Players come and go, fortunes wax and wane, but some scores last as if locked in amber.
Twenty-four years ago, Colombia carved apart an Argentina side containing Fernando Redondo, Diego Simeone and Gabriel Batistuta with the speed and certainty of a churrasco waiter on the clock.
5-0. In Buenos Aires. In a match that was effectively a play-off for automatic qualification to the 1994 World Cup. It was the creation myth behind a team. Colombia were suddenly left-field contenders, the unknown upstarts poised to sideswipe world football’s big beasts.
The dark horses had some familiar figureheads. String-pulling playmaker Carlos Valderrama – with an afro from Soul Train and a moustache like Shaft – was the stateside pioneer as a marquee name in early Major League Soccer. Faustino Asprilla – a mink-coated purveyor of bandy-legged brilliance – was the European face, featuring in both Parma and Newcastle’s headiest days.
But of Freddy Rincon, you hear less.
He scored twice in that famous rout of Argentina. Three years earlier, at Italia 1990, he had drilled a low finish between the legs of Bodo Illgner to secure a dramatic draw against eventual champions West Germany. The careers of Valderrama and, particularly, Asprilla are often retold as roguish capers in which lavish talent bought leeway for off-field excesses. Rincon’s is a trickier tale.
For him, the cocaine-fuelled criminality of early ’90s Colombia is not just a backdrop adding a bit of colour to a kaleidoscopic character. The realities of Colombia’s underworld era have been inescapable. Even as Argentina were being put to the sword, Rincon had been on the Rodriguez Orejuela brothers’ payroll for three years. He was not part of the Cali cartel, a vast drug-running network that controlled 80% of the world’s cocaine. Instead Rincon was at the other end of Miguel and Gilberto’s operation.
Miguel, the older, more strategic sibling, had a passion for football and in 1979 invested some of his first profits into buying America de Cali – his hometown club. It was not an unusual move. As recently as 2013 Millonarios fans flew flags bearing the face of notorious drugs baron Gonzalo Rodríguez Gacha, who owned the Bogota club during the 1980s. Fellow kingpin Pablo Escobar poured some of his gains into Atletico Nacional in Medellín.
As one of America’s star players, Rincon’s professional future depended on the whims of these rich, dangerous men.
“They were the owners of the club. They were in charge and we obeyed,” he told Fox Sports earlier this year. “The two of them had already prevented me from leaving the club on a few occasions. But in 1994 Palmeiras’s offer came in and I asked them to let me go to Brazil because playing outside of Colombia was a dream for me. I was surprised that they released me when they had rejected other offers.”
Rincon insists that he never felt threatened by the Cali cartel during his time at America de Cali. But playing for Colombia was a different matter. The national team was an uneasy alliance of club, and therefore cartel, factions at narco-football’s height. The emphatic win over Argentina raised expectations and stakes.
“Many of us received notes warning us what would happen if we did badly,” Rincon told Sabotage Times as he described the run-up to the finals in the USA. “Suddenly, everyone wanted to know about us. Many people told us we could win the tournament, and we started to believe them. Instead of working hard, some of the players decided to party. That’s when many of the club owners and directors got angry. All of us were absolutely shitting ourselves with fear.”
As Colombia’s campaign stuttered, stalled and spiralled with defeats to Romania and the United States, the players found the usual welcome message on their hotel televisions replaced with cryptic threats. When their elimination was confirmed many prolonged their time stateside with holidays to Las Vegas or Disneyland, reluctant to return to Colombia.
Defender Andres Escobar didn’t. He faced up to both the media and his countrymen in the wake of his own goal against the United States. A month later he was shot dead in the car park of a Medellin night club.
Rincon’s post-1994 club career was forged away from home. In the summer of 1995, an impressive loan stint at Napoli convinced Argentine manager Jorge Valdano to add Rincon to a South American enclave at Real Madrid that included Redondo and Chile striker Ivan Zamorano.
But for the club’s right-wing Ultras Sur hardcore, Rincon’s black skin and the particular troubles of his country were a tipping point. Racist death threats were sprayed onto the walls of the Bernabeu. “Valdano only buys sudacas,” read another message, using an offensive slang for South Americans.
Four months later, Valdano was gone. And after just one season, nine league starts and one goal, Rincon too had left. But the Ultras Sur had not heard the last of him.
Four years later at the 2000 World Club Championship in Brazil, with Corinthians 1-0 up on Al Nassr with nine minutes to go, Rincon strode past the Saudi Arabian side’s defence and laced a second under the goalkeeper. The strike took his team to the final on goal difference, simultaneously condemning Real Madrid to the ignominy of a third-place play-off.
“It was the most important goal of my career and one I will never forget because of what it meant,” said Rincon as the party began around him at full-time. “I did not at any moment think of eliminating Real Madrid for revenge.”
Rincon knows such motivations should be saved for more serious slights. He was born in Buenaventura, Colombia’s main Pacific port and the gateway through whichever sizeable slice of the country’s illegal exports used to pass. So too was Pablo Rayo-Montano. A childhood friend of Rincon’s and heir to a family fishing business, he opted instead for the more lucrative trade that was taking off around him.
By the time the United States’ Drug Enforcement Administration caught up with him in 2006, Rayo-Montano’s smuggling operation was effectively a rogue navy operating off both coasts with shipments even carried in submarines dragged behind apparently innocent trawlers. Forty-seven tonnes of cocaine, nine houses, six cars, three yachts and a string of Panamanian Islands were seized as Operation Twin Seas nailed its man.
Amid the paperwork appeared Rincon’s name.
He had been invited to the opening of Nautipesca, a Panamanian front company for Rayo-Montano that cleaned up illegal profits by way of surprisingly cheap boat and fishing supplies. Rincon, who admitted that he had met Rayo-Montano in Brazil where we was coaching with lower-league Sao Bento, was held for 123 days in a São Paulo prison on charges of money laundering before being released without charge.
Eight years later, that connection was a shackle he still could not slip. In April 2015, Interpol issued a red notice demanding his arrest to answer similar charges over the same case in Panama. More than a year later, he was cleared once again.
“I know that revenge is not the perfect feeling, but I will not forgive those who made my family suffer so much,” Rincon said earlier this year.
Asked if had watched Narcos – the Netflix series based on Colombia’s kingpins – Rincon said he hadn’t. “This is a reality, but it is terrible that people know us for this. We have other things in Colombia, not only drug smuggling.”
After a lifetime trying to unpick the personal from the product, pushers and foreign prejudice that has followed Colombia’s cocaine war, it is not a new problem for Rincon.