On 5 September 1993 Argentina welcomed Colombia to the intimidating Estadio Monumental, home of River Plate, located in the Nuñez district of Buenos Aires. Going into the final fixture of the CONMEBOL World Cup qualifying group, the visitors led by one point, and knew that a victory or even a draw would seal their place at the upcoming USA 1994 tournament. However, despite their form in the qualifying thus far, the odds were stacked against them: Argentina had never lost a World Cup qualifier on home soil ahead of the game.
The stakes couldn’t be higher with the team finishing second place in the group facing a gruelling two-legged tie against the winners of the Oceania section, Australia. To compound matters, were Argentina to do the unthinkable and lose, a Paraguay victory over Peru by a certain margin would dump La Albiceleste out of the running altogether.
In the days before FIFA’s controversial ranking systems Argentina were clearly one of the best sides in the world. During the previous seven years they’d reached two World Cup finals – winning in 1986 – won successive Copa America’s, and were the holders of what would become known as the Confederation’s Cup. 1993 Copa America champions Sergio Goycochea, Oscar Ruggeri, Jorge Borelli, Ricardo Altimirano, Gustavo Zapata, Diego Simeone, Fernando Redondo, and Gabriel Batistuta were all in the starting line up for the hosts against Colombia. Diego Maradona, out of sorts and out of favour, would watch the game from the stands.
Led by the stylish and frizzy-haired Carlos Valderrama, the Colombians were no slouches, however, and were unbeaten in the five previous matches in qualification prior to this night.
The players were greeted by the traditional Estadio Monumental tickertape welcome, with the Colombians forced to wait by their Argentine hosts. The first 41 minutes of the game were goalless until Freddy Rincón broke the deadlock. After a long Colombian throw-in was headed out of defence, Valderrama picked up the ball, threading it through to Rincón. The striker took the ball in his stride and showed lighting pace to beat the defender before rounding the goalkeeper and finishing into the empty net.
Five minutes into the second half and the picture began to look bleak for the Argentine’s as the visitors doubled their lead. With only 40 minutes remaining, Argentina now needed three goals to qualify automatically for the World Cup. Rincón turned provider, sending a lovely diagonal ball into the path of Faustino Asprilla. A deft touch was followed by a dummy, confusing Jorge Borelli and providing Asprilla with the space to then finish through the legs of Sergio Goycochea. The flamboyant forward’s trademark cartwheel celebration, familiar to fans of Newcastle United, followed.
Despite a couple of chances, as the game wore on the Argentine players appeared increasingly demoralised, allowing the Colombians to run riot. Rincón grabbed his second after 74 minutes, mishitting a volley into the ground and wrong footing Goycochea in the Argentine goal.
Two minutes later Asprilla joined Rincón by adding a second to his personal tally to make it 4-0 to Colombia. Asprilla, then playing for Parma in Italy’s Serie A, pounced on a mistake by Borelli before sumptuously lifting the ball over Goycochea’s head, undoubtedly the goal of the match. Such was the beauty of the strike and the magnitude of the occasion, the Colombians celebrated as if they’d just won the World Cup, with both players and staff members from the bench creating a massive celebratory pile-on.
With approximately five minutes left on the clock, the Colombians did the unthinkable and made it 5-0. A sublime disguised pass from Asprilla fooled three Argentine defenders and played in Adolfo Valencia, who coolly slipped the ball past Goycochea to complete the rout.
Argentina’s monthly sports magazine El Gráfico ran with the headline ¡Vergüenza! (which translates as shame, embarrassment, or disgrace) and posed questions such as “Should Basile resign?” and “Maradona: guilty or innocent?” A photo of Valderrama, one of the stars of the show, was accompanied by the words “This is how you play football.”
Manager Alfio Basile ultimately kep his job, remarking following the defeat: “I never want to think about that match again.” “It was a crime against nature,” he continued “a day when I wanted to dig a hole in the ground and bury myself in it.”
Argentina overcame their play-off tie against Australia; a 1-1 draw in Sydney before a narrow 1-0 victory back in Buenos Aires sealed their place, alongside fellow South Americans Colombia, Bolivia, and Brazil, at the World Cup.
For both nations the 1994 World Cup ended in infamy. Argentina qualified from their group but were knocked out in the last 16 thanks to a Gheorghe Hagi-inspired Romania. However, this tournament would spell the end of Diego Maradona’s 17-year international career after another failed drugs test. Following a 4-0 thrashing of Greece, in which Maradona scored a left-footed thunderbolt before celebrating wildly in front of a camera, he tested positive for ephedrine and was never to wear the Argentina shirt again.
Colombia’s performance at the World Cup belied their record in qualifying and especially their special night at the Monumental when they recorded one of the most shocking upsets in international football history. The Colombians exited at the group stage in lackluster fashion, finishing bottom of the group with only three points. During a 2-1 defeat to the hosts USA in Pasadena’s Rose Bowl, ill-fated defender Andres Escobar scored an own goal. He was rewarded by tragically being gunned down ten days later in his home town of Medellin.
For Argentina the night of 5 September 1993 will never be forgotten, for all the wrong reasons, and is without doubt one of the worst nights in the history of the national team. They have regained their impressive home record however, losing only two competitive games on home soil in the intervening 24 years.