It was a cold September night in Buenos Aires that everything changed. Nobody 25 years later could ever have imagined the repercussions of that single game. Nobody back then wanted to. Against Argentina in the Estadio Monumental that Sunday evening in 1993, Colombia wobbled football’s established order and carved out a legacy that would echo down the years.

To this day El Cinco-Cero needs no clarification; in Colombia, there’s only one Five-Nil. Repeated on television every year, each anniversary sees the myth embellished with intrepid tales from players still wallowing in the game’s afterglow. This was more than an upset that shocked the world. And it was more than just an untimely and merciless slaughter, a humiliation on home soil by a national team Argentina had always considered its inferior. It was the opium of football seeping into the cracks of a broken society.

Colombia emerged from its master’s shadow that night, burying Argentinian arrogance and cementing a new positive identity for Colombian football in the process. But back home a country was sinking under the megalomaniac Pablo Escobar’s relentless war against the Colombian state. As the bombs exploded and the bodies piled up, a whole nation lived in fear. Ostracised by the world and reduced to a narrative of war, violence, drugs and death, these were the darkest days in Colombia’s history. Yet suddenly this bleak void was pierced and a country lost its mind in the unbridled rush of emotion that followed. A sudden shot of fame turned Colombia on a different path, and it was one that would eventually curl into disaster several months later at the 1994 World Cup. “It’s still the game that most represents us in the history of Colombian football,” argues Felipe Valderrama, editor of distinguished Colombian football website elcincocero. “For all that was good about it, and for all that was bad.”

History might have been different if it hadn’t have been for a missed penalty two months earlier. At the 1993 Copa América in Ecuador, Colombia and Argentina had twice fought out frosty draws. First in the group stage, and then in the semi-final, Colombia had held their own against an Argentina side unbeaten since losing the 1990 World Cup final. But a missed Víctor Aristizábal penalty saw Argentina through to the final where they would beat Mexico and lift the trophy.

That tempestuous semi-final defeat on penalties in Guayaquil saw Colombia goaded by their rivals as both sets of players squabbled their way off the pitch. “Who are you to talk, dwarf?” Fernando Redondo scoffed, peering over Colombia’s right-back Luis ‘Chonto’ Herrera as they headed into the changing rooms. “I bet I earn 10 times more than you.” Stepping in to defend his teammate, the team’s star Faustino Asprilla put Redondo back in his place with boasts of his own Parma pay packet. But Redondo refused to bow down and with a flick of his golden locks he retorted: “That might be Tino, but just look at this pretty face, you son of a bitch.”

In a series of interviews with ex-players for his book El 5-0, the investigative journalist Mauricio Silva pinpoints that game as the birth of the Colombia-Argentina rivalry.

“Let’s not beat around the bush,” Colombia’s assistant coach Hernán Darío ‘Bolillo’ Gómez told Silva two decades later. “Argentina were the team we then all wanted to beat.”

Bolillo had helped transform the Colombia national team when he was appointed as Francisco Maturana’s assistant in 19871.  The pair had led Colombia to their first World Cup in 28 years before reaching the last 16 at Italia 90 with a dramatic last-minute Freddy Rincón equaliser against West Germany. “That draw was our best ever result,” argues Maturana. “Imagine a draw being your country’s best ever result?”

If Colombia had made great strides under Maturana and Bolillo with a new identity that had earned many admirers for the way they languidly dictated play, there were some who had started to get frustrated. “A lot of tiki-taka but then what? Nothing!” scorned William Vinasco Ché, one of the country’s top TV commentators. He wasn’t alone.

The Uruguayan poet Eduardo Galeano had once moaned that “football seems condemned to be played out of a duty to win, and not for the pleasure of playing.” A trait bucked by Maturana’s Colombia, it nevertheless continued to bother local press and fans who were desperate for a defining moment in the country’s progress.

Maturana had returned as national team manager a few months prior to the 1993 Copa América after Bolillo had briefly taken over the top job before being forced to step down after a series of death threats that had left his family “living in terror”. Such intolerance derived from the country’s delicate social troubles would sadly become a familiar story for Colombia’s national team.

Yet the Copa América had been the mere prelude for the 1994 World Cup qualifiers that would get underway only four weeks later. With six games crammed into the space of just over a month, Colombia needed to finish top of a group comprising Paraguay, Peru and Argentina for a direct ticket to 1994 finals.

Things didn’t begin well. At home to Paraguay, Tino Asprilla missed a penalty as Colombia stumbled to a goalless draw. With Argentina winning away in Peru, automatic qualification was already looking a long shot.

The press immediately blamed Asprilla, the team’s main star who had just enjoyed an impressive debut season in Italy with Parma. But for his country he had yet to shine2.

At the Copa América a month earlier, he had missed almost the entire tournament after being granted special dispensation to take an extended holiday with a “female friend” on a Caribbean island. He had touched down in Ecuador on a private jet just before the semi-final and gone straight into the starting XI. “The only thing missing was the red carpet,” Bolillo recalled in his autobiography. “Even Pelé used to take commercial flights!” Players like Adolfo ‘El Tren’ Valencia had already complained that Asprilla could do as he like and still get picked. Things would soon get even worse.

A 1-0 win away in Lima against Peru got Colombia’s bid back on track but Asprilla was again poor. On 15 August a week later, Colombia hosted Argentina in Barranquilla; it was a must-win game. Argentina had just won back-to-back Copas América (1991 and 1993) and the inaugural Confederations Cup during a 33-game unbeaten run. Yet Maturana made a bold move and dropped Asprilla in favour of Iván Valenciano. It was a move that paid off.

Within two minutes Colombia were ahead and it was Valenciano who snatched the goal with his very first touch of the qualifiers. Colombia were much better and wasted two other great chances before El Tren Valencia made it 2-0 in the second half from a second Carlos Valderrama assist. Ramón Medina Bello pulled one back at the end after Diego Simeone had been sent off but Argentina had been well beaten. It was only Colombia’s second ever victory over their rivals, and the celebrations went on into the early hours that night in Barranquilla, the sweaty Colombian port on the country’s Caribbean coast. But the following day one player was still missing.

“We were all waiting to leave the hotel the night after and Bolillo was going spare because Asprilla still hadn’t been seen,” Valencia recalled 25 years later. “We were just about to leave when he finally shows up covered in sand.”

Asprilla had gone out, got drunk and fallen asleep on the beach. Despite the desperate pleas and tears, he was immediately tossed out of the squad. “A player who acts like that doesn’t deserve to wear the Colombia shirt,” announced the Football Federation President Juan José Bellini. Yet, a few hours later, Bellini did an unexpected U-turn: Tino was forgiven. “He’s just a kid,” explained Maturana. “But a good kid who wouldn’t hurt anyone.”

Asprilla may have acted petulantly in response to being dropped, but Maturana had good reason to believe in Colombia’s “good kid”. During his time as Colombia coach, Maturana had forged a strong friendship with Arrigo Sacchi, the legendary AC Milan manager; he considered him his great mentor. Sacchi had watched Asprilla play many times for Parma earlier that season and Maturana had decided to pick his brain. “He’s your match-winner,” Sacchi had advised. “If you’re in a tight spot then turn to Tino and he’ll resolve everything.”

On 5 September 1993, Maturana needed a match winner. Both Colombia and Argentina had followed up their game in Barranquilla with a win and a draw to leave Colombia holding a one-point advantage going into their final game in Buenos Aires.

A couple of weeks before the big showdown, the game had already been sold out. And in Argentina the tension was rising. During a live TV debate three days before the match, Diego Maradona fired off a typically incendiary comment. “They can’t break history, they mustn’t break history,” Maradona warned. “We Argentinians must continue historically where we have always been: [with] Argentina up here and Colombia down there.”

Maradona was no longer playing for his country, banished to the sidelines after landing a 15-month drug ban. But it was a potent message and people took note.

In most South American countries, it was British sailors and railway workers who had introduced football, but in Colombia it was the Argentinians who had taught the country how to play and had crafted Colombian football culture.

For the midfielder Gabriel Jaime ‘Barrabas’ Gomez, Argentinian pomposity was justified. But looking back on the game 25 years on, Barrabas argues that Colombia knew the tide was turning. “We had never won anything so Maradona was just speaking the truth,” the younger brother of the assistant coach Bolillo admitted. “They’d always been superior to us, but we could sense that they were there for the taking.”

On the night of 3 September, Colombia arrived at Buenos Aires airport under no police protection. Hundreds of baying Argentinian fans had gathered outside the airport and began spitting at the Colombian players as they fought their way onto the team bus. Under a hail of insults, some shouting “narco-traficantes”, one fan lunged at the Colombia captain Carlos ‘El Pibe’ Valderrama’s iconic hair, almost sparking a fight until the swell of people forced Colombia’s captain on the bus.

“While we were waiting for it to take off, we were surrounded by fans banging on the sides and spitting at the windows,” Barrabas recalled. “That was when Tino opened his bag, pulled out a fistful of dollars and began fanning himself – it was clear provocation.”

Things didn’t improve at the other end either. When Colombia arrived at their hotel around 150 fans were again gathered. For two days, they didn’t budge.

“That first night they let off fireworks and made a right noise to stop us sleeping,” remembered Barrabas. “They obviously wanted to create a difficult atmosphere for us.”

On the eve of the game, several players were unable to sleep because of the racket being made outside. It was all part and parcel of any tetchy South American World Cup qualifier, but it was still another advantage for Argentina.

For those two days prior to the game Colombia had chosen to keep their heads down and avoid the press. Only the defender Luis Carlos Perea spoke to dismiss talk of past achievements and instead try to calm the debate. “The ball is like a woman,” he deviated. “Let’s see who treats her best.”

But the Argentinian press continued to drill home Argentina’s historical superiority with the team captain Oscar Ruggeri also poking at Colombia’s inferiority complex. “I’ve played in two World Cup finals and have won two Copas América,” the experienced centre back argued. “But I don’t ever recall facing Colombia in any of them.”

Yet one Argentinian voice that knew more than most exposed this bravado as a simple veil to hide pre-match jitters. Carlos Bilardo had won the World Cup with Argentina in 1986 but had also previously spent several years in Colombia, first with Deportivo Cali and then as manager of the national side. In an interview with Colombia’s biggest newspaper El Tiempo the day before the game, he hinted at the true nature of Argentina’s pre-match games. “I really don’t want to imagine Argentina eliminated. What would we talk about all year? It would be terrible!”

Argentina were in danger of missing out on the World Cup altogether. Defeat against Colombia and a victory for Paraguay against Peru with a swing in goal difference (Argentina +2, Paraguay -1) would see Paraguay and not Argentina finish as group runners-up and qualify for a play-off game against Australia. For Bilardo, Argentina had to win “at any price, because of its history and because of pride”.

A few hours before the big kick off, the Colombia team bus rolled up outside River Plate’s grandiose stadium, El Monumental, to find the gates locked. Again Argentinian fans surrounded the bus rocking it back and forth, while others spat and some threw stones. The striker Victor Hugo Aristizábal retaliated, dropping his pants to flash his arse. “They wanted to kill us,” Asprilla told Mauricio Silva for his book El 5-0. “I’ll never forget what they were singing: ‘Los Colombianos están de luto, son todos negros, son todos putos [Colombians are in mourning, they’re all black, they’re all poofs].’”

Asprilla had awoken that morning “shaking like a chicken”. But a cold wouldn’t prevent him from starring in Colombia’s greatest moment. As the stadium filled up, Bolillo ordered his players to go for a walk on the pitch. And Tino saw it as the perfect opportunity to again tease local support. “All the players had all been given a mobile phone – some of the first to appear in Colombia,” says Barrabas Gómez. “But Tino had been in Europe so his was way better than ours.”

Out in the centre circle Tino pulled the bulky device from his tracksuit bottoms, opened the lid and ostentatiously began dialling a number. Watching this spectacle on TV at home, Asprilla’s agent, Gustavo Mascardi, immediately called the 23-year-old Parma forward and screamed at him to get off the pitch. “But Tino went straight over to where the main barra brava was located, raised two fingers and told them: today I’m going to score two goals,” Barrabas laughed.

Back in the changing room, Asprilla’s act of insolence didn’t go down well. Already the tension was high, and Maturana was feeling the pressure. “Just before the game I saw Pacho [Maturana] sitting by himself looking deep in thought. I said we could all feel how worried the fans were in the stadium; I told him to relax because it was clear the pressure was all on Argentina.”

The main decision Maturana had battled with pre-game was whether to swamp the midfield with a line of five including the Atlético Nacional midfielder Alexis Garcia, or to maintain faith with Asprilla in a 4-4-2. Perhaps remembering Sacchi’s advice, Maturana stuck with Asprilla. It proved to be an inspired move.

Players don’t recall much of a tactical discussion before the game. They were shown no videos analysing their rivals and few specific instructions were handed out. Keep things simple was the message. And get the ball to Valderrama.

The opening few minutes of the game spat and crackled under the fragile expectations of the 60,000-home support. Simeone led the charge as Argentina’s physical approach sought to stymie Colombia’s rhythm at source. Twice in the first three minutes Valderrama was chopped down. Without their conductor, Colombia struggled to get hold of the ball.

It took just 120 seconds for Argentina to come close. A long ball lofted down the right channel by Argentina’s right-back Julio Saldana saw Ramón Medina Bello edge past his marker and then wrestle past the goalkeeper Óscar Córdoba before stabbing a rushed cross to Gabriel Batistuta that was snuffed out. Córdoba, the youngest Colombian on the pitch, had needlessly rushed out of his area and put his team in danger. Yet it would be the last time anyone would get the better of him that night.

For the next half hour, the game stuttered along at staccato tempo. Each time a team had possession, a challenge flew in and the referee’s whistle sounded. Thirty-one fouls were registered in the first half as play was concentrated in the midfield third. It was too soon to take a risk, there was too much at stake.

“They didn’t stop for one second with the insults,” the defender Alexis Mendoza told Silva. But his centre-back partner Luis Perea had quickly worked them out. “Medina Bello didn’t hold back, he kept calling me a son of a bitch. But I eventually calmed down, I knew they just wanted to provoke us.”

It took Colombia almost 13 minutes to take a touch in Argentina’s area. Predictably it was Valderrama who started the move, wriggling past a challenge and then filtering a pass down the right for Asprilla who pulled clear of Ruggeri. Ducking to the right and then to the left, Asprilla dithered too long before the ball was poked clear. But it was an important development.

“It showed just how slow their defenders were, especially Ruggeri,” Barrabas Gómez smiled, remembering the game at a Medellín country club 25 years later. “We knew that Tino and Valencia could rip him to shreds.”

Six minutes later, Colombia found joy down the opposite flank. Freddy Rincón this time started a move with a neat back heel before slipping down the right and picking out Asprilla, who again twisted in and out before lashing a shot that Sergio Goycochea tipped round the post.

But Argentina remained in control and should have gone ahead minutes later when Batistuta played a one-two with Leo Rodriguez only to then put his shot wide from just outside the six-yard box. It was a terrible miss.

For the next 15 minutes there was no hint of what was to come. Argentina, with Fernando Redondo and Simeone in the middle, bossed the midfield and looked far more likely to score. But there was very little football as both teams continued to chop at legs and stunt play.

This monotony was briefly broken by a curious incident not shown on any TV transmission and still largely unknown today. Around halfway through the first half, an aeroplane passed overhead, almost crashing into the stadium. A photo published two days later in an Argentinian newspaper showed just how close disaster had been. On route from Santiago in Chile to Mendoza, the pilot, a huge football fan, had decided to treat his passengers to a closer look at the Monumental by swooping to within a few metres of one of the stands. A few days later, the stunt cost the pilot his job.

As the clock wound down on the first half, the game took a decisive shift. 40:48 minutes were on the clock.

El Pibe Valderrama finally broke free, tossed off a marker and shuffled forward with the ball. He spotted a run and slid a pass through two Argentina players. Blazing forward, Rincón’s first touch was brilliant, shifting the ball into the box and winning space in behind Altamirano. But it was the subtle half-second shimmy that floored Goycochea and allowed Rincón to tickle the ball to his right and then slot into an open goal. Against the run of the half, Colombia were ahead and at half-time Argentina’s unbeaten home record was under threat.

“We deliberately hung back for a few minutes in the changing room at half-time,” recalls Barrabas Gómez. “We knew Argentina would be sweating and the fans growing impatient.”

Everything was set up for Colombia’s greatest night. With Argentina chasing the game, knowing their World Cup place hung in the balance, Colombia knew more opportunities would appear. And within five minutes it was 2-0.

This time Valderrama wasn’t involved. A long ball over the top picked out Asprilla. He killed the ball with his right foot, and with legs shuddering like wet spaghetti he enticed Ruggeri one way then the other, before tucking inside and sliding in a finish.

At 2-0 the game still wasn’t won, and luck and the goalkeeper Córdoba in particular would have an important part to play. Córdoba had been promoted to first-choice keeper a few months earlier after the iconic keeper René Higuita was sent to prison for acting as a go-between for Pablo Escobar in a kidnapping case. Aged 23, Córdoba would have the game of his life.

Time and time again Batistuta was foiled by the young keeper as frustration boiled in the Monumental. And as Argentina threw everything forward, the gaps began to spread.

73 minutes in, Asprilla received the ball in his own half and tore past Ruggeri. He got to the goal-line and although his cross was cleared, the ball was picked up by Leonel Álvarez who shrugged off one marker and swept in another cross for Valencia to volley home. It was an untidy finish, bouncing up and finally flicking off Simeone’s back into the net. But Colombia were 3-0 up and with news spreading that Paraguay had just equalised in Lima, nerves were jangling. On the touchline, the Argentina manager Alfio Basile lit a cigarette; he knew that with another Paraguay goal Argentina were out of the World Cup.

Less than two minutes later it was 4-0. Borelli dawdled on the ball, Asprilla slid in and curled a delicious effort into the top corner. Goycochea stayed rooted; Borelli didn’t shift from the spot where he was dispossessed. It’s perhaps the best goal of the lot.

“We just kept picking them off,” said Barrabas. “Córdoba was brilliant, our man of the match, but because they pressed us so high up the pitch they left a lot of space behind their slow defence and we just kept hitting them on the counter.”

Peru went ahead but Paraguay immediately drew level. With Argentinian heads lost in Lima, Colombia drove the dagger home. Valderrama slid the ball out to Asprilla who surged forward before holding the ball on the edge of the area. Nonchalantly he flicked a gentle pass through to Valencia who had belted from one end of the pitch to another to tuck into the corner. Cinco-Cero, the rout was complete.

“Actually right at the end of the game, Simeone smashed his elbow in Valencia’s mouth, it’s an obvious red but I run over to the ref and scream: ‘Don’t send him off!’” Barrabas recalled. “The ref looked puzzled but I explained that I didn’t want those bastards saying they had only lost 5-0 because they’d had 10 men. The ref looked at me and I swear he whispered this, ‘Then make sure you score a couple more against these sons of a bitch.’”

The Uruguayan referee Ernesto Filippi didn’t get to see Argentina suffer further, but their humiliation was already complete. Colombia had stepped out on the pitch two hours earlier to fans spitting nationalistic vitriol. Yet now the Monumental rose as one to deliver a standing ovation. Even Maradona, clearly relieved that Paraguay hadn’t found a winner in Lima, took to his feet. Argentinian hubris was one thing, but such exquisite football could not be ignored.

The stories of how Colombia’s players celebrated that night have now passed into legend: The Bayern Munich star Valencia slipped his German bodyguard to disappear with a woman and almost missed his flight, while Asprilla’s private penthouse party, and the strippers, champagne and excesses, were perhaps expected of any bunch of young lads that had become the overnight talk of the continent.

But in the background trouble had started to brew. That night the biggest party in town took place at the most exclusive hotel in Buenos Aires. It was the official Colombian Federation party attended by club directors, politicians and football bigwigs. Only the federation weren’t paying. Instead, Justo Pastor Perafán, a renowned drug dealer later to be sentenced to 30 years in a US jail, picked up the tab.

For Argentina, the defeat paved the way for Maradona’s return to the national team – but only after a radical fitness programme that ultimately led to his failed drugs test at the 1994 World Cup. The immediate reaction, though, was one of shame. “Vergüenza!” roared El Gráfico: Disgrace! “I never want to think about that match again,” said their coach Alfio Basile. “It was a crime against nature, a day when I wanted to dig a hole in the ground and bury myself in it.”

Two days after the defeat, the current affairs show Tiempo Nuevo devoted an episode to the game. It was mesmerising television. Goycochea, dressed in a green suit, sat glumly, two fingers to his lip, looking shamefaced as the outspoken former forward José Sanfilippo ripped into him, his hand leaving his mouth occasionally to form – seemingly unconsciously – a clenched fist.

So furious was Carlos Bilardo, who was watching at home, that he drove to the studio and demanded to be put on air. Wearing a white leisure shirt patterned with red and blue diamonds – surely not something he had ever intended to be seen on television – he defended the players who had been part of his World Cup squad three years earlier.

Back in Colombia, a whole country went wild. Nearly 100 people died in a trail of drunken delirium. Another thousand were injured. Nobody had seen anything like this before; few cared to analyse where it was all leading.

As the plane touched down in Bogotá the following morning, fans smashed down two walls at the airport so as to climb out onto the runway and greet their heroes. The police lost control; it was complete chaos.

“I was terrified when we got back to Bogotá,” said Barrabas Gómez. “Something like two million people had come to greet us. We got on the bus but couldn’t move. It was crazy, people really had lost their minds!”

Having eventually crawled to the city’s main stadium, El Campín, the players were paraded in front of the country’s president, César Gaviria, who awarded the entire squad the Cruz de Boyaca, Colombia’s highest decoration.

Maturana responded by urging the government to release Higuita from prison. “This is our moment of glory and René is part of that,” Maturana pleaded. Victory in one football game and the rules had now changed.

Days later El Tiempo ran an article claiming Asprilla was the greatest player in the world. Already self-confidence was spinning out of control.

In his autobiography released a few years later, Bolillo Gómez almost entirely blamed the press for feeding a nationalistic frenzy that would touch all walks of Colombian society. “They told us all we were the best country in the world,” wrote Bolillo. “And we all started to believe it.”

Bolillo even went on to argue that a line could be drawn from the Argentina game directly to the murder of Andrés Escobar almost a year later. The defender hadn’t played in Buenos Aires because of injury, but went on to score an own goal at the 1994 World Cup. Two weeks later he was shot dead, the gunmen reportedly shouting “Auto-gol” (own-goal) with each bullet. “The media were to blame for Andrés Escobar’s death,” said Bolillo. “They didn’t pull the trigger and they didn’t intend to kill him, but they did create that deceitful and false atmosphere that we were going to be world champions. And when we were knocked out, people were filled with rage against us.”

It’s perhaps a crude and simplistic connection to make, and Bolillo is well known for his tub-thumping opinions. But he was also the first to see the storm on the horizon. Even as the goals were piling in against Argentina, the assistant coach had felt strangely uneasy. “Pacho, we’re now fucked,” he said to Maturana straight after the game. “Everyone’s now going to demand we win the World Cup.”

There’s no doubt that other factors played a role in both Escobar’s ghastly murder and Colombia’s plummet into disaster at the following year’s USA finals. And there were many who desperately tried to mould the football team into a symbol of a new positive Colombia. Everybody jumped aboard; they all wanted a piece.

Not just in Colombia but also around the world the accolades poured in. Pelé, Johan Cruyff, César Luis Menotti, all proclaimed Colombia as favourites to win the World Cup.

From the end of January to the start of the World Cup, Colombia played an incredible 21 friendlies across the world as the federation clawed in the cash. Sponsors and business interests predictably ran wild too with special World Cup packages offered to fans desperate to share in the glory: travel on the same plane as your heroes! Stay at their hotel!

Still, the most sinister turn came on the eve of the tournament. According to several off-the-record interviews with Mauricio Silva, just a couple of days before the Colombia World Cup squad were set to leave for the US, players were called to attend a private meeting at a luxury country house in Cali. At a house owned by the football federation president Juan José Bellini – later jailed for six years after being found guilty of receiving drug money – the players were greeted by the Rodríguez brothers, the head of the Cali Cartel, which had become the country’s most powerful drug group after Pablo Escobar’s death in December 1993.

Some say they were hooded and stuffed on a bus. Others claim extravagant bonuses were offered for every World Cup stage reached. Everyone agrees the food and entertainment was top notch.

Clearly players were dragged along feeling powerless to resist. Some even later gave interviews to the press expressing support for the presidential candidate Ernesto Samper in the upcoming elections just as the Rodríguez brothers had ordered. It wouldn’t be the last time that the football team would be used to further nefarious agendas, as the death threats during the USA World Cup would later attest. But by that time it was already too late.

What had begun as a shock result against a historic rival to seal qualification to only Colombia’s third World Cup had now morphed into something very different. Something changed that cold September night in Buenos Aires. And 25 years on they are still talking about it.