He was soccer’s most flamboyant, controversial and headline-grabbing goalkeeper of all time.
And as this summer’s World Cup begins to feature nail-biting goalie heroics and blunders of its own, commentators are resurrecting highlights of Colombian keeper René “El Loco” (“The Madman”) Higuita’s life and career.
On the field, there were nonsensical moves, such as this one he invented in a Colombia-England match in 1995, dubbed “the scorpion,” and, for perhaps obvious reasons, never tried before or since by a goalie in a major competitive match.
Off the field, he was even more controversial.
Higuita was an avowed close friend of the late Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar. In 1993, he was thrown in jail for allegedly carrying ransom money to free the daughter of drug baron Carlos Molina. Although Higuita was mysteriously released without charge seven months later, he missed the 1994 World Cup in the United States because he had been unable to adequately train while behind bars, according to soccer publication Goal.com.
With a bushy hairdo bigger than his wife’s, he was part of a generation of Colombian players known for their flair and controversy. He was a contemporary of the yellow-maned Carlos Valderrama, as well as Andrês Escobar (no relation to Pablo), who was gunned down execution style in 1994, days after committing a World Cup-ending own goal against the United States.
Late in Higuita’s career, he played in the Ecuadorian league, but in 2004 served a suspension after testing positive for cocaine, per Goal.com.
The next year, he became a local reality TV star on La isla de los famosos, Colombia’s answer to Survivor. He was also voted Colombia’s “ugliest icon” by TV viewers.
It must have hurt. While many international soccer players have been coy about whether they’ve had plastic surgery, Higuita changed his look in the most public way possible.
“I am tired of being ugly René,” he said before going under the knife live on the Colombian show Cambio Extremo, according to The Guardian. “I want to be handsome René.” His televised procedures included nose surgery, a chin implant, skin peels and eyelid cutaway, liposuction and muscle enhancement. A month later, he revealed the new him.
“Bodily, I am perfect,” he said.
After a stint as a goalkeeping coach in Saudi Arabia, he returned to his hometown club, Atlético Nacional, to coach its goalies.
After reports in 2017 that leaders of the former guerrilla group FARC wanted him to run for Congress in Colombia, Higuita demurred that he didn’t have the “academic preparation” for the role. But he has expressed an interest in becoming more active in politics.
Golden Ball meets Scorpion Kick . @higuitarene @OliverKahn pic.twitter.com/vED9uzSGsv
— FC Bayern US (@FCBayernUS) June 19, 2018
These days he can be seen on Twitter, cheering for Colombia, Peru and Mexico in the World Cup, and appearing as a guest commentator on German TV.
The Colombian national team, which could use an injection of Higuita’s bravado after its 2-1 loss to Japan on June 19, will play its second group-stage match against Poland. The game will be broadcast live this Sunday at 2 p.m. EST on Fox.