1989 was an excellent year for Colombian football. It began with Atlético Nacional's first ever Copa Libertadores victory and later the national team booked their World Cup spot for the first time since 1962. These achievements exposed the world to several talented Colombian players like Carlos Valderrama, Rene Higuita and Andres Escobar, who were familiar mostly in South America.
However, the average football fan wasn't really familiar with the name of Albeiro Usuriaga, a Colombian striker who was responsible for these achievements no less than the players mentioned above. He was one of the most talented players back then, but just like other cases, he let his problematic character to influence him, to miss a much more impressive career and eventually to end his life at such a young age.
Usuriaga was born on June 13, 1966 in Cali and started to play Basketball due to the fact that he was relatively tall. When he turned 18 his height was 1.92 meters but then he started to play football and knew that the most popular game should be his future. Despite his height he was endowed with speed, very impressive technique and a soft touch which provided him the nickname "El Palomo", The Pigeon.
He started his professional career in America de Cali at the age of 20. In his debut match at Estadio El Campin, Usuriaga scored a goal and was the best player against Independiente Santa Fe. Three years later he moved to Atlético Nacional and had the best year in his career with coaches Francisco Maturana and Hernan Dario Gomez, who simultaneously coached the national team as well.
He was one of the main factors in Nacional's Copa Libertadores campaign that concluded with winning the title for the first time. At the second leg of the semifinal against the Uruguayan side Danubio, Usuriaga showed his qualities by scoring four goals and Nacional demolished their rival 6-0. At the final against the Paraguayan side, Olimpia, Usuriaga scored the goal that equalized the aggregate score and also scored during the penalty shootout.
Usuriaga became one of the rising stars in the country, while the national team searched for their first World Cup appearance since 1962. In order to qualify to 1990 World Cup, Colombia finished as the group winner and had to defeat Israel in the playoff. The first leg was played in Barranquilla and Colombia dominated completely but couldn't score, mostly because of the Israeli goalkeeper, Bonny Ginzburg, who was unbeatable that game. Coach Maturana looked frustrated and decided to bring Usuriaga at the second half. In the 73rd minute, Usuriaga managed to give Colombia the lead after an excellent play with Luis Fajardo. After a goalless second leg in Israel, Colombia qualified to the World Cup and the fans of the Latin country were beyond joy. Unfortunately, it was the first and last goal of El Palomo in the national team.
Usuriaga wasn't called up for 1990 World Cup by coach Maturana because of severe discipline problems which were an integral part of his life. His first and only European experience was back in 1990 while he played for Malaga, but he returned to America de Cali after one disappointing year. He was one of the best players in the team that was coached by Francisco Maturana and helped them to win the league. He was called up for the Copa América 1991, but this was his last appearance with the national team. In 1994 he moved to Independiente and soon became the fans' idol. During that year he led the club to win the championship, Recopa Sudamericana and Supercopa Sudamericana but once again, his character was his biggest enemy.
Discipline problems, Drugs and Jail
After his convincing period with Independiente and the appointment of Hernan Dario Gomez as the head coach of Colombia, Usuriaga had another opportunity to return to the national team but he managed to ruin this chance as well. He was involved with so many scandals and discipline problems during his career when his biggest loss was not being part of Colombia's World Cup campaign in 1990. The reason was never officially confirmed, but there are rumors that Usuriaga was expelled after he was caught stealing from his teammates. At the end, he missed a huge chance to perform on the biggest stage.
He was also an alcohol addict and had few unusual incidents like his arrest after stealing a motorcycle, involvement with street fights and even being sent to prison for 18 months due to hitting a policeman. In 1997 he returned to Independiente to revive his career but he was banned for two years after testing positive for cocaine.
When the ban was over, he tried to play for several South American clubs but failed to play in the same level. In 1999, on top of all that, his career received a huge blow when his wife, Eliana, was murdered. Usuriaga couldn’t revive his playing career afterwards, and that is mainly attributed to the fact that he didn’t know how to get over his personality issues. As a person who grew up in “Doce de Octubre", a poor and crime-ridden neighborhood, that mentality stayed with him and provided a demon he couldn’t overcome.
The Jealousy Cut “El Palomo’s” Wings
At the end of 2003, Usuriaga left Venezuelan club, Carabobo, and returned to his neighborhood. While waiting for an offer from China, Usuriaga spent most of his time with his childhood friends. In this time he usually sat in the street corner near his house, played cards or domino and drank beer.
The night of February 11, 2004 wasn’t different for him until 7:20 PM. Suddenly, a motorcycle stopped near them when an armed person holding two 9mm shotguns came closer to Albeiro and pulled the trigger. Albeiro has been shot 13 times and when he was already dead at the moment he arrived to the hospital. His murder shocked the country and brought back the horrible memories from Andres Escobar’s murder 10 years earlier.
At first, the police thought that the motivation for the murder was the fact that Usuriaga was a witness to another murder that happened in the neighborhood several days earlier. He saw five people who were murdered in a Taxi and among them was his friend, Javier Vera. Usuriaga’s mother, Esther Lopez Moreno, said in an interview that several hours before her son died, he received threatening phone calls. When she asked him why he was so harsh with his “cards friend” over the phone, he said: “They murdered Vera but you can relax, nothing will happen to me”. Only later it will be known that this phone call was actually made by the person that was behind his death.
The investigation was closed in July 2005 after the police couldn’t find the person who killed Usuriaga. Only three years after the incident, the prosecutor office published the real motivation for the murder. The responsible for the murder was Jefferson Valdes Marin, the leader of the hit men group called “Molina”. Apparently Marin had an affair with Usuriaga’s wife and had a baby together in 2004. The jealousy of Valdes Marin in Usuriaga and his will to be with Usuriaga’s wife made his decision to kill the footballer. Since he knew that Usuriaga is famous, he decided to send someone else to do the dirty job for him. He decided to hire a black skinny young man, who can freely hang out in the neighborhood. Mauricio Colorado Roldan, a member of Marin’s hit men group, was chosen and did the job. Two years later, Valdes Marin himself was murdered by a person from his own gang.
Usuriaga missed a huge opportunity to become to one of the best footballers in the history of Colombia and maybe the region. But his friends and the neighborhood always pulled him back. He thought that the world starts and ends in Doce de Octubre without the will to get out from there, his death was just a matter of time. Unfortunately, the death came too fast, just before his 38th birthday. But it was the legendary Argentine coach, Cesar Luis Menotti, who guided him in Independiente and described him in the best way: “It seemed that the only person who didn’t know what Usuriaga was capable to do was Usuriaga himself”. As for the fans, they will always remember him with his naughty smile, Albeiro who brought them many moments of joy.