With little or no soccer news available to the public, FrontRowSoccer.com has decided to run some of its memorable feature stories and some of editor Michael Lewis’ favorite columns and features. This is a feature about Miguel Cuellar that he wrote for Soccer New York in 2000.
By Michael Lewis
On a field in Flushing Meadow Park in New York City this Saturday morning, Miguel Cuellar will address several hundred young, budding soccer players and their parents about a good and decent man he once knew.
He will tell them about the man’s character, about what type of a soccer player he was, about how he lived, and just as importantly, how he died.
Cuellar then will ask for a minute of silence for his fallen comrade, Andres Escobar.
Saturday is the sixth anniversary of Escobar’s death. The Colombian defender was gunned down outside a Medellin, Colombia, nightclub on July 2, 1994, days after accidentally scoring an own goal in the World Cup. Escobar, who was 27, was shot 12 times as one of the gunmen shouted, “Goal! Goal!”
FIFA president Sepp Blatter called that day “the saddest day I have ever witnessed in football.”
Escobar’s only crime was that he was guilty of trying too hard to stop an American offensive foray into the Colombian penalty area on June 21, 1994. U.S. midfielder John Harkes had sent a low drive from the left wing intended for midfielder Earnie Stewart. But the ball never got there.
Escobar, in a sliding attempt to clear the ball out of harm’s way, accidentally pushed the ball into his own net for the Americans’ first goal of what was to become a 2-1 upset.
The U.S. eventually went on to the second round. The Colombians went home in disgrace after they were eliminated several days later, and Escobar wound up paying the ultimate price.
That is where Cuellar came in. Cuellar, a 49-year-old sales manager for Duggan’s Distillers and the soccer director of Flushing Meadow Park in Queens, had started a youth soccer club — the New York Inter Soccer Institute — earlier in 1994.
On July 2, he had awakened early to listen to radio programs from his native Colombia. He was expecting to hear folk songs. What he heard was shocking — the details of Escobar’s death. Cuellar was so shaken he woke his wife. Later in the day, he decided to rename his fledgling club the Andres Escobar Soccer Institute.
The institute has 130 players on recreational and competitive teams in boys and girls age groups from four to 15. The players wear the green and white of Escobar’s old club, Nacional.
“He was a gentleman inside and outside the field,” Cuellar said. “That’s what we want to tell the kids.
“Soccer is only a game to enjoy. You have to learn to win, lose or draw. Some people can’t deal with losing a game.”
Escobar’s cousin, Ernesto Bencosmo, a 14-year-old defender who is a convert from baseball, has played with the club for three years.
“He was a good player,” Bencosmo said. “I didn’t think there was any reason for his death because many players have scored goals for the opposing team.
“I like to play soccer. I like to defend. I like to play where my cousin played. … Having the club named after my cousin meant a lot of me. It made me play more and play better.”
Bencosmo, who will enter his sophomore year at St. John’s Prep this fall, would love to play pro soccer someday.
“As long as it’s a professional career, it doesn’t matter where I play — the U.S. or Colombia,” said Bencosmo, whose favorite players are former Colombian World Cup captain and current Tampa Bay Mutiny midfielder Carlos Valderrama and New York/New Jersey MetroStars defender Mike Petke. “I’d love to play in MLS. I love the uniforms.”
Cuellar is proud of Bencosmo’s progress on and off the field.
“When he joined us, he didn’t know anything about soccer,” he said. “He will make it as a soccer player. He’s an A student.”
Several years ago, a rather eerie scenario took place during an indoor tournament.
Ernesto Bencosmo scored an own goal, just like his cousin.
“We had to talk to him,” Cuellar said. “We told him that every player makes mistakes and scores own goals. If he does it again, we will have to talk to him.”
Bencosmo will be one of the players at Flushing Meadow Park on Saturday; Cuellar is expecting several hundred people to show up. After a mass given by a local priest and Cuellar’s speech, a special under-11 boys game will be held between the Academy and Bolanos Soccer School. Both clubs participate in the MetroKids Interregional Soccer League (1,700 players and growing), which is operated by Cuellar.
In his talk, Cuellar will tell the players and their parents the story of Andres Escobar.
“I will say, ‘Remember who Andres Escobar was, as a player and a person,'” Cuellar said. “We would like to have kids play and act like Andres Escobar did in and outside the field. We will tell the kids that you don’t have to be a good player, but a good man outside the field.
“He is still in our minds and hearts.”
The Escobar Institute has branched out to Colombia, where it is in four cities, and to London.
The club’s goals are simple. “Even if they don’t become soccer players, they can get an education,” Cuellar said, “and to learn how to be a better man, a better person in life and to be a winner.”
Cuellar has been gratified when he sees the institute’s graduates move on to college.
“One of the fathers came up to me and tells me his son is going to North Carolina on a scholarship,” he said. “That touched my heart. It tells me that my time isn’t wasted.
“One day we’re going to see one of the kids from the Andres Escobar Institute in MLS.”
Cuellar understands his role in the soccer universe. He will continue to develop players and educate them and their parents about Escobar.
“Every year,” he said, “until I can’t do it.”