The term “sweeper keeper” might not be unfamiliar to people who follow modern-day football, but back in the late 80s and early 90s, the idea of a goalkeeper getting out of the post and trying to contribute to goal-scoring by marching forward was unimaginable. And then there was René Higuita, the legendary Colombian goalkeeper, who made it a point to do it, which subsequently changed the course of the game. The latest Netflix documentary Higuita: The Way of the Scorpion puts the same man in the middle, but instead of telling his life story in a structural manner, it plays out just like René used to on the field. Let us take a closer look.
Who Was René Higuita?
The answer to that question would be “one of the most colorful characters ever to play the sport”. Arguably one of the greatest Colombian footballers, Higuita’s style of goalkeeping was something that the world had never seen before. At merely five foot seven inches, he did not fall into the usual six-foot goalie structure. But that only made the man strive for more. He wanted to do more by pulling off the unthinkable—leaving his own post and moving forward in order to score a goal for his side. Not only did it work out, but Higuita ended his career with the record for most goals scored by a keeper. In a career that takes off as early as 1984 and ends as late as 2009, Higuita managed to make his country qualify for the World Cup (in the 1990 edition) after twenty-eight years, won the prestigious Copa Libertadores (the UEFA champions league equivalent in the South American football circuit) with Atletico Nacional, and most importantly, inspired a lot of Colombians to believe that anything is possible. During the 1990 World Cup, he also played an instrumental role in changing a certain rule involving goalkeepers picking up the ball with their hands instead of playing it with their feet. It is widely regarded now as the “Higuita” rule.
But René Higuita was more than just a great footballer. Would you imagine a celebrity risking his life to rescue a girl from kidnappers? Higuita not only did that; he ended up in prison for it. Yet he said that he would not stop doing such things. Whenever his team used to lose, the man shielded everyone and took the blame. When the team won, Higuita never failed to share the credit with everyone. The man didn’t even know that he had a daughter until she was ten. But when he did, Higuita immediately made it a point to be part of Cindy’s (the daughter’s) life. The man has no shortage of good deeds and is justifiably loved by everyone, from his family to his friends and a million other Colombians, including the notorious Pablo Escobar, who actually became a reason for Higuita’s trouble.
What Was The Scorpion Way?
Higuita happened to have a friendship with Pablo, which made him a questionable figure for the law. When he got arrested for not telling police about the kidnapping of a ten-year-old kid, which effectively endangered the life of the child (although he did go the distance to save the kid); he was harassed by the police for his “Pablo” connection. He was, in fact, given the choice to tell the police about Pablo’s whereabouts in exchange for his freedom. Escobar was a fugitive at that point, and Higuita had no means to help the law. He only got out after Escobar was killed.
If you think about it, Higuita lost a year of his life only because he tried to help a child. He missed out on playing the World Cup in 1994, but the same year, he managed to win the national league with Atletico Nacional, the Colombian football club where he played most of his football outside the national team. “The scorpion” is something Higuita invented while playing football with kids; it is basically giving back a ball that is approaching towards the goal in such an acrobatic manner that his body takes on the structure of a scorpion. Of course, only René Higuita could think of trying something like that in a place like the iconic Wembley Stadium in a friendly match.
I actually liked that the Luis Ara-directed documentary didn’t follow the conventional structure of storytelling. Higuita: The Way of the Scorpion doesn’t start with monologues like “I was born in…,” as we usually see. Rather it drops us in the middle of a 1990 World Cup game, one of the most important ones that the man ever played. Unfortunately, though, the novelty sort of starts to fizzle out when the documentary keeps going on about how great Higuita was and the kind of revolution he brought with the goalkeeping. Ambiguity is okay, but the first half hour just went by while celebrating the man. Some informative storytelling would have been better, if you ask me.
What further baffles me is the decision to not properly utilize a story as riveting as an international footballer selflessly trying to rescue a kidnapping victim. When the story gets mentioned for the first time, you would think : Alright, this is what it is about, after all. You would even forgive them for all the time they wasted establishing the character. Sadly, the documentary shifts back to banging the same old drum again. I am not saying that it’s hard to get through it. There’s enough spice and flavor in the dish. But it never comes around wholly and fails to make a sensation inside your mouth. My point is that, as much as I admire the boldness of Higuita: The Way of the Scorpion, infusing a little bit of structure into the narrative would have been quite beneficial.
If only they had focused more on the kidnapping story and the trouble Higuita had to endure post-his great deed, we would have had a taut, riveting documentary in our hands. What we have instead is pretty much of a mess, albeit a colorful one. When you have someone like René Higuita as your content, that’s a given, I suppose.