 'golden generation'

Colombia 1990s golden generation GFX
Carlos Valderrama & Co. played champagne football but the curse of Los Cafeteros was never far away...

The signs were there even before a single ball was kicked that Argentina's World Cup qualifier in 1993 against Colombia would be one to remember.

Shortly before kick-off, River Plate's Estadio Monumental was shaken to its core by an Aerolineas Argentinas passenger jet that swooped perilously close overhead.

It avoided by a matter of metres a catastrophic collision with the San Martin stand – all because, as the pilot later admitted, he wished to give those aboard a unique glance at the more than 70,000 spectators packed inside to watch the crucial clash.

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That near-miss set the tone for the most memorable day in Colombian football history, a 5-0 drubbing of their illustrious South American rivals that sealed their place at the 1994 World Cup and consigned the 1990 finalists to a play-off against Australia.

“It was talked about a lot. The pilot even got suspended,” ex-Argentina forward Ramon Medina Bello, who partnered Gabriel Batistuta in the Albiceleste attack that evening, recalled years later.

“Did I see it go over? I couldn't see the Colombians for the entire night and you want me to see a plane...”

The hero of that shock result, or perhaps better said one of Colombia's many heroes, was virtuoso midfielder Freddy Rincon, the 'Colossus'.

The ex-Santa Fe, Palmeiras, Corinthians, Napoli and Real Madrid ace – who passed away on April 13 aged just 55 after sustaining critical head injuries during a car crash in Cali – opened the scoring past Sergio Goycochea after 41 minutes with a fine finish having been played in by Carlos Valderrama, and after the break assisted Faustino Asprilla's strike to make it 2-0 to the visitors.

Rincon struck again for Colombia's third, and from there Argentina's resolve crumbled, with further goals from Asprilla and Adolfo Valencia sealing an historic drubbing for the home team.

It was the crowning moment for the Cafeteros' greatest generation, a team that reached three consecutive World Cup finals and passed into legend with their electric, joyful, unplayable football.

Rincon was at the heart of that team, along with unforgettable characters like 'El Pibe' Valderrama, the impossibly explosive Asprilla and Rene Higuita, the inventor of the scorpion kick and one of the first modern sweeper keepers, whose free-kick prowess and occasionally disastrous penchant for taking on incoming forwards made him a cult figure in world football.

Rincon was just 23 when he travelled to Italy with the rest of the Cafeteros squad for their first World Cup since 1962 and he remained in the team for the following trips to United States and France – making him and Valderrama the only Colombians in history to have featured three times in football's biggest competition.

Colombia's rapid, free-flowing style of play, from Higuita at the back to Rincon, Asprilla and Valencia in attack and with the majestic, languid talents of Valderrama pulling all the strings, was also a breath of fresh air in a period in which the game had seemingly fallen captive to craven, cynical tactics.

Francisco 'Pacho' Maturana – the venerable coach who took the reins in both 1994 and 1998 – made it his mission to change the image not just of his side, but rather an entire nation.

Pacho, like Rincon, famously often sought the advice of witchdoctors; the latter, as legend has it, lowered his intensity in the United States after being warned a Cafetero star would incur serious injury at the tournament.

“I remember when we went to Europe in 1988, even at Italia 90. Most of the time the press conferences were about Pablo Escobar, the assassinations, drug trafficking... nobody asked about football,” Maturana explained to the Coaches' Voice.

“It was at that time that we decided on a new style of play... Up to then the national team's game plan consisted of trying to shut down the opponent. You used to finish the game exhausted from running, in tears, with the feeling you hadn't played at all.

“We told each other: 'Let's go out and play football. We are going to find a way to let ourselves cut loose when we have the ball'.”

That approach paid off in another landmark clash for Colombia's first golden generation.

Rincon's brilliant 93rd-minute strike held eventual 1990 World Cup winners West Germany to a 1-1 draw in the group stage of that competition, a result that sealed qualification for the last 16.

Speaking in 2020 on the eve of the 20th anniversary of that strike, Rincon paid tribute to his former boss and his swashbuckling approach. “Guardiola did the same thing that the Colombia national team did in Italia 1990,” he told Blu Radio.

“We did not play the ball around for fun, our goal was always the net and several coaches picked up on that.”

And yet, despite Maturana and his team's best efforts, the Colombia story will be forever tinged with tragedy.

Having gone down to Cameroon in 1990 following a horrendous Higuita error, hopes were sky-high four years later that the Cafeteros could compete with the world's best or even lift the trophy outright – even without their goalkeeper, who was out of shape having spent nine months in prison for his alleged role in a kidnapping mediation and did not travel to the US.

Instead, the campaign proved an unmitigated disaster, a fact not aided, as Maturana suggests, by the squad's notoriously lax approach to discipline in the build-up: “We were throwing a party when the World Cup is about something else.”

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Defeats to Romania and the hosts sealed the nation's fate after just two games, making the following 2-0 victory over Switzerland irrelevant.

Five days later, iconic defender Andres Escobar was shot dead in a nightclub parking lot in his native Medellin by a cartel bodyguard, a murder that outraged Colombian society and did much to undo the work Escobar and his team-mates had carried out in redeeming the nation's image in the eyes of the world.

Rincon himself was arrested in Brazil in 2007 on charges related to involvement in drug trafficking, a fate shared by 1994 team-mate Anthony de Avila, who is currently in an Italian prison on narcotics charges.

In 2004, Albero Usuriaga, the man who scored the goal which sealed Colombia's qualification to the 1990 World Cup, was shot seven times and killed in a drive-by attack in Cali; while Hernan Gaviria, another member of the squad in the United States, was just 32 when he was struck by lightning and killed while training for Deportivo Cali in 2002.

But in spite of that grief, the horrific conclusion to the 1994 World Cup and its timid farewell four years later, when another first-round exit followed – ushering in 16 long, painful years out of the competition - the first golden generation still retains a treasured place in Colombian hearts, as well as provoking infinite debates over whether the likes of James Rodriguez, Juan Cuadrado and David Ospina managed to surpass their achievements in recent years.

Perhaps Valderrama, Rincon, Asprilla & Co. ultimately failed to hit the heights they might have been capable of reaching, but between them the legends resurrected a flagging football nation.

Never before had Colombia taken on the world's best and prevailed while playing with unbounded joy and enthusiasm in every touch of the ball, while giving an entire nation hope, however fleeting, that things could get better at its lowest, cartel and violence-ravaged ebb.