To many football fans today, the name René Higuita is not one that is widely recognised… but it should be. Higuita’s famous Scorpion kick save in 1995 is still considered to this day one of, if not the, best saves in the history of football.
Today’s game has seen the role of a goalkeeper molded into that of a ‘sweeper keeper’. This style of goalkeeper is one who is not scared to have the ball at his or her feet, and can come out of goal to read any danger early.
However, the innovation of this style first appeared in 1985, when a certain Colombian goalkeeper decided to break the mold. This is the story of René Higuita, one of football’s untold innovators on the pitch, who was also quite a character off it.
Born José René Higuita Zapata on the 27th of August 1966, in a lower middle-class suburb of Medellín, Colombia, René is the son of Jorge Zapata and Maria Dioselina Higuita. After his father left when Higuita was a young child, he was left to be raised by his mother in poverty. However, a few years after his birth, Higuita’s mother would pass away. With one parent gone and the other now deceased, René was put into the care of his grandmother, Ana Felisa, who was now responsible to raise the young Colombian.
Unfortunately, for René, his childhood was at a time of great economic difficulty within Colombia. As a result, René ended up working as a paperboy and in a few various other jobs just to earn a living for him and his grandmother.
In order to escape the poverty he was surrounded by, Higuita found solitude on the dusty, grassless pitch of a football field near his home called the Maracaná. Here, Higuita developed a love of the beautiful game which saw one local side, Millonarios, sign him up to their youth system.
One keeper, Two rival clubs
During his early year, Higuita turned out to be quite a prolific striker, going on to be the top scorer with both his school and youth team. When Millonarios’s youth keeper went off injured in a 5-a-side match, Higuita was called upon to fill in. He impressed so much that he ended up changing to the position permanently shortly after.
Higuita would go on to make his senior debut for Millonarios in 1985 at the age of 19 where, in his first season, he scored 7 goals in sixteen appearances. All of Higuita’s goals came a result of his ability to take penalties and free kicks with impressive accuracy and consistency.
After only one season with Millonarios, Higuita’s services were acquired by town rivals Atlético Nacional in 1986. Nacional was a special club to Higuita, as it was the club he supported as a child. With Nacional being the bigger club in Medellín, it is no surprise to learn that the club was owned by one of the most powerful and wealthiest men in the world at the time – Pablo Escobar.
Escobar, one of the world’s most notorious drug lords, ran the Medellín cartel and specialised in the trafficking of cocaine throughout South America and North America. As well as being a powerful drug baron, Escobar was also a huge football fan. So, after purchasing Nacional in the late 1980s, Escobar’s vast wealth went a long way in Nacional being able to acquire the best talent in Colombia and other areas of South America.
The ‘Sweeper Keeper’
In Higuita, Nacional had a goalkeeper who was so comfortable on the ball that it was as if they had eleven outfield players all the time. Due to his fearless approach in goal and a flair for the dramatic, coach Francisco Maturana went on to nickname the enigmatic goalkeeper ‘El Loco’ – The Madman.
In hindsight, many believe Higuita was ahead of his time because of his willingness to come out of his area, something not seen at all in the years before the pass-back rule came into effect. His flair for the dramatic and impatient approach to the game meant that, unlike other goalkeepers, Higuita saw his territory as not only his eighteen yard box, but his team’s own half.
Where many goalkeepers are happy to not be involved in a game unless called upon, the very opposite could be said about Higuita, as he did not wait for the game to come to him, he would go find it himself.
Before Higuita, the first ‘sweeper keeper’ that many people thought of was the great Dutch keeper Jan Jongbloed, the keeper of the Total Football Dutch side of 1974. However, Jongbloed’s style mainly consisted of coming out of his area to smash the ball out of play, whereas Higuita was more comfortable with the ball at his feet. Many see the composure and silky footwork of the enigmatic goalkeeper’s style as a testament to his days as a striker in his youth.
Copa Libertadores History
From 1986 – 1992, Higuita was part of Atlético Nacional’s most successful period at the time, both domestically and on the continent of South America. Under the tutelage of Maturana, Nacional built a team with the goal of achieving the highest honour in South American football, The Copa Libertadores.
In 1989 history was indeed made, with Nacional achieving what was seen as the impossible. After finishing second in their group, Nacional went on to navigate their way to reach the final, where Olimpa of Paraguay awaited them.
The Paraguayan side took the early advantage in the two leg tie, winning 2-0 at home but Nacional would neutralise the two goal deficit by winning the second leg 2-0. With the tie level at the end of the second leg, extra time awaited, but not even this could separate the two sides, so it would go down to a penalty shootout to decide a winner.
In this shootout, Higuita displayed the two sides of his game that made him a star in his native Colombia. With three penalty saves and scoring a crucial penalty himself, El Loco was seen as the hero who led his boyhood club to become the first Colombian side to lift the prestigious Copa Libertadores.
Further success and National team call-up
Further success followed in 1989, this time in the Copa Interamericana. This competition saw the winners of the Copa Libertadores in South America play the winner of the CONCACAF champions cup in North America. Nacional’s opponents came in the form of the Mexican side UNAM which was played at the Estadio Olímpico Universitario in Mexico City.
Nacional went on to win this tie 6-1 over the two legs, winning the competition the first time they’d ever appeared in it. A Catergoria Primera A league title followed in 1991, which saw Higuita achieve everything with his beloved Nacional. It was the club’s first title in 10 years.
With impressive performances and leadership to see his club achieve historical success, it is no surprise that a national call up for the 1989 Copa América was on the cards for Higuita. Now aged 23, Higuita had the chance to represent his beloved Colombia at the biggest competition in South America and wasted little time in introducing himself. In the opening group game against Venezuela, Higuita scored a penalty in the 36th minute to give his side the lead. However, the Copa América of ’89 went on to be a campaign to forget for Colombia as they finished third in the group, missing out on the next round.
1990 World Cup
The World Cup of 1990 was to be played in Italy, so with the eyes of the world watching, the stage was set for Higuita to display his sweeper keeper style to a vast audience. Higuita did not disappoint, as his style caught the attention of everyone due to his fearlessness in coming out of goal and getting involved in the play.
One win, one draw and a defeat was enough to see Colombia advance to the Round of 16 as one of the third place teams with the best points tally. Their opponents, Cameroon, had topped their group due in part to their inform striker in Roger Milla who, at 38 years old, became the oldest player to score in a World Cup.
With the tie being played in front of 50,000 spectators at the Stadio San Paolo, in Naples, the game went on to become one of the most entertaining matches in what is considered one of the least exciting World Cups in memory. Neither side were able to break the deadlock in the 90 minutes, which meant extra time beckoned.
Despite Higuita impressing with his unique goalkeeping style, it was a moment of madness that ended up stealing the headlines. In the 106th minute, Higuita received a back pass from Andres Escobar, just in his own half, and attempted to dribble past an oncoming Milla. The Cameroon forward’s pressing play resulted in Higuita being dispossessed, leaving Milla with a clear run on goal.
Despite both Higuita and Escobar’s efforts to get back, especially with Higuita’s unsuccessful last ditch challenge for the ball, Milla went on to slot the ball into the empty net for the opening goal. A second from Milla two minutes later, before a consolation goal by Colombia’s Bernardo Redín, was enough to send Colombia out.
Escobar vs Molina
A brief but disappointing year at Spanish side Real Valladolid in 1992 saw Higuita on a plane back to Colombia at the end of the 92/93 season. From here, a return to his beloved Atlético Nacional was on the cards and also a return to the criminal ties that ran the club from behind the scenes.
1993, in particular, was to be an interesting year for Higuita as his friendships with drug kingpins Pablo Escobar and Carlos Molina, led to a very crazy story unfolding.
Now the kingpin to a declining cartel, Escobar was desperate for cash upon the freezing of his assets after escaping a mountain – top prison above Medellín in July 1992. His escape came as a result of a prison transfer that went badly and with the help of prison guards who were secretly on his books. Now, a free man and in hiding, Escobar made a last ditch attempt for cash by requesting a ‘loan’ of $1 million from his former associates, including Molina.
When this request was rejected by his former associates, Escobar decided it was time to take things further and orchestrated the kidnapping of Molina’s fifteen year old daughter Claudia on the 30th of April 1993. Once former associates and business partners with Nacional and cocaine trafficking, Escobar and Molina now saw each other as bitter enemies.
An unlikely hero
Distressed over his daughter’s kidnapping, Molina turned to a close friend and someone he could trust to deliver the ransom money requested by Escobar’s cartel – René Higuita. Higuita’s own fame allowed him to enjoy all levels of society within his local town of Medellín and rub shoulders with not only drug cartels, but Colombian politicians or politicos.
Molina’s choosing of Higuita to get his daughter back was not only due to his trust in the Colombian football star, but it was also a way of avoiding any intervention from either the police or the government. If Molina was to go to either then not only would it be shining a light on Escobar’s activities, but also on his own operations and this was not a possibility to consider. Higuita’s willingness to help a friend is something that was not unusual as the goalkeeper had a reputation for being a generous person who rarely refused the request for help.
The story goes that Molina gave Higuita a briefcase containing the requested ransom of $300,000 pesos, which Higuita was to spend the next month protecting at his house, waiting for the kidnappers to get in contact. When the call finally came, Higuita was picked up and taken to downtown Medellín, where the ransom was delivered in return for Molina’s daughter. Whilst waiting for Escobar’s men to bring Molina’s daughter to the drop, children in the nearby neighbourhood clamoured for Higuita’s autograph, which he obliged to do, which just shows how much of an icon he was to fans in Colombia.
Aftermath and Prison
In the days following the exchange, Higuita spoke freely of his heroics to the Colombian press claiming:
“It was a mission from God, because God gave me the chance to make a family happy.”
Little did Higuita know that his comments gained the attention of Colombia’s attorney general, who believed that Higuita had confessed, in essence, to being an accessory to kidnapping. After further investigation, it was discovered that Higuita had indeed received a ‘thank you’ payment of $64,000 pesos. This evidence, along with Higuita’s confession of the payment when questioned, meant that he was found guilty of enriching himself during the kidnapping, a serious crime in Colombia.
In June 1993, Higuita was sentenced to 7 months at Bogotá jail without a trial or indictment taking place. The lack of trial indicated the seriousness with which Colombia was beginning to treat these sorts of crimes involving the cartels. With this prison sentence, Higuita was cut off from the growing excitement within his homeland in anticipation of the World Cup in 1994 in the USA, one which they were considered one of the favourites.
January 1994 saw Higuita released without charges, however, during his time in prison Higuita decided to impart on a two week hunger strike in protest of his imprisonment. This act, along with the lack of football, meant Higuita was in no fit state to be selected by Colombia for the World Cup in the summer of 1994. Further pleas from his national teammates for their talisman’s release were rejected, culminating in Colombia going on to have a disappointing World Cup in 1994, exiting the competition in embarrassing fashion bottom of Group A.
The aftermath of Colombia’s embarrassing exit from the World Cup in 1994 saw the team threatened upon their return home. These threats would soon hit too close to home when the tragic assassination of Colombian right back, Andres Escobar, was discovered to be in retaliation for him scoring an own goal during the tournament.
The Scorpion Kick
Upon his return to club football with Nacional in 1994, Higuita went on to further success by winning a second league title that season and another Copa Interamericana the following year. However, it would be in a friendly for Colombia against England at Wembley on the 6th of September 1995 where Higuita truly made a name for himself on an international stage.
In front of a packed Wembley stadium, Higuita produced what has gone down as one of the greatest saves in the history of football. With the game tied at 0-0, Jamie Redknapp received a square pass outside Colombia’s 180-yard box and attempted a first time ball into the box. This attempted cross by Redknapp turned into more of a lofted attempt at goal. Instead of a simple collection into his hands from this attempt, Higuita produced a moment of magic by using a scorpion kick to save the ball, clearing it of any danger.
This scorpion kick had been used before by Higuita in his native Colombia and consisted of him leaping forward head first and bending his legs back in order to clear the ball with the heels of his boots. When interviewed by the Spanish newspaper El Mundo about this magical moment years after, Higuita attributed his inspiration for the move to the children he saw playing football on the streets of his hometown.
“Children have always been my inspiration. I always saw them in the street or in the park trying out bicycle kicks, and I told them it would be good to do it in reverse. And that day in England, I was given the ball that I had been waiting for for five years.”
Higuita has always attributed this act put him on the map of the footballing world like nothing before, and in a way he is right, but it is believed by many that he is doing himself a disservice.
The ‘Mercenary Goalkeeper’ & Retirement
Higuita went on to spend five seasons with his beloved Nacional in his second spell at the club, before leaving for good in 1997, with 2 goals in 181 appearances over his two spells. 1997 was to be the beginning of a chaotic twelve years for Higuita, a period that saw him play for 8 different clubs across Colombia, Mexico, Ecuador and Venezuela. This continuous movement of clubs saw Higuita labelled a ‘mercenary’ goalkeeper as teams across South America signed the eccentric goalkeeper as an attraction.
Further controversy followed the charismatic goalkeeper in 2004, when he tested positive for cocaine whilst at Ecuadorian side, Aucas. As a result, Higuita checked into drug rehab and wasn’t seen back on a football pitch till 2007.
This role of being the attraction saw Higuita given permission to take the penalties and free kicks as a way to entertain the fans. During the 1999/2000 season alone, Higuita went on to score 11 goals in 20 appearances for Independiente Medellín and this pattern saw Higuita score the majority of his 41 career goals during this twelve year period.
Two of these spells came with Colombian side Deportivo Pereira, where Higuita eventually retired in 2009, after a career that span 25 years and saw him score 41 goals in 380 appearances. Higuita retired from international duty a decade earlier in 1999 with 68 caps, the last coming in an appearance against Paraguay in the 1999 Copa América.
Post retirement has seen Higuita the subject of many myths, with stories claiming he had identity altering surgery to outrun drug cartels. In reality, Higuita went on to be a goalkeeping coach at UAE club Al – Nassr from 2012 to 2016 before returning to his beloved Atletico Nacional in 2017, where he remains today as the club’s goalkeeping coach.
René Higuita has always attributed his fame and recognition in the game as a result of that famous scorpion kick save against England in 1995. However, this is a disservice to what this eccentric and enigmatic goalkeeper really brought to the game of football, as he is seen as the first real ‘sweeper keeper’ as we know it today. His unique style of play is seen as the main reason for the back pass rule coming into effect in 1992 as a direct counter, with the law sometimes referred to as the Higuita Law.
Higuita is ranked number 5 for the most goals scored by a goalkeeper during his career, something that has not been matched or seen in recent years within the game by a goalkeeper.
Kids today may not know the tale of this iconic player, and it is a shame as it is the story of a goalkeeper that inspired a generation of sweeper keepers and faced a drug empire to save a life in the process.