September 5th, 1993 is more or less regarded as major event in Colombian history, a sort of soccer version of Independence Day. That is the date that the Colombian and Argentinian national football teams met in Buenos Aires for the last of their qualifying matches for the 1994 USA World Cup. Whichever team won would go straight to the World Cup. The loser would face Australia in a playoff. A tie would have sufficed for Colombia, but instead they won the match 5-0. It remains the biggest win in Colombia’s history.
A player known simply as “El Tino” scored the second of Colombia’s goals—skilfully evading two defenders and the goalkeeper, and then scoring as he fell to the ground—and the fourth, a clever chip, before assisting teammate Freddy Rincón for the fifth. The day cemented Faustino Asprilla’s place in Colombian history.
Asprilla and the rest of that team sent our soccer-crazy country into a frenzy, into the collective delusion that we could win every game, that we could win it all. We were unstoppable. In the United States, though, the team is probably better remembered for defender Andrés Escobar, whose life story, along with that of druglord Pablo Escobar, was the subject of the documentary film “The Two Escobars”. Andrés scored an own goal while playing against the United States in the ’94 World Cup and was murdered in Medellín, Colombia’s second largest city, a few weeks later. Many people thought the two events were connected, but in reality Andrés’ murder was even more absurd: he bumped into the wrong people at the wrong time and a bar dispute turned into tragedy. His death was a symbol of the lawlessness that Pablo Escobar’s era had brought to the city and much of the country.
Nobody had ever beaten Argentina at their home ground before.
But South American football fans remember that Colombian team from games like the one in Buenos Aires that night in September. Nobody had ever beaten Argentina at their home ground before. So dominant was Colombia’s performance that the Argentinian fans at the River Plate stadium, including Diego Maradona, got on their feet at the end of the game and applauded the Colombian players. For Colombians that victory represented the country’s huge potential—off the field as well as on it. And although the whole team was talented, if there was one man that embodied the hope of a country that it might flourish at last, that man was Tino.
Faustino Hernán “El Tino” Asprilla Hinestroza lived the dream. He was nicknamed “Tino” not just because those were the last syllables in his given name, but because that word in Spanish means “aim” and he had a wonderfully accurate shot. He could score from anywhere. In British stadiums there’s a popular chant for lethal strikers: “He scores when he wants! He score when he wants!”. That was Tino: he seemed to be able to score whenever and from wherever on the field he wanted to. Asprilla was never a player that dictated the pace of the game. He never seemed to care much about what exactly what was going on off the ball. He was never a tactician. But he was always there, playing the game like a little kid amusing himself, just waiting for the perfect moment to score.