The Scorpion King: The extraordinary career of Rene Higuita

20 years on from his famous ‘Scorpion Kick’, we celebrate the crazy career of the man they call El Loco.

Peter Iantorno September 6, 2015

It is the sixth of September 1995, and Colombia are playing an international friendly match against England in front of a crowd of more than 60,000 people at Wembley Stadium.

With the game goalless, England midfielder Jamie Redknapp loops a speculative shot towards goal from range, seemingly destined for Colombian goalkeeper Rene Higuita’s open arms. However, what happens next shocks everyone in the stadium.

Instead of simply catching the ball, Higuita elects to perform a flamboyant aerial manoeuvre, jumping high off the ground and throwing his legs backwards over his head to clear the ball off the goal line with his heels. The Scorpion Kick is born.

"Human beings are always remembered for their great work, and that was what it was," he told Spanish newspaper Mundo Deportivo some years after his famous Wembley moment.

"Children have always been my inspiration. I always saw them in the street or in a 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!"

Although it later emerged that the linesman had raised his flag so the goal wouldn't have counted anyway, the extraordinary move went on to define the career of Higuita. Yet even before his Wembley acrobatics, he had earned a reputation for eccentricity.

Perhaps unsurprisingly for a player who would ultimately go on to score 41 career goals, he started his career as a striker at Colombian side Millonarios FC. After netting seven goals in 16 appearances, an injury crisis at the club meant that the team desperately needed a stand-in goalkeeper, and the confident Higuita was the man for the job.

He showed such a flair for goalkeeping that he promptly earned himself a transfer to Atletico Nacional and a call-up to the Colombian national team, quickly establishing himself as number one for club and country. But while Higuita’s goalkeeping talent was obvious, it was his constant refusal to conform to the typical role of a goalkeeper that he became known for.

The level of skill and confidence that the shaggy-haired keeper showed was superior to most outfield players, and as a result he would often go on marauding runs past opposition strikers, leaving his goal completely open.

Higuita was also a supremely talented set-piece taker, and whenever his team won a free-kick or penalty, he would do everything he could to make sure he was the taker. It was no surprise to see him affectionately nicknamed El Loco ('The Madman').

It was a revolutionary style of play, which at times gave his Colombia side a huge advantage, as the whole team could press higher up the pitch, knowing that Higuita was willing and able to play as a sweeper behind them.

“He gives us something no one else has, and we take full advantage,” said Colombia coach Francisco Maturana on the importance of his goalkeeper ahead of the 1990 World Cup. “With Rene as sweeper, we have eleven outfield players.”

Of course, there are inherent risks to a style of play such as this, and ironically, they were exposed shortly after Maturana’s comment, when in the second game of the 1990 World Cup, Higuita was dispossessed while trying to dribble around Cameroon’s Roger Milla, leaving the striker to race away and slot the ball home into an empty net.

Highest-scoring goalkeepers of all time

  • Rogerio Ceni - Brazil - 130 goals.
  • Jose Luis Chilavert - Paraguay - 62 goals.
  • Dimitar Ivankov - Bulgaria - 42 goals.
  • Rene Higuita - Colombia - 41 goals.
  • Jhonny Vegas Fernandez - Peru - 39 goals.

The goal won the game for Cameroon and sent Colombia crashing out of the tournament. However, instead of being vilified for making the decisive mistake, Higuita was praised by his boss, who said that he was simply “expressing the Colombian soul”.

For his part Higuita was equally bullish, claiming that although his error was “a mistake as big as a house”, he would not change his style of play, as it was crucial to the team.

It was an admirable show of self-confidence, and one that could have possibly averted the tragedy that followed Colombia’s exit at the next World Cup four years later.

In the run-up to the tournament Colombia were flying high, and on a run of just one defeat in 34 games with an imperious Higuita at the heart of the team’s success. However, after getting embroiled in a kidnapping case involving notorious drug lord Pablo Escobar, Colombia’s star man suddenly found himself in jail and therefore out of the World Cup.

While Higuita was eventually cleared of any charges and released after seven months inside, the Colombia team simply wasn’t the same without its star, and the team went out with a whimper in the group stages.

But things were to get much worse for Colombia, as just days after the country's World Cup exit, defender Andres Escobar, who scored the own goal that knocked the team out of the tournament, was murdered.

Drug cartels were running amok in the country, and after a major cartel lost heavily on betting on the outcome of the game, it dispensed an enforcer to take revenge on the player deemed responsible for the defeat. Had Colombia's talisman Higuita been allowed to help his team, who knows how different the outcome might have been.

Imagine then, what kind of a person would attempt an audacious and entirely unnecessary overhead goal line clearance just a year after the murder of Escobar, with the country in turmoil and most Colombian players still fearing for their lives every time they stepped on the pitch? El Loco, of course.

They say all goalkeepers are a bit crazy, and while Higuita surely has to be crazier than most, his supreme confidence, incredible strength of character and pure sense of showmanship at a time when most people would have shied away into the background has to be admired.