Memory Mission Hagi Plans to Sink Teeth in at Third Tournament Crashing Again; RUNS THE RULE OVER THE COUNTRIES THAT WILL STAND IN GLENN HODDLE,S WAY AT THE WORLD CUP FINALS NEXT SUMMER,ROMANIA World Ranking: 7 COLOMBIA World Ranking: 10 ,TUNISIA World Ranking: 23
Byline: KEIR RADNEDGE
HERNAN Dario Gomez walked away from the World Cup finals in the United States vowing never to return. He never again wanted to attend a World Cup, think about a World Cup or compete in a World Cup.
He felt he owed that much to the memory of Andres Escobar - the defender who had been shot dead because he put through his own goal against the United States.
Gomez says now: 'I had never known anything like it. I grew up thinking football was a game, a sport, an enjoyment. I was happier still when I found I could earn a living as a player then as a coach. It wasn't meant to be about winning at all costs . . . or death threats . . . or death itself.' At the 1994 finals, Gomez had been assistant to Pacho Maturana. It was known that Maturana was quitting after the finals. Gomez was favourite to take over.
At first he found the idea unbearable. Then the players started whispering in his ear: 'You've been with us in 1990 and 1994. You know us. We trust you.
It's what Escobar would have wanted.' So Colombia - and Gomez - return to the World Cup finals hoping to make amends for the tragic memories of 1994 - of a team frightened by death threats from home and protected by American secret service men whom they had been brought up to trust even less.
The Class of '94 will go back to the finals. This means Colombia will benefit from the weight of experience but they will suffer the fatigue induced by nervous tension and by the pressures of racing all over France for three group matches in a fortnight - each in a different city.
'I wonder if England are ready for that?' mused Gomez amid a huddle of Colombian journalists after the draw in Marseille.
Captain Carlos Valderrama, now 36 and recently celebrated as the first Colombian player to reach 100 caps, looks much the same as he did when he burst on to the international scene 10 years ago winning the South American Footballer of the Year award on the strength of a brilliant campaign at the Copa America in Argentina.
Alongside and around him will be more old favourites, such as midfielders Freddy Rincon and Antony De Avila and forward Adolfo 'The Train' Valencia.
All have scores to settle with football history.
Rincon was driven out of Real Madrid by the racial prejudice of rightwing Ultras, who spray-painted abusive slogans all over the perimeter walls of the Bernabeu stadium.
De Avila wants to show that South America's 5-2 thrashing of Europe in the all-star match which preceded the draw owed as much to his passing skills as to the goal-grabbing talents of Ronaldo and Gabriel Batistuta.
As for Valencia, he intends to prove that Bayern Munich and Atletico Madrid were wrong to cast him adrift four years ago as they did after barely half a season in first Germany then Spain.
De Avila also scored perhaps Colombia's most important goal in four years when he struck four minutes from time to give them a 1-0 win over Ecuador in the qualifying tie which had become crucial to their chances.
Colombia, unbeaten in their first seven games, had been runaway early leaders of the South American group but then found themselves being overhauled by their pursuers after losing to Argentina, Peru, Chile and Paraguay and drawing with Uruguay. They had picked up one point from a possible 15 and qualification hung in the balance.
Luck came to the rescue.
Ecuador had a clear penalty turned down in the first half, saw another good effort saved by Colombia goalkeeper Oscar Cordoba and were worthy of at least a point until De Avila struck. Subsequent home wins against Bolivia and Venezuela lifted Gomez's men into their third successive finals.
Newcastle striker Faustino Asprilla was their top scorer in the qualifiers with seven goals - six coming in the first five games, including a hat-trick in a 4-1 win over Chile.
But Colombia have not always been respectable World Cup finalists. …