Colombia legend Rene Higuita using 1990 World Cup blunder to fight coronavirus

The global campaign to contain the spread of the coronavirus has gained support from an unexpected but welcome quarter: former Colombia goalkeeper Rene Higuita.

On Saturday, a photo of one of the great goalkeeping blunders was doing the rounds on social media. In the 1990 World Cup, Higuita, as was his fashion, was dribbling with the ball well out of his goal. With the wisdom of age, veteran Cameroon striker Roger Milla (then 38) seized his moment, timed his challenge and sprinted away to score, ensuring that his side -- not Colombia -- went through to the last eight of the World Cup.

A lesson was drawn for today's perturbing times. Someone gave the photo a caption: "If you're told not to go out, don't go out!" Higuita saw the photo and, with his customary class, gave the campaign a boost. "If this photo serves to make people aware, I'm going to use it as well. Health comes first."

It is to his immense credit that Higuita never hid from his blunder. "It was a mistake as big as a house," he confessed back in 1990, after his team was eliminated. It was easier to own up because Higuita was well aware of his importance to the side. His method of playing slipped up on Colombia's big day, but they would not have come within reach of their first World Cup quarterfinal without him.

Some portrayed him as a clown, an exotic figure of fun. Instead, his ability to come out of his goal gave his team a clear tactical advantage. As Colombia coach Francisco Maturana put it, "We have something extra, very special, which makes the difference and raises the level of our team. It is called Rene Higuita, and we make as much use of it as possible ... with Rene acting as a sweeper, we effectively have 11 outfield players."

The Colombia team of the late 1980s and early '90s, built around the short passing game of Carlos Valderrama, had a clear influence of Holland in 1974. They were compact, positioning themselves high up the field, with the goalkeeper taking responsibility when the ball was played behind the defensive line. As Maturana made clear, "Higuita, or Jan Jongbloed, the Holland keeper in 1974, are sweepers. With a difference. The Dutchman did little more than come out and boot the ball into the stands. Higuita is much better with the ball at his feet."

There was, then, a South American twist on a European tactic: a desire to construct rather than merely be a pragmatic cog in a beautiful team. Here Higuita was working in a tradition established by Argentine innovator Amadeo Carrizo, who died Friday at the age of 93.

The all-time great ended his career at Millionarios in Colombia in the late 1960s but is best remembered in his native Argentina. He spent more than 20 years in goal for Buenos Aires giants River Plate and was the last line of defence of the famous "La Maquina" team of the late '40s and early '50s -- and its first line of attack. He was out of his goal playing the first pass forward or throwing out quickly to launch the counter. His birthday, June 12, became the Day of the Goalkeeper in Argentina. Carrizo, like Higuita after him, made it clear that the keeper can be a constructive force and not just an interrupter of the game. All those modern-day keepers, so proficient with their feet, owe him a debt.

Leaving the house might not be good advice in a pandemic, but nowadays, it is part of the responsibility of a top-class goalkeeper.