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Dec 1, 2011

Rene Higuita: El Loco

That goalkeepers are different is well established, but Rene Higuita was something else entirely. He was the livewire at the base of the renowned Colombia sides of the late 1980s and early 1990s, a pioneer whose eccentric style rarely failed to clinch headlines, for good or bad. He was also regularly in the newspapers for his off-field activities, and was to suffer greatly from his inability to distance himself from his homeland's drug problems.

Higuita was born into severe poverty in Medellin in August 1966, and had to be brought up by his grandmother after his unmarried mother died. His prospects were bleak. "Football is one way out of the ghetto, for the few," The Guardian reported in a feature on the city in 1990. "The other, for the many, is drugs."

Fortunately for Higuita, he had shown considerable talent in the former. He spent his early years as a centre-forward but, when circumstance saw him pushed into service as a goalkeeper, he found his calling - even though he would not forget the outfield skills that had marked his formative years. He was known for his goalscoring feats from penalties and free-kicks, netting 44 goals across the course of his career, but more significant was his desire to reside high up the pitch, regularly operating as a de facto sweeper and allowing his defence to push up, thereby forming a basis for the national team's progressive tactical approach. It was a plan that brought significant risks but, of the error that famously sent Colombia crashing out of the 1990 World Cup, when he was dispossessed by Cameroon's Roger Milla, manager Francisco Maturana recalled: "There was no point in anger because he was expressing the Colombian soul."

He was signed up by Medellin-based Atletico Nacional in 1981 and his professional career began in earnest in 1985 when he spent time on loan with Millionarios, one of Colombia's most successful clubs. 'El Loco', as he became known, swiftly established a reputation for scoring goals, and upon his return to Nacional became a key part of a side that would win two league titles as well as the Copa Libertadores and the Copa Interamericana.

It was under the tutelage of Maturana - who led both Nacional and Colombia from 1987 to 1990 - that he became a star. Higuita was one of many of the club's players Maturana called upon for the national side in the build-up to the 1990 World Cup and the new-look team, and their goalkeeper in particular, caused a stir worldwide. After a 1-1 friendly draw with England at Wembley in 1988, then-manager Bobby Robson said: "He left his penalty area five times during the game. He's come out to the touchline to tackle Gary Lineker; he's shown Peter Beardsley the ball and beaten him before taking it back into the box and picking it up." Robson had asked midfielder Steve McMahon what he made of the Colombians after the game, to which the Liverpool star shook his head and replied: "Different world, boss."

In 1989, Higuita enjoyed particular success. Nacional became the first Colombian side to win the Copa Libertadores when they beat Olimpia 5-4 in a penalty shootout in May, with Higuita saving four spot-kicks. In October, he was part of the Colombia side that saw off Israel 1-0 on aggregate in a play-off to qualify for their first World Cup since 1962. In December, in the Intercontinental Cup final against Arrigo Sacchi's AC Milan, Higuita lit up a match lacking in action when he repeatedly dribbled upfield, although Nacional lost 1-0 in the dying moments of extra-time.

When Higuita arrived at Italia '90, therefore, his ability to steal the show was already well-established. "With the technical, practical and spectacle considerations of the World Cup and its physical demands, I see the outstanding players breaking into two groups," Maturana said a week before Colombia's opener against United Arab Emirates. "I see the geniuses and the madmen. The genuises, I see the No. 1 in that group as Maradona. And the madmen, that's Rene Higuita."

El Loco did not disappoint. Colombia edged their way through a group also containing West Germany and Yugoslavia, setting up a second-round meeting with Cameroon. The game was goalless after 90 minutes, but veteran striker Milla broke the deadlock at the start of the second period of extra-time. Three minutes later, Colombia's hopes were effectively over: Higuita received a backpass in the sweeper position and attempted to outwit Milla with a dragback only to lose possession, allowing the forward to score and for Cameroon to progress with an eventual 2-1 win. The goalkeeper's reputation was, unsurprisingly, in a state of disrepair. "People will talk about it and be quite right in talking about it," Higuita said afterwards. "It was a mistake. Everyone saw it. It was as big as a house. I have always played like this and I was confident I could win today. I have lost. It's too bad."

In June 1991, Higuita was embroiled in controversy off the field when he was filmed paying a visit to Pablo Escobar - apparently, but unofficially, the owner of Nacional - during the notorious drug lord's stint in a luxurious mountain prison. "Escobar built football fields with lighting, and constructed whole neighbourhoods, which is more than the government ever did," the goalkeeper's lawyer, Fabio Lizcano, later explained. "Rene is part of an underprivileged youth that grew up admiring Colombia's Robin Hood."

On the field, he had a brief spell abroad when he followed Maturana to Real Valladolid, but the move did not work out and he soon returned to Nacional. The move back to Medellin proved costly, though, when the Escobar connection resurfaced in dramatic fashion. In May 1993, the 11-year-old daughter of another underworld figure, Luis Carlos Molina, was kidnapped, and suspicion fell on Escobar. Molina enlisted the help of Higuita in securing the release, and the goalkeeper subsequently handed over the reported $385,000 ransom money. In gratitude, the Molina family presented Higuita with a gift: US bank notes apparently totalling $64,000. In accepting the gift, he had broken Colombian law, and he was facing three charges after his arrest in June: illicit enrichment, mediating without authority and failing to inform the police that a kidnapping had taken place. He was placed in prison pending a full case.

"All he did was help to get the girl released and make her family happy," his girlfriend, and later wife, Magnolia Etchverry protested. "In return they gave him some money. For that he was put in jail." After over five months in prison, Higuita began a hunger strike in protest at his incarceration, and in January 1994 he was finally released as a result of the authorities' failure to pursue the charge within the legal timeframe - under Colombian law, a trial had to begin within 120 days of arrest. Magnolia, along with a 200-strong crowd of supporters, greeted him as he walked free. "I feel a pain in missing all the moments, good and difficult, that Colombian football has been through," Higuita said.

With Maturana having returned to lead Colombia to the 1994 World Cup, Higuita would surely have been named in the squad and handed the chance to atone for his Italia '90 blunder, but in March it was confirmed that he would miss out as his legal situation meant he could not leave his homeland. "He has problems we can't solve," Maturana said. He was later cleared of wrongdoing and awarded $17,000 in damages, yet the bitterness remains. "They took away my chance to be with my national team, my family," Higuita told Sports Illustrated in 2008, "and when I was declared innocent, they published a small little item. Nobody knows I was cleared."

He bounced back, though, and was restored to the national side for the 1995 Copa America; indeed, for the most part he looked back to his best as Colombia finished third. In September that year, in a low-key 0-0 friendly draw with England at Wembley, he dealt with a tame Jamie Redknapp effort by unleashing the 'Scorpion Kick', launching himself forwards to repel the ball with his heels (the linesman had already flagged for offside, but the referee ignored it and allowed play to go on). An international star was reborn, and though Malcolm Berry, secretary to the English School's FA, labelled it a "crass and stupid way to go about making a save", no one else seemed to agree. "It's the sort of thing only one person can do," a triumphant Higuita said afterwards. "I have a massive repertoire, but I don't plan them ahead." Former Arsenal goalkeeper Bob Wilson, at that stage working for ITV, revealed that Higuita's claims to spontaneity were misleading: "He did the same thing three or four times in the warm-up."

Once more the highs turned to lows: in 1996, he had announced that he was to quit because of his own dissatisfaction with his form, and he spent six months out of action. His Bogota home was bombed in January 1997, and he left the country for a spell in Mexico with Veracruz not long afterwards. He then returned to Colombia and, while a free agent in October 1998, was arrested after roaming the Medellin streets on his motorbike while holding a gun. He signed for Independiente Medellin in 1999.

A series of moves around his homeland followed but, in October 2002, while playing for provincial side Pereira, he was handed a six-match ban after testing positive for cocaine. He left Colombia for Ecuadorian side Aucas in January 2004, but in November that year tested positive for the drug once more. "Higuita said it was possibly residue from some time ago but I cannot confirm that," Aucas chairman Jaime Perez told Reuters. "We have terminated his contract."

Higuita was forced into retirement, and in 2005 he reinvented himself as a TV star. "I had to go into rehab," he later explained. "After that I started doing the reality shows. I have nothing against money." He featured in both the second and third series of the Survivor-inspired La Isla de los Famosos (The Island of the Famous), and later in the year appeared on Cambio Extremo (Extreme Change), in which he had extensive cosmetic surgery.

In August 2007, shortly before his 41st birthday, Higuita came out of retirement to sign for Venezuelan club Guaros, but it did not work out. He claimed he had been paid only one month's salary despite holding a contract until the end of the season, so walked out - "They can hardly complain" - and signed for Rionegro in Colombia's second tier. He called it "a good level to say farewell" but, after helping the team to finish in second place in his first season, he took the opportunity to re-enter the spotlight when he signed for top-flight side Pereira on a $10,000-a-month contract. He continued to inject flair into games, notably producing a Scorpion Kick in a game against Once Caldas shortly after his arrival, and finally hung up his gloves - and boots - after an official farewell appearance in January 2010.

His contribution to Colombia's successes has perhaps been overshadowed by his World Cup blunder in the eyes of international audiences, but El Loco - the eternal showman - has never made any attempt to play down the eccentricities that made him a star. "When I have finished my career," Higuita said in the mid-'90s, "my name will stay on people's lips as a player who brought a bit of magic into the lives of ordinary people."

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