Exactly 20 years ago Colombian goalkeeper René Higuita produced possibly the most famous save ever seen during an England match. His spectacular ‘scorpion kick’ clearance meant an early season goalless friendly in front of a sparse crowd at Wembley would forever be remembered.
They say all goalkeepers are crazy but South Americans tend to take the old adage a step further. The likes of Ramón Quiroga (Peru) and José Luis Chilavert (Paraguay) attracted plenty of global attention with their antics, but ‘sweeper keeper’ René Higuita of Colombia was on another level altogether. During Italia ’90 he infamously lost possession when attempting to dribble the ball out and was punished by Cameroon’s Roger Milla. He chipped in with a few goals at the other end during his career and led a rather colourful personal life, spending time in prison for his part in a kidnapping case. And the save he made against England capped it all, illustrating both his unpredictability and the extent of talent.
Stayaways miss a special moment
By September 1995, England fans were starting to get a little tired of the never-ending stream of Wembley friendlies as they endured a long wait for Euro ’96. This was reflected in the meagre attendance of 20,000 for Colombia’s visit, with even that figure viewed as generous by some. In The Guardian, reporter Richard Williams wrote: “If there were in reality even half the officially reported number of 20,000 spectators in the stadium it would be a surprise.”
There had also been a lot of stayaways too when Colombia previously visited Wembley in 1988 in the Rous Cup. But those that turned up had witnessed a treat, getting a first glimpse of players such as Higuita and the similarly distinctive Carlos Valderrama and witnessing some delightful stuff from the visitors. Their scorer in the 1-1 draw that night had been Andrés Escobar, but he was tragically no longer alive when Colombia returned to Wembley – being shot dead shortly after returning home from scoring an own goal during the 1994 World Cup against hosts USA, a tournament which saw the Colombians fall a long way short of meeting their pre-tournament billing. Higuita had missed the tournament after his stint in prison. By September 1995 he was back playing for his country, although his arrival in England was delayed by issues over his passport. There was rarely a dull moment with him.
England played out several goalless friendlies under Terry Venables and this one would easily stand out as the best and most memorable. Although Colombia’s style of play would bear little relation to what England would face in the Euro finals or World Cup qualifiers after that, this match still proved a fully worthwhile exercise and a good learning curve. Jamie Redknapp made his debut, while Steve McManaman and Nick Barmby were handed their first starts on a night that saw John Barnes end his long England career on 79 caps. Despite the lack of goals on the night, it was a fairly encouraging attacking display and entertaining stuff as England hit the woodwork three times. At the other end, Faustino Asprilla went close just a few months before he joined Newcastle United. But really the only true talking point afterwards was Higuita and THAT save.
As Higuita was shown in a close up shot during the first half, BBC commentator Barry Davies described the goalkeeper as “a character in every sense”, adding that “it’s amazing they managed to keep him in jail for four months where he was”. It proved good timing, as just moments later Redknapp floated the ball goalwards. Higuita seized his moment. To the astonishment of the crowd and television audience, the goalkeeper rejected the chance to make a simple catch. Instead he allowed the ball to go over his head as he dived head first, spectacularly clearing it from behind him using both his feet.
It seemed the instinctive reaction of everyone was to laugh. Higuita did; commentator Davies did; England assistant manager Bryan Robson was filmed chortling on the bench; many in the crowd and those watching on television did; and one assumes the other clown prince on the field, Paul Gascoigne (who gave one of his best England performances post-Italia ’90), also saw the funny side. The move had taken everyone by surprise and quickly became a ‘did you see that?’ moment. We’ve seen it replayed so often since that perhaps it doesn’t seem that incredible now, but at the time it definitely was.
“Usually to refer to a donkey on a football field is not being very pleasant but how else do you describe that?” asked a giggling Davies, no doubt recalling a famous free-kick he saw Coventry City score in 1970. But there was to be another term altogether that would quickly enter the English football vocabulary. This was the ‘scorpion kick’ and it would be synonymous with Higuita. It was to be his version of the Cruyff turn. He wasn’t particularly modest when he told the press that night: “It’s the sort of thing only one person can do. I have a massive repertoire but I don’t plan them ahead.”
But to a certain extent the move had been pre-planned, although Higuita had no idea when he would execute it. In an interview in 2012 he reflected: “Children have always been my inspiration. I always saw them in the street or 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.”
Offside or not?
It has often correctly been pointed out that the linesman’s flag went up as the ball made its way towards Higuita and he may therefore have seen it as a good time to show off his party piece. But the crucial thing here is that the whistle did not sound and play continued after his unprecedented clearance was made. As Scott Murray and Rowan Walker point out in the book Day of the Match: A History of Football in 365 days: “Some naysayers point out that the linesman had put his flag up for offside – but the referee never blew his whistle and the game continued without stoppage. Had the ball gone in, the goal would have stood.”
And this is perhaps what makes Higuita’s actions all the more audacious. He took a risk knowing there was a good chance he would concede a goal if it went wrong. Had he completely mistimed it then it would have looked almost as though he let the goal in on purpose, so simple was the effort he had to deal with. It’s impossible to imagine his opposite number that night, David Seaman, contemplating trying such a trick – nor really anyone else who has ever played in goal for England, including the more eccentric types such as David James. English goalkeepers tend to hate the remotest prospect of conceding a goal and wouldn’t dare try out anything like that – friendly match or not.
“A character in every sense,” said commentator Barry Davies on the night.
Taking the risk is perhaps what marked Higuita out as being on a different level to other goalkeepers. He had a trick he wanted to share and was willing to potentially concede a goal to try and show it off. He got it right and the reaction that greeted it – coupled with many trying to recreate it in schools and parks in the coming weeks and months – meant it had been most certainly worthwhile. As if to prove it was no fluke, he repeated the move in an exhibition match in 2012.
Being a free spirit, one assumes Higuita was not the easiest player in the world to manage. He was the polar opposite of, say, Pat Jennings – a great international goalkeeper with Northern Ireland who just quietly went about his business in keeping out the opposition. As pundit Alan Hansen joked when assessing Higuita’s scorpion kick that night, “he makes [Bruce] Grobbelaar look like a bore”. Higuita’s mistake during Italia ’90 had clearly not deterred him from taking avoidable risks. But football is always more fun when it has born entertainers on the field who can pull off the spectacular every so often – Higuita certainly did that and on a September night 20 years ago he produced an audacious move that would never be forgotten.
Blogging about the history of the England national football team, particularly in the 1980s and 1990s.