Have you ever read, or heard, anything about René Higuita? He was a wild, crazy and spectacular goalkeeper from Colombia who changed the way an entire generation viewed soccer. People called him “El Loco,” which means “the crazy one,” because he was so reckless on the field. Could you imagine a goalkeeper dribbling three or four players in a row? As crazy as it seems, Higuita made it possible.
Youngsters might think Pep Guardiola was revolutionary, making Victor Valdés part of the team’s mechanics as a defender. But truth to be told, the revolution began in Latin America in the 1980s, with goalkeepers flashing fantastic on-field skills: José Luis Chilavert (who scored a massive amount of goals from free kicks), Rogério Ceni (an awesome free kick and penalty shooter) and of course, René Higuita.
In high school Higuita was his team’s top scorer, but in a game at which Independiente de Medellín’s scouts were present, his team’s goalkeeper was injured and Higuita took over in the net. After the scouts saw him his destiny changed forever. After that day René Higuita became a goalkeeper, and eventually was recognized as one of the best in history, not just in Colombia but throughout Latin America.
A simple search will tell you Higuita wasn’t a typical winner. He won the Colombian National Tournament just once, the Copa Libertadores once and the Copa Interamericana twice. He was great at keeping a clean sheet but that wasn’t his trademark.
So you may think: why is this guy a big deal? Higuita is remembered thanks to his skills with the ball at his feet: he could dribble like Lionel Messi and score incredible goals. When he played, everyone knew they were in for a show. He was outgoing and outlandish.
Thanks to him, people started to believe that the roles on the field could be different. He changed the way the whole world saw the sport.
Recently we’ve seen greater use of a false 9, goalkeepers playing as defenders, and many other tactics that were not possible to imagine before Higuita. Call me crazy, but he defines a “before” and an “after” in soccer, even if he created that line very quietly. Higuita may not be as recognized as he should be, but to those who loved soccer he was a delight.
His professional career began at Millonarios (yes, the same team where Alfredo Di Stéfano played after River and before his jump to Spain) but it wasn’t until 1986, when he moved to Atlético Nacional, that his success really began. In 1989 he landed his biggest achievement, the Copa Libertadores.
El Loco was an incredible dribbler who could leave the opposition on that floor, dribbling his way to the opposite end of the field – but he was also an awesome penalty stopper. In that Copa Libertadores final against Olimpia, he stopped the first penalty (taken by the other keeper), scored his own, then he wore his superhero cape and stopped three kicks in a row, keeping Nacional alive until Olimpia threw away its last kick. That night René became a true hero. What’s more, Higuita led his squad to the first Copa victory for a Colombian team.
He really became “El Loco” at the 1990 World Cup. It had been nearly 30 years since Colombia appeared at the tournament, but they made it through to the knockout rounds. The team beat the United Arab Emirates and, thanks to an incredible game from Higuita, held West Germany to a draw. They couldn’t stop Yugoslavia, but René saved a penalty that kept Colombia’s goal difference at +1, taking them to the next stage.
His antics killed Colombia’s hopes, though. With his team losing 1-0 to Cameroon, Higuita had the ball at his feet and – as he so often did – decided to attempt to dribble past everyone on the field. But he didn’t know Roger Milla had played previously with Carlos “El Pibe” Valderrama at Montpellier, and so knew how well Higuita liked to dribble the ball. Milla, then 38 years old, stole the ball from El Loco and scored on an empty net.
El Loco didn’t go to the United States for the 1994 World Cup, however. Like many other Latin American players back then, he led a wild life off the pitch. He was friends with the notorious Pablo Escobar, and in 1993 was implicated in a kidnapping involving the drug baron. Higuita assisted by delivering ransom money, for which he was paid, which is a crime in Colombia. He spent seven months in jail before being released without charge.
His crazy attitude on the field was both a blessing and a curse.
In 1995 Higuita helped Atlético Nacional to another Copa Libertadores final but they failed to win against Grêmio. However, that year is better remembered as the year Higuita invented the Scorpion.
When it comes to legendary moves, the Scorpion clearance is right up there with the Panenka penalty kick. It’s both one of the best and the most risky plays in the history of soccer – which explains why Higuita first worked on it during an advertisement for a Colombian soda.
But he made it famous during a friendly against the England national team at Wembley. Jamie Redknapp sent the ball in, but when El Loco noticed the referee had the offside flag up, he went for it, jumping forward, lifting his feet over his head and clearing the ball with his heels.
He later said, “I knew he was offside so I tried it, if the ball passed it wouldn’t have been a goal, but I actually stopped and I saw how the referee pulled down his flag, then I heard the weirdest sound I have ever listened and the ovation started.”
While a couple of players have managed to score using the Scorpion, no goalkeeper in any major league has ever successfully stopped a goal using the play.
So, what is the legacy of René Higuita? His scandals? The penalties he stopped? No, it’s his wild heart. His 44 goals in official games, his impossible plays, the Scorpion, his dribbling far away from the net. He was a genius and, like almost every genius throughout history, he was a little “Loco”.