The Dentist of Medellín
Francisco Maturana discusses René Higuita, the drug lords and how he reinvented the game in his homeland
For the best part of the twentieth century, Colombia stuttered on the periphery of world football. The country’s ragged topography, straddled on the backbone of a three-way fracture of the Andes mountain range, undoubtedly strangled the sport’s early development. Travel was tortuous and football initially remained regional.
The spread of air travel helped overcome many of these logistical issues but still football’s rocky road continued. A crippling internal war that tore through the latter half of the century would also leave its mark. Football’s progress would again be stunted.
Yet neither of these factors satisfactorily explain the extent to which football-fervent Colombia, who started to rival Argentina as the continent’s second largest populous by the 1980s, had trundled so long in football’s backwaters. For that, Colombian football would have to turn and look at itself.
It wasn’t until 1948 that Colombia launched a nationwide league following years of bickering between regional powers keen to protect control and, of course, gate receipts. But the murder of the popular presidential candidate Jorge Eliécer Gaitán forced a sudden change of direction and almost overnight a 10-team national competition was cobbled together1. Supported by a repressive government eager to curb a wave of killings that was sweeping the country, this bread-and-circus response ignored one crucial opponent: the Fifa-recognised amateur organisation Adefútbol. A fight was brewing between the rival power bases and into the void wandered the rudderless league.
These days, Colombia’s El Dorado era is often remembered fondly and with almost romantic nostalgia. For the first time a spotlight shone on the country’s football and gave Colombia a place alongside Argentina and Brazil on the continental shelf.
Adéfutbol’s decision to expel Dimayor, the professional association, in 1949 had left the fledgling league beyond Fifa’s control and wily businessmen spotted an opportunity to snaffle some of the world’s biggest stars. In a poaching raid that started in Argentina but soon spread its tentacles as far as Hungary and England, players like Alfredo di Stéfano and Manchester United’s Charlie Mitten were seduced by fat cheques and big promises. This was the world super league of its day.
Yet at its best the bandit league offered respite from the cacophony of killing that plagued the country throughout the 1950s. It perhaps even helped cement football’s place as Colombia’s number one sport.
But beyond this flicker of attention and notoriety, the rogue tournament would leave a devastating legacy. El Dorado had made no plans, there had been little structural investment and Colombia’s footballers were usually sidelined as second-rate alternatives to the exotic foreign names. For a society blazing with violence and racked by self-doubt and mistrust, El Dorado only served to deepen fears and inflict more wounds on the country’s delicate soul.
When the stars left, as they inevitably did, just a few years later, financial ruin would plunge clubs into crisis and send the country’s football spinning back into obscurity. Dimayor may have been brought in from the cold, but the squabbles between them and Adéfutbol would continue well into the next decade.
As Colombia dragged its feet through the 1960s and 1970s, foreign coaches and players continued to be the standard bearer for quality. But success remained thin.
By the turn of the 1980s, only Deportivo Cali had reached the final of South America’s premier club competition, the Copa Libertadores, but were thrashed 4-0 by Boca Juniors. Their manager was the Argentinian Carlos Bilardo; again a foreigner.
Colombia’s national team fared little better. Aside from qualification for the 1962 World Cup – achieved as result of a measly victory over Peru in a one-fixture play-off – a runners-up finish in the 1975 Copa América was the country’s proudest moment. By the late eighties more foreign coaches had managed the national side than Colombians.
Colombia had never been able to escape the hulking shadow of Argentina’s influence. On the terraces fans sang Argentinian songs while at home El Gráfico, the distinguished Buenos Aires weekly, was the thinking fan’s favourite reading. Even Colombian football terminology borrowed heavily from the Argentinian dictionary.
As a ferocious drug war escalated across the country during the 1980s, football fell head first into its jaws. Not for the first time Colombia’s self-confidence and international reputation received a battering.
But in this era of sickening violence, the Colombian Football Federation made a radical break with history. In 1987 they turned to a young black dentist born in Colombia’s poorest region and appointed him manager of the national football team.
He had less than a year’s experience as a coach and the press predictably reacted furiously. Yet success was almost immediate and over the next six years Colombia would develop a style, reputation and identity to call its own.
Rafa Benítez considers him to be one of the greatest managers to come out of South America, while at home he’s hailed as the man who put Colombia on the world football map.
His name is Francisco “Pacho” Maturana.
Many believe Colombian football is divided into two eras: that before 1987 and the period that followed. Why was that moment so important?
Because something happened that year; it was something that changed across the whole country and this was reflected in football. I’ve been in this world a long time2, I have played a lot of football and have seen a lot of games and in 1987 I noticed that Colombia stopped feeling inferior and instead tried to focus everything upon finding its own path. Before 1987 we had never found our own way, we were never protagonists. But around that time, instead of worrying about our rivals, we began worrying about how to enjoy ourselves and how the players could communicate on how best to use the ball.
We used a style of play to express what Colombia the country was all about: people who are known for being happy, people who are dreamers, people who are easily inspired, but within that idea we also implemented some order. That order was very important and the ideas were born out of my experience from when I was a player, but also from what the Dutch had been doing.
Why had Colombia achieved so little up until then, considering there had been a strong football culture in the country since the El Dorado era in the 1950s and the fact that Colombia had also produced great players like Willington Ortiz and ‘El Caiman’ Sánchez?
I’m not sure, but perhaps we’d have to look more carefully at what had been happening in Colombian society and not just football. You are right though because Colombia has always produced exceptional players. I remember what Alfredo di Stéfano once said. He of course once played for Millonarios and is one of the best players of all time who is respected and valued greatly in Europe, but he always believed Colombia had a player who was even better than him and that man was Humberto ‘Turrón’ Álvarez.
And I’d say that Colombia had always produced players like Turrón, such as Henry Caicedo, Jairo Arboleda, Diego Umaña, Victor Campaz and Willington Ortiz, players who I believe were some of the best in the world and would still be today. This talent has always been around, but maybe they didn’t have the organisation or perhaps they were lacking an identity, a Colombian identity, to succeed. That’s because we’ve always wanted to bring foreigners into our game: Argentinians, Yugoslavs, Brazilians and Europeans and, in always looking at others, we ignored ourselves.
Talking about foreign coaches, when you started your playing career as a young defender at Atlético Nacional you too had coaches from abroad: Vladimir Popović, from Yugoslavia, followed by the Argentinian Osvaldo Zubeldía in 1976. You are known for having a very global vision of the game – was this born out of those early experiences?
Actually there was another one, a Paraguayan coach who came before Popović called César López Fretes. But these coaches only taught me what I liked and what I didn’t like about football; they clearly separated for me what I wanted football to be like. When I used to play it wasn’t out of joy, I didn’t really enjoy the game because I was a centre-half and my job was to stop the number nine from touching the ball; you can’t really enjoy football like that. So what I tried to do [as a manager] was to be a bit more adventurous and for us to enjoy ourselves.
I also took certain other ideas because it was during that period that I became aware of the clear differences between man-marking and zonal-marking systems. As a player I had always played under coaches who used man-marking but, probably around 1981 or 1982, I was able to see how zonal football was played and that was something I really bought into and felt much more comfortable with.
What was your opinion of Zubeldía? Many people also believe he changed Colombian football.
Yes, I totally agree because what he did was to teach us the importance of strategy. Osvaldo was somebody who was always studying in his ‘laboratory’ and, of course, he was very well known across the Americas for what he had achieved at Estudiantes de la Plata when they became world champions in 1968.
He didn’t teach Colombia how to play like that infamously dirty Estudiantes side, did he?
To be honest I don’t think he changed much out on the pitch, or in the way we played. Where he was influential was in the changes he made off the pitch; basically he brought professionalism to Colombia. Before Osvaldo, Colombia had a lot of talent but we achieved nothing because we weren’t professional, we were more interested in going out on the town and we didn’t know anything about how to behave as serious athletes. I don’t know exactly how Osvaldo ended up in Colombia but he choose to come here for whatever reason and he had this radical idea – for that time at least – of training both in the morning and afternoon. That didn’t just improve fitness, but it also meant there was little space for other distractions because you were training most of the day. So I really believe that ever since Colombian football has Osvaldo Zubeldía to thank for introducing professionalism. In the essence of the game, however, I think other people like Ricardo de León, Luis Cubilla or Martín Mujica were more important.
But your long-time Colombia assistant Hernán Darío Gómez didn’t rate Zubeldía at all. He once said that for Zubeldía “players were like condoms: you used them and then you cast them aside.” Was he like that?
I think it depends on what your relationship with him was like. I was his lieutenant at Nacional, his captain, and we used to hang out a lot away from football because he also got me into horse-racing. Osvaldo loved going to the races and we went together a lot, but we would also go out just to talk too.
I had a good personal relationship with him, but with football it was something completely different. Like I said, there wasn’t a lot to learn from him except from what he added with his physical training and how to concentrate for 90 minutes etc. That was very valuable, but the way I saw it was that Osvaldo had to make decisions just like all coaches, and because his game was based on physical preparation, if you started to slow down because of your age, then he would get rid of you and play a kid instead.
Before becoming a footballer you were a dentist and even combined both jobs during your playing career, is this correct?
Yeah, that’s right. I had already played for the [regional] Antioquia department side and various other Medellín teams by the time I had finished university. I wanted to continue with my studies but a lot of people convinced me to take professional football seriously. I played well on my debut under Popović [in 1973] and so the Atlético Nacional club president called me up and offered me a contract. I explained to him that I was a dentist and that I’d like to continue with my profession so we reached an agreement where I would train with Nacional in the mornings but in the afternoons I would be free to see patients in my surgery.
Who were your patients, the players?
Were you ever close to closing the door on football and becoming a dentist full time?
I never found myself in a situation where I had to choose. I guess you could say that I had a harmonious relationship, with football complementing the dentistry work. I was just starting my odontology career, so I was building up patients and earning recognition as a professional in my field. So I never stopped being a dentist, I didn’t want to, and it was the same with football.
And when your career as a player ended did you then think about giving up on football?
Almost. After I hung up my boots I got a job working at the Universidad de Antioquia as a teacher in the odontology faculty. It was around 1982 and I worked there in the mornings and then in the afternoon I had my patients. That was when a coach called Luis Cubillo showed up one day and told me I had two choices: to start playing again or become a coach for one of Atlético Nacional’s youth sides. I therefore started learning the ropes as a coach. Cubillo sent me to Uruguay, he introduced me to a lot of people, he gave me books to read, he gave me jobs to do and, well, in the end, teams started to become aware of me and what I was doing. Later I got a call from the [Once] Caldas president offering me a job as their manager. I was a bit unsure at first whether to accept, but my friends made me do it and that’s when it all took off, really.
You were only at Caldas for one season before Atlético Nacional, one of Colombia’s biggest clubs, offered you the reins as manager. Had you already formed an idea of how your team was going to play and what your style was going to be as manager?
My last club as a player was Tolima when we made the semi-finals of the 1982 Copa Libertadores. While I was there I met a guy called Martín Mojica, who had studied under Ricardo de León, the man responsible for bringing this idea of pressing and zonal football to South America. De León had been manager of Defensor Sporting, a small Uruguayan team where Luis Cubilla was playing. Later Cubilla joined Nacional and started spreading De León’s ideas; he was the one who brought this completely new way of playing to Colombia. I never met De León during that period, but whenever I had any doubts or needed clarification about something, I used to call him up and he helped me. So you could say that my Caldas team was based on what I learnt from those three: De León, who had the idea, Mojica, who had studied under him, and Cubilla, who was the man responsible for implementing the idea in Colombia.
You say that this idea “was something completely new”: in what way?
Basically it was the idea of implementing order in a team. Many people think it was about running more, but it was actually the reverse, you ended up running less.
Because we learnt that the most important thing was the ball, and before everybody thought the most important thing was the opponent. If you have the ball you determine the conditions of play and, if you didn’t have it, we learnt how order could help you get the ball back.
So this system didn’t demand players to be super fit?
No, because this has got to do with tactical intensity not physical intensity. I’ll explain what I mean. Tactical intensity is all about concentration, so when you are able to get six or seven players working together, moving together in one movement, in one bit of play, it seems like everybody is running. But what is actually happening is that all of them are moving just 10 metres. The more players you have involved in a move, the less players have to move. Tactical intensity has nothing to do with fitness and everything with concentration.
And this is what you started introducing at Caldas, then at Nacional and later in 1987 with Colombia?
Exactly. So we used zonal football with two defensive midfielders and two wingers, but with the idea that we’d have 10m between the lines in a compact system that was aggressive in its search for the ball across the entire pitch. That was basically it.
Wasn’t this similar to what the Dutch had been using 15 years earlier?
More or less, but the players you have available to you always ensure there are differences. But the general concept was the same. De León and [Rinus] Michels were good friends and De León was so enthusiastic about the idea that he brought this “Dutch style” to the Americas. It could have easily died but I believe that he found a receptive audience in Colombia. It was then appropriated and adapted by us.
I thought there was a small difference in Holland’s pressing of the player and De León’s idea about the pressing of the ball.
It perhaps is slightly different, but the formula and order is the same, and the concentration is the same. For us, we assumed the responsibility in presenting this idea of pressing the ball. At Caldas I told them our style was to use this idea and the players and directors accepted it. It was a small team but we had intelligent players and across Colombia people started to notice us. When I joined Nacional, they were already playing a bit like this because of what Cubilla was doing in the youth team.
So this new way of playing in Colombia and later for the national team was taken from either what Michels was doing at Ajax or maybe even Lobanovskyi at Dynamo Kyiv. What made you think it could work here, a country very different to either Ukraine or the Netherlands?
Because we were very clear about what we wanted to do: to enjoy the way we played football in harnessing individual skill and by recovering the ball as quickly as possible to have control of the ball. If you have the ball you are much calmer and that was particularly important for Colombian players, so that’s what we tried to do. OK, so we took a mode of play that was invented many miles away, but we adapted it using a Colombian style: that of enjoying ourselves. If you look at the players one by one they were really good players. It wasn’t just everybody passing to our star player.
Another of your trademarks was the “política criolla ”. Can you explain what that was?
It was basically the idea of only fielding Colombian players. I did it at Caldas because we didn’t have many resources or other options, but at Nacional we made the decision to play that way. It was an advantage because we had a squad that was pretty much all made up of Paisas [players from the local region of Antioquia].
Fans loved that, I guess?
Yes, a remarkable affection started between players and fans and you could clearly see that in the stadium. But we had to also generate that, to teach the public and show them how we wanted to play, because there were always times when fans booed us and shouted at players for not running enough. But that’s not what we wanted to do and we had to demonstrate to fans the importance of the ball, how to string together 10 or 20 passes and to show them that the answer wasn’t to get frustrated. I think fans understand that more these days because of what Spain and Barcelona have done with their dedication to the ball, but you still hear the same moans from fans today, I guess.
Less than a year after taking your first management job at Caldas, you were offered the Colombia job. And you decided to use Atlético Nacional as the base for your side.
Of course I did, it brought so many benefits to the team.
But wasn’t it a bit controversial favouring one team?
Well, let me tell you something. Back then [the Uruguay manager Óscar] Tabárez used to say that there was only one team in the world training every day. That was us, Colombia.
I suppose the same could again be said about Holland with Ajax of the 1970s.
Yeah, we copied that idea and I think it was an honest and respectful decision. In my Colombia team I had two players in the same position: Nacional’s Leonel Álvarez and Eduardo Pimentel at Millonarios [of Bogotá]. Both were very good players, but of course I chose Leonel because I was training with him every day. I therefore made an intelligent decision but it was one based upon respect.
But Colombian society suffers from regionalism like few countries I know. That decision was always going to be controversial with people accusing you of favouritism – la rosca, as Colombians say – towards your own club players because you were manager of both the national side and Nacional at that time?
Because we learnt that the most imp Perhaps people short on intelligence, yeah, and people did call me that, but Atlético Nacional were the axis of this new era of Colombian football. It was also very unfair and I’ll explain why. I had a player at Nacional, Alexis García, who was the cornerstone of that team. I was with him at Caldas and I brought him to Nacional because everything went through him, he ensured Nacional played nice football. But I hardly ever called him up to the Colombian national team. Why? Because I had a better player in that position: Carlos ‘El Pibe’ Valderrama, and he didn’t play for Nacional and I had Bernardo Redín, who was also better and wasn’t a Nacional player either. That clearly shows that those people who talk about “la rosca Paisa” are just talking crap.
It seems like Colombia struggled to forge an identity before you took over, perhaps because of the heavy shadow that Argentina had cast over the country’s footballing development. Was that something you specifically sought to change as a manager?
Actually it was football from La Plata because this region had a big influence over most Latin American countries. Argentina and Brazil had always represented our continent, but this is no longer the case and I think that’s because here in Colombia we had always thought success was all down to the players. But now, after what I achieved, it is accepted in Colombia that the manager has an important part to play in determining the team’s success. So I don’t know if I went looking to create a specific “Colombian identity” but I was always looking for something. Sometimes you don’t know what you are looking for, yet when you see it, you recognise it and say: that’s what I want. That’s what happened to me. When Nacional really started to give Colombian football a name, the entire country started following them around the country because people liked their football no matter if they won or lost. That’s what we were looking for, because Colombia had always had good players historically, but collectively there was no plan. With Nacional the plan made them stand out.
You once said, “We must play how we as Colombians live.” How easy is it to marry those concepts?
Well, let me give you an example. When Hernán Darío Gómez, my assistant in 1990, had the team in 1991 and 1992, it was an excellent side but they played a very different type of football from a few years earlier with me in charge. It was a team that was much more aggressive and do you know why? Because of the situation in the country. At the start of the 1990s Colombia was in a terrible state with so much violence, killings and bombs, it was horrible. But that was reflected in the way Bolillo’s [Gómez’s] side played, they were much more aggressive. My team in the late 80s were much more, let’s say, One Hundred Years of Solitude.
There’s a not very scientific annual poll that shows Colombians are some of the happiest people in the world. Did this feed into the team? Was this also part of the style of players like ‘Pibe’ Valderrama and later Tino Asprilla in seeking to enjoy the game above all else?
Absolutely, who prefers endless running to having the ball? That’s not football for us.
So it’s more important for teams to enjoy their football than to win?
That’s a tough one to answer. More than anything I think it’s really important to be happy, because when you are happy everything you do you will look after itself. In football nobody’s born to win, but when you give your best and are able to have fun while playing, the result is not the most important thing.
If you lose it’s because the other team were better and sometimes you have to accept that in life there are others out there who are better than you. Sometimes it’s not about losing, but about the way you lose. If you lose while staying faithful to your own game, then people will understand that.
Your first job was at Once Caldas in 1986 and a year later you were offered the national team job; that’s some achievement in just one year.
It was a really quick process, but I don’t think the way you put it tells the whole story. I feel that sometimes there are occasions in life where you are prepared for challenges without actually being conscious of it. You might tell yourself that you need a certain amount of time to achieve something, but with me this wasn’t just my two years’ experience as a manager. I had been a professional footballer and I was a dentist and, having been a professional and having learnt a trade, this really helped me to know how to manage and be a leader. Also, I had coaches like Bilardo, Zubeldía, Cubilla, Popović and others all feeding me with knowledge and teaching me for many years. So I had been building up to that moment when I got the Colombia job. Those things helped prepare me because football isn’t just about the players you have but also the circumstances you find yourself in at that particular moment. And every single day of my life I have always wanted to learn about everything and was never afraid to ask for help.
People expected you to fail – Colombia hadn’t qualified for a World Cup since 1962.
Look, before 1987 the best result in our history was a draw, it was the most glorious 90 minutes we’d played, our proudest moment: a 4-4 draw 25 years earlier with the Soviet Union! I remember it well because I was just a young student and the entire country suddenly erupted in celebration. But up until 1987 that’s all we had to cling to until the change in the 80s. It was Nacional that started it because they were the foundation for the national side and they made people look at Colombian football by winning the Copa Libertadores in 1989; the first time a Colombian side had done that, the first time a team from the Caribbean side of South America had won anything.
When you took over as Colombia manager the games and tournaments came thick and fast: the Olympic qualifiers, the Copa América and then World Cup qualifiers, but you also went on a tour of Britain for the Rous Cup in 1988 where you faced Scotland and England at Wembley. What did you learn there?
Two things, really. Firstly, it was very useful and I was very happy about how it was all organised because they were very different tests. We played Scotland who gave us such a physical challenge [the game finished 0-0] and it showed me that my team could stick the boot in when we needed to. Later we flew to Finland who weren’t such a great team but we won nonetheless. And finally we had the game in London. I remember watching the English fans turn up to the stadium, all of them – I mean every fan! – with a beer in their hand. That match demonstrated how good we were and gave me the self-belief about what stage our football was at. We knew beforehand that Wembley was the birthplace of football and that we couldn’t just go there and defend and play badly. I told Bolillo, look, we can’t fuck up here. We had to respect our own game and go out and play. It caught the English by surprise, maybe because we were pretty exotic for you guys, and at the end of the match we got applauded off the pitch [the game finished 1-1]; we played really well.
Secondly, having all that time together helped us immensely because it’s not often you get to spend so much time with the national team. And it wasn’t just about the games we played either, it was more about us all being together and me trying to change players’ attitudes. I’ll give you an example of what I mean. I remember I was once waiting for a flight in an airport and I saw another team all scattered around on the floor playing cards. I would never allow something like that to happen with my team and so that was the sort of thing I had to teach my players. I had to put them all in suits when we travelled so they wouldn’t kneel on an airport floor. Wearing a smart suit and staying only in five-star hotels boosted their self-esteem and showed other people we were a serious side. Whatever you do in life, if you improve a person’s behaviour or the human condition it also has the added bonus of improving how they perform. I wanted to change their vocabulary, their manners, etc. I wasn’t just a football manager, but the team’s guide and leader.
Is it right that you even used to hand out books of poetry to your players?
Absolutely, especially the poems of Mario Benedetti [a Uruguayan poet]. Some of the players used to give them a read and others would just leave them on the table. But several would take the books with them and so I think it was a worthwhile task in helping to shape attitudes.
Following that tour you spent a week with César Luis Menotti to talk football and watch Holland win the 1988 European Championship.
With César you don’t talk about football, you just listen. He talks and talks and talks, but you have the chance to reflect on every word he says and learn things. He’s realistic with how he sees football and he demonstrated to me the simplicity of football.
For Colombian football 1989 was one of the most glorious years in the country’s history and you were the driving force: it was you who guided Colombia to their first World Cup qualification in 28 years and you also won the Copa Libertadores with Atlético Nacional, the first Colombian team to win the trophy. Then your Nacional team lost to that great AC Milan side in the Intercontinental Trophy only in the last two minutes of extra time. However, the same year was probably one of the darkest and most violent in Colombia’s history. Is there a connection there?
I’m not sure, but this historical moment that Colombian football was going through helped strengthen the country. Why? Because it was a time when there was a lot of anguish, Colombia had a lot of difficulties, there was insecurity and we were at war with ourselves. When people thought about Colombia they immediately identified the country with drugs and Pablo Escobar, so football ensured Colombia appeared in the news for the right reasons. It helped our own people when we were really struggling. In a football stadium you sit next to all types of people but away from football that rarely happens. That’s why, for me, football was an important sociological factor.
So you are saying football played a reconciliatory role in a very divided country?
Yes, it gave the country something to believe in at a difficult time.
One of the biggest culprits in this violent mess was the drug lord Pablo Escobar. As Atlético Nacional coach you got to know him.
Yes, but let’s be clear about this because there are lots of myths about Escobar. I knew him because we went to the same high school and Pablo was two years below me.
So you knew each other as kids?
Of course. Later Pablo became an elected politician and at that point he was a very public person; he didn’t live his whole life in a hole with everybody looking for him. At that time you could find him on any street corner in Medellín. He used to unveil football pitches and he was always giving speeches in the city. But as a criminal, who should worry about him: me, or the authorities? We were from the same place, like most of the players. They were from all walks of life, like in football, which is not just ours, it’s for everybody: the rich, the poor, the good and the bad. It wasn’t my business to stand in the way of him or do anything else.
Did you talk about football?
With me what else would he have talked about? We might have talked about odontology I suppose, I don’t know, I don’t remember. Sometimes people come up to you and want to get to know you, and what can you do? After one game for example, somebody came up to me and said to me, “Coach, here’s a horse, it’s yours. There are many people who would like to give you something but they can’t. I can give you something, here’s a horse.” So what could I do? I wasn’t particularly interested in horses, I didn’t know who he was, but he wanted to give me something. He could have been the biggest bandit in the world and there were lots of them back then.
You are saying that during that time, it wasn’t clear Escobar was the world’s most wanted criminal?
Exactly, he was just a politician. Later, of course, we got to know what he was involved in and that left a huge mark on our country.
Let’s talk about René Higuita. Why was he so important for Colombia?
We all now accept it as the norm in football: just look at how everybody raves about Neuer and the way he can also play with his feet. Back then with René it wasn’t the case but we quickly realised that we had something special: an extra outfield player. Within our game plan we had a structure with five lines and every line was separated by 10 metres. That meant we had 11 players instead of 10 able to generate play. It wasn’t us insisting that he should get out of his area and play but the system that encouraged it. Furthermore, Holland had used something similar back in 1974 with their goalkeeper Jan Jongbloed. He could play with his feet but he was nowhere near as good as René.
Again this is the Dutch influence. How did René fit in the system exactly?
We wanted to play with a high defensive line within a compact system. In our system if our goalkeeper stayed in his area, there would be a lot of space for the opposition to beat him, but if he pushed up with the team this would be reduced and it helped create a connection throughout the team. So it was a real luxury having Higuita playing within a tactical structure that needed a goalkeeper that led from the back.
You initially came up against a lot of resistance, not least from the Colombian press who criticised you for playing such a wild card in a traditionally conservative position.
At first nobody like it, but few people liked Gandhi either or anybody who has ever tried to carry out change. Later people realised and they were eventually convinced by what they saw, because they valued it.
Was this fear of the unknown or a lack of confidence after years of underachievement?
It must have been fear, because everything changes in life. Not just in football and tactics, but everything is constantly changing. You have to embrace that, but people are often scared of it.
Was Higuita so important because no other country had what he offered?
Perhaps, because we had 11 outfield players and played against teams that only had 10. Often people didn’t understand René, though. They thought he was a show-off or somebody who acted irresponsibly, but they forget how great a goalkeeper he was. He was a beast, his reflexes were extraordinary and for me he is the best Colombian goalkeeper of all time alongside Óscar Córdoba.
That’s interesting because both those goalkeepers are remembered for their errors in big games: Córdoba’s against Romania’s Hagi in the 1994 World Cup and Higuita against Cameroon at Italia 90.
When René made that error against Cameroon everybody blamed him, he was the obvious scapegoat. But when that happened it was extra time and we were losing. René came out of his goal to make something happen. He tried to take it past his man after he had received the ball and he ended up losing it. If we’d won that game everybody would have forgotten about it but it was René trying to push us forward. We were losing so it made sense. After the game I remember I was with Pedro Zape, another famous ex-Colombia goalkeeper, and he told me. “Pacho, the kid is distraught, he’s in tears but look at him — he is 23 years old; who at that age doesn’t make errors?” And, four years later, Pedro told me exactly the same thing when Hagi did that to Óscar Córdoba. Look at Neuer now, he’s a fantastic goalkeeper, but do you think he’s never made a mistake? Córdoba went on to be champion of Argentina, to be world champion with Boca and he won the Copa América with Colombia in 2001 without conceding a goal. Everybody makes errors, that’s part of the process of how to improve and learn.
When René left his area and went on one of his runs, did you have some sort of security mechanism just in case he made a mistake?
No, there was no security mechanism. René was generally only encouraged to get out of the box and join the rest of the field when we were losing. The only change we would make would be maybe to drop a defender back a little to cover. This was planned beforehand and we worked on it in training.
Generally there wasn’t a problem when René faced younger players because he knew how to outfox them. But against an experienced player there were sometimes problems. And that’s where, perhaps, René could make errors in wanting to push up the field when there wasn’t a necessity to do so.
Are you telling me you never once looked away thinking, oh dear what is he doing now?
Absolutely not, I was always very thankful for what he gave us. I couldn’t cover my eyes for somebody who had given us so much. That was just his style and I wanted him to be faithful to it.
Perhaps there was a psychological factor too in awakening the crowd and also his teammates?
Of course, we knew it helped us. I think for people who saw René do that for the first time there was an element of surprise, obviously, and maybe nerves. But his teammates had seen him do that a thousand times and they knew exactly what he was capable of and they trusted him.
You have an interesting theory about Higuita being a symbol of feminist liberation. How exactly?
It was my way of analysing how the role of a goalkeeper is different. The goalkeeper has different rules, he can use his hands, he sees the game differently, but it was also about the language that football uses – at least in Spanish – to talk about the goalkeeper, as well as René’s gestures and the way he ran and played. He was a goalkeeper who broke structures and game plans and this is associated with the issue of liberation and this happened at a time when women were demanding change and were achieving important jobs. They didn’t want to be in their consigned place, like René, and so it was just my expression. I don’t mean this in any sort of disrespectful way.
At Italia 90 you got out of the groups for the first time in Colombia’s history after Freddy Rincón scored a last-minute goal to draw against West Germany. Was that the happiest day of your life?
My happiness has nothing to do with football. My happiness comes from my friends, my family and my children. Football is just an excuse to talk, laugh and cry.
OK, perhaps your proudest moment?
I’m still not sure. We wanted to have control of the ball because that was our strength and to succeed doing that against Germany, who ended up beating everybody else in that tournament, left me with a special feeling.
Well, except against England. They needed penalties. Again.
But England hadn’t waited 28 years to play in a World Cup. People thought our achievement was something spontaneous but we had spent the previous three years living and working together. We spent more time together than our own families. We drank a lot of beer and whisky together and so a huge friendship was created between all of us. I was given time to ensure there was order, discipline and respect in the group and that was played out on the pitch. England don’t know what it’s like to go 28 years without appearing at a World Cup and having to support other South American countries on the telly. That’s why it was more than just respect that we had for each other; it was also admiration.
Your assistant during that World Cup, Bolillo, once said the group was so united that you and him used to sleep in the same bed!
Yeah [laughs]. He couldn’t sleep because of the nerves.
If 1990 was Colombia’s great step forward in finally believing in itself, 1994 was something else. Did that team perhaps believe in itself a little bit too much, especially after that 5-0 win over Argentina?
The year 1994 was very different. Colombia is a country of extremes and I need to give you a couple of examples to show why. Here in Colombia we have had some good cyclists and, as you know, Colombian women are also very beautiful. For us it is very difficult to accept that there are women in the world who are more beautiful than our women. If there is a beauty contest everybody stays up late to see if she wins and if she doesn’t we feel cheated. We struggle to believe there are prettier women in the world than ours. In cycling we spend the entire year believing our cyclists are the best in the world and so when it comes to the Tour de France and he finishes second, we blame him for being too cocky. Again this shows that Colombians don’t know how to lose, we find losing hard to handle and that’s because of our history.
With football, I wouldn’t say that the team in 1990 was better but it had something extra. We were more organised, disciplined and knew how to concentrate. We got our tactics right, but didn’t have the luxuries of 1994. We didn’t have a Tino Asprilla, a Tren Valencia or those kinds of players. Before 1994 we came out of the 1993 Copa América in Ecuador unbeaten and had played really well. Let’s not forget that in 1993 Argentina hadn’t lost for more than 30 games before we beat them at home in Barranquilla. Then we went to Buenos Aires and scored five in their own stadium. But if you look at what happened immediately after that, you will see that none of our players said anything, they understood the result as being a part of football. But back home our people and the Colombian media started screaming we were going to be world champions. And what happened? We were the first country to be eliminated!
When you lose, every door and every window is flung open and people go searching for the reasons why. They tried to explain it by saying we lost because of this or that. But for me the explanation lay in our football. Colombia peaked during the qualifiers and what happens after you hit your peak? There comes the downward slide. I maintain that if the World Cup had been two months after that Argentina game, we’d have won it. But a lot happened in those few months after that game. Lots of players fell out of form, others weren’t playing regularly, there were a few injuries and we didn’t know how to deal with it. And people responded by searching for other answers: they looked at the bad results and tried to explain it by saying the mafia were involved or this was some act of witchcraft; I really have heard it all and it makes a good story but you just have to ignore it.
That’s an issue for all countries due to the nature of international football though.
Yes, another example is [Marcelo] Bielsa’s Argentina. They had an unbelievable team and when they left Buenos Aires for the 2002 World Cup they were favourites. And being Argentina it’s understandable why. Colombia, on the other hand, didn’t deserve that accolade because we’d achieved nothing. When that Bielsa team were eliminated in the first round, how did people explain it? They said it was down to their football and that’s what happens in football. So why don’t people believe the same with Colombia? Spain at the last World Cup is another example and again nobody said anything. Nobody said they had become too cocky, but here in Colombia that’s what always happens. Maybe it’s because we don’t have a football history like Argentina or Spain, I don’t know.
It seems that problem still exists. In the last World Cup many Colombians couldn’t accept defeat against Brazil, they blamed the referee or some Fifa conspiracy. Perhaps Colombia have now learnt how to win, but they still don’t know how to lose.
Exactly, and I think we deserved to lose against Brazil. Right from the very beginning we were more worried about Brazil than our own game and it cost us. This was the worst Brazilian team in recent years and if we’d have played our own game we’d have won.
Looking back, how do you see that 5-0 result now? Was it the best result in Colombia’s history?
For me it wasn’t. Tactically we were much better in the 1-1 draw with West Germany in 1990. In that game Germany had some chances but we did too. We played well against Argentina but we had five chances and scored every one. Argentina had loads of chances but just couldn’t score. These things happen in football.
After Colombia scored their fourth goal in that game, you turned to your assistant Bolillo and said, “Now we’re fucked.” Did you know things were already sliding out of control even then?
No, it was actually Bolillo who said that to me because he knew how our country worked. If you beat Argentina in Argentina, how will Colombians in this country of extremes respond? They will say we will win the World Cup of course. And after that game we played 27 or 28 games without losing and Bolillo kept telling me: they’re going to kick our arses really hard during the World Cup.
So before going to the World Cup you knew the writing was on the wall?
No, I wouldn’t say that. If that were the case, I wouldn’t have gone. Why walk into failure? That’s not me.
On the eve of the 1994 tournament did you feel confident?
I was the most confident person in the world. During that time Tabárez and myself had managed more international games in South America than anyone else. I even went to see Romania play twice, because I could feel the responsibility. We were confident about the United States because we used to play them week in, week out and always used to win. But at the World Cup they went and beat us.
So what went wrong?
We ended up losing our first game to Romania and afterwards we were a complete wreck. We had created so many chances and had played well but they hit us on the counter-attack right at the end. Romania had played an intelligent game but we were still unlucky. The problem started after that game because we couldn’t understand and accept that we’d lost but had played quite well. My good friend Arrigo Sacchi called me after that game. His Italian side had also lost their first game 1-0 and he told me, “Francisco, don’t worry, this is an accident. Get yourself together because if you do, you are good enough to win the remaining two games.” But we didn’t because we saw it all as a big drama, a catastrophe whereas the Italians knew how to deal with it. I’d therefore say that the problem was more the way we approached things. At the 1990 World Cup when we lost against Yugoslavia in the second game we all got together and talked about it. There were some players who even cried during that meeting. In 1994 after we lost against Romania, we couldn’t all get together like that. We were staying in a hotel where all the Colombian press and fans were gathered. We could feel the anguish that the press was generating. We lost communication and players used to stay in their hotel room because they wanted to avoid the media. You could perhaps say we lost our spiritual way and it was an error to have chosen to set up base like that. But in 1994 we wanted everybody to share in this special moment in our history and to show that Colombia was one happy family. Again, this was to do with what was happening in society. But as we now know, when things didn’t go as planned people quickly turned on us. That’s when the scandals started and we could do nothing to arrest it. I guess the light went out after that Romania game.
Then followed the game against the United States. What happened on the morning of that game?
I got a call with threats against a player and his family. They told me I couldn’t choose a player in my starting line-up and tried to influence my team selection by telling me whom I had to pick instead.
This was the call saying you couldn’t play your midfielder ‘Barrabás' Gómez?
Yes, before the United States game.
And you didn’t play him, which suggests you considered the threat to be real?
Nobody investigated the threat and still nobody knows where it came from so we don’t know if it was real or not.
Did you even want to play football after something like that had happened?
Football goes on and you have to do so also. I’ve always believed that anyone who really wants to hurt you won’t do so by making threats. But they didn’t just threaten me, they threatened other people and I didn’t want to be responsible for the lives of others.
Many people now believe the main reason for Colombia’s failure was the influence of the mafia and drug cartels. Do you agree?
I don’t think that was the main reason, absolutely not. We failed because of our football and especially because of what happened after that first loss against Romania. That was the crucial moment, because we weren’t able to accept defeat and we couldn’t find a way to raise team morale. As I’ve already explained, we were in a difficult situation because of where we were based and we weren’t able to understand that we’d lost despite playing quite well. I’m not complaining about the loss because all defeats are fair. But the way we responded was completely wrong. We shouldn’t have just given up like that, but we weren’t in the right conditions or the right scenario to learn from our mistakes and bounce back.
These interferences started a long time before the World Cup. A Colombian journalist has claimed that the squad were hooded, put on a bus and taken to a luxury farm to meet the Cali drug cartel before the World Cup to discuss bonuses.
I’ve no idea if that’s true or not, I honestly don’t know. The players certainly didn’t ask me for permission to go there. Everybody was free to make his own choice and to collaborate with anyone. That’s part of learning and we should remember that. But I don’t know if it happened or not.
But your own players have said it did.
Yes, but I don’t know if it was all of them. Some said it happened, but because it happened to that person that’s not got anything to do with me. Certainly Colombia’s entire social situation got involved in the team in the 1994 World Cup, which destabilised the group.
Your assistant Bolillo blames the failure entirely on the press for building up expectations.
Again I don’t agree. We were the main reason and we should shoulder the responsibility for that. The problem is always the players you have and the circumstances you find yourselves in. And in 1994 the circumstances weren’t the most ideal, let’s say. There’s no point blaming other people for that.
Later you returned as Colombia manager to win the 2001 Copa América on home soil. But because of Argentina dropping out due to the perceived danger in Colombia at that time, and Brazil sending a reserve team, you haven’t really received recognition for that win. Is that fair?
We won that tournament by winning every single game and didn’t concede a single goal in the process. And it’s true, nobody has given us much recognition for that and I’m sure that one day people will realise how big that trophy was for us.
You were also once offered the Real Madrid job.
Yes, I even signed a contract with them. I travelled to Madrid to talk with their President Ramón Mendoza and the team about what we were going to do the following season. Mendoza had said that he had been tracking me for some time and liked what I had been doing when I was manager of Valladolid. Alfredo di Stéfano was their manager then but the team were playing really badly and they had brought in Radomir Antić. I signed a contract with Real but under Antić suddenly the team started to win. I therefore had to wait and so I spent a bit of time in Madrid but then realised that I couldn’t just sit there waiting for the team to start losing like a vulture. I went to speak to Real and they offered me a managerial role. But I didn’t know anything about being a manager, I was a coach and that’s what I wanted to do. They even offered me some cash as compensation, but I didn’t feel it was fair to be paid to do nothing. It was a bit of a strange situation but now, whenever I go to the Bernabéu, they give me free tickets and they look after me.
Having been manager of Colombia four times, would you consider having another go?
I want to get involved again with football and have received some interesting offers though I’m waiting for a proposal and project that really appeals. My philosophy is that you never know what you may end up doing in the future, but you do know what you won’t do. And I can tell you that my chapter with Colombia is now definitely over.