The Craziest Goalkeeper in Soccer History
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It was the 1990 World Cup, and Colombia had thrived through the group stages. The squad was set to face Cameroon in the Round of 16 at the Stadio San Paolo in Naples, Italy. The match remained tense at 0-0 throughout the 90 minutes. In the early minutes of extra time, Cameroon striker Roger Milla scored the opener of the match. Colombia needed to push forward quickly to get the equalizer. The stadium was vibrating with cheers from the Colombian supporters, motivating their team. The ball made its way backward to Colombian goalkeeper René Higuita, who was well out of his box and under pressure from Milla. Instead of choosing to pass or clear the ball, Higuita attempted to dribble past Milla, which was a fatal blunder as the Cameroon striker stole the ball and easily walked it into the open net. Colombia ended up losing the match 2-1 after scoring a very late consolation goal. While Higuita may have seemed like a crazy goalkeeper, his impact on the game would forever be remembered.
Born to a single mother in Medellín, Antioquia, Higuita lived his early childhood in poverty. His mother died when he was young, so his grandmother took him in. He spent much of his time working a variety of jobs, such as delivering newspapers, to pay the bills. Higuita first began playing soccer when he joined the Millonarios FC, a team in the highest division of Colombian soccer, Categoría Primera A. The Colombian soon transferred to Atlético Nacional in 1986, where he would spend most of his career and win multiple Colombian leagues and other trophies. Higuita briefly left Nacional to play for Spanish club Real Valladolid for one season before returning to play with Nacional for four more years.
The Colombian was caught by the law in 1993 for acting as a conduit for cocaine baron Pablo Escobar in a kidnapping case involving the daughter of his associate Carlos Molina. He was paid $64 thousand for lending a helping hand in the situation and sentenced to jail for seven months. The keeper missed the upcoming 1994 World Cup due to his conviction in the kidnapping case, and he could only watch on his television as Colombia never made it out of the group stage. Following a short retirement in 2005, he returned in 2007 for Venezuela club Guaros FC. He joined Colombian second division team Deportivo Rionegro in January 2008, and in July switched to Deportivo Pereira before finally retiring in 2010.
Higuita is well known for his creativity all over the field. He always experimented with the ball on and off the pitch and is famous for inventing a move called the scorpion kick. In a friendly match between England and Colombia on September 6, 1995, Higuita made a sublime save that shocked the entire world. A simple long distance shot at Colombia’s net was a very simple catch for the goalkeeper, but Higuita decided to clear the ball by performing a reverse bicycle kick, also known as a back hammer kick. He dived toward the ground and used his hands on the field to lunge his back heels forward and kick the ball. It surprised everyone, and it was a unique move that had never been done before. The scorpion kick has now become an elite move and is very rare, even in professional soccer.
The characteristic Higuita is most known for is his unique playing style. In his time, goalkeepers were allowed to pick up the ball with their hands following passes from their own teammates. This rule meant that goalkeepers didn’t necessarily have to be technically skilled and didn’t use their feet as much. Most keepers stayed in the goal, not venturing forward very often at all. Higuita played a high-risk “sweeper-keeper” role, which he showcased by dribbling the ball out of his box instead of punting it off.
In his infamous 1990 World Cup loss against Cameroon, Higuita’s dribbling miscalculation may have cost his team a crucial match, but his style of play also helped develop the game productively. Instead of sitting back, Higuita came forward and assisted his team with building up the play. This style may have seemed foolish and impractical, but in reality, it laid the foundation for the future.
Higuita’s eccentric playstyle played a huge role in inspiring FIFA to change its rules. FIFA introduced the back-pass rule as a means to discourage time-wasting tactics that kill the momentum of the game in 1992. This rule established that goalkeepers aren’t able to pick up the ball following a backpass from their own teammates. Higuita liked to play the game offensively and productively instead of sitting back and watching or using time-wasting tactics. While it may have looked a little crazy watching a goalkeeper forget about his own net and dribbling players on the field, it was a step in the right direction. He laid the foundation for the “sweeper-keeper” playstyle which has been widely adopted by many of the best goalkeepers right now, such as Manuel Neuer and Marc-André ter Stegen. Higuita will forever be remembered for leaving his mark on soccer as the craziest goalkeeper in history.