By Craig Rimmer
16 YEARS. It’s a long time to wait for a football obsessed country like Colombia.
The 90’s vintage was generally considered to have been the finest in Colombia’s sporting history, yet in this country we are far more likely to associate Colombian football with extravagant goalkeeping and voluminous blond perms.
Not since the halcyon days of that man, Carlos Valderrama, Freddy Rincón and René Higuita have Colombia been a feature of FIFA’s showpiece event. Back then, in 1998, just as before, Colombia failed to live up to expectations and were eventually eliminated by Glenn Hoddle’s England and a David Beckham free-kick.
4 years previously, at USA ’94, Colombia had been considered amongst the pre-tournament favourites, owing to an impressive qualification and a 5-0 annihilation of Argentina in Buenos Aires in the process. However, after only 1 victory in the group stage, Colombia returned home prematurely.
This time around, though, there is renewed belief – palpable evidence in fact – to suggest that the current Colombia squad is well placed to usurp Valderrama and co. in Brazil this summer.
Colombia are currently ranked 5th in the world according to FIFA’s befuddling ranking system and, as a seed, they have been drawn in a less than daunting group, alongside Ivory Coast, Greece and Japan.
A better balanced squad, less reliant of individual brilliance, managed by an astute and experienced coach in the form of José Pekerman – who led the impressive Argentinian side at the 2006 World Cup. If allowed to operate under far less pressure and interference from external forces (seemingly not always the case in the past), there is every reason to suggest that Colombia can out-perform their predecessors in neighbouring Brazil.
The present Colombia squad is still able to boast vast individual talent. Radamel Falcao and James Rodríguez were signed by Monaco for a combined fee in the region of €100 million last summer, and both possess the talent to match.
Falcao, who has made a miraculous recovery from a serious knee injury suffered in January, has been named in Pekerman’s squad, but is unlikely to be fully match fit. Regardless, Colombia are actually very well-endowed in that area of the pitch.
Pekerman can call on Adrián Ramos, Luis Muriel and Jackson Martínez; all familiar names within European football. A strong World Cup comes with the promise of enhanced reputation, and price tag, for each. Muriel was, of course, linked with a move to Anfield last year, and both Ramos and Martinéz have been lined up for moves to Champions League standard clubs. Carlos Bacca has also been in outstanding form for Sevilla in La Liga this season and helped them to the Europa League title.
Rodríguez, Juan Fernando Cuadrado and Teófilo Gutierrez provide creativity, and in Rodríguez and Juan Fernando Quintero Colombia have some talented youth to supplement what looks like a well-balanced and experienced squad.
Despite the best defensive record in the South American qualifiers – an ageing defence, containing the likes of Mario Yepes (38) and Luis Perea (35), is the obvious weakness and one which will likely be exposed by teams with pace and direct runners through the middle.
The challenge for Pekerman may come in finding a dynamic balance between the abundant attacking talents within the squad, whilst protecting a potentially vulnerable defence.
At this point I could continue to rely on my ‘expert’ knowledge of Colombian football, but instead I thought it wiser to give someone else a chance.
So, I spoke with Jorge Ferrer, a real life Colombian football fan and follower of local club Atlético Junior, to find out how La Selección are shaping up and better understand the expectations in Colombia ahead of this summer’s World Cup…..
So, how is the atmosphere over in Colombia in anticipation of the 2014 World Cup?
It’s very optimistic, not more so than for USA ’94, but the people believe that Colombia could reach the quarter-finals.
Brazil 2014 will be the first time in 16 years that Colombia have qualified for a World Cup. To what do La Selección (Colombian national team) owe their success during the recent qualifying campaign?
The success of La Selección is due to the fact that the current manager (José Pekerman) will not be manipulated by Colombian Football Federation (FEDEFUTBOL) directives, as in the past. In the sense that he is more autonomous and independent and, because Pekerman is foreign, he knows how to utilise the strengths of team and won’t be pressurised by the FEDEFUTBOL to select players in order to be seen by, and sold to, foreign football clubs. Pekerman will only select the best, and because of that, La selección has been able to qualify for the World Cup.
What will it mean for the whole of Colombia to see their team play in a World Cup?
It’s notable that in Colombia La Selección is like a symbol of national unity, in a sense that their participation in a World Cup will increase the feeling of patriotism, happiness and celebration.
The most recognisable current Colombian player is, without doubt, Radamel Falcao. However, he was seriously injured in January and could miss the World Cup. If Falcao doesn’t play in Brazil, how do you think Colombia can overcome the absence of the striker?
Flacao is currently the most effective Colombian striker, but there are a large group of strikers that can compensate for the absence of ‘El Tigre’. In this case, the options are: Carlos Bacca (Sevilla), Teófilo Gutiérrez (River Plate), Jackson Martínez (FC Porto), Adrián Ramos (Hertha Berlin) and Luis Muriel (Udinese). All of these are goal scorers for their respective clubs.
So who are the key players in the current Colombia team?
Radamel Falcao (Monaco), James Rodríguez (Monaco), Juan Fernando Cuadrado (Fiorentina) and Teófilo Gutiérrez (River Plate).
Could playing in their home continent, and in a similar climate, assist José Pekerman’s team?
Yes. When Colombia play at sea level and in a hot environment they tend to perform much
better. Evidence of that is when Colombia have had their home base for the qualifiers in Bogotá (cold and 2600 metres above sea level), they have only qualified once (Chile ’62). But, when the home ground has been moved to Barranquilla (hot climate and at sea level), they have always qualified (Italy ’90, USA ’94, France ’98 and now Brazil 2014).
Here in England we haven’t seen many Colombians playing in the Premier League, despite the fact that there are many Colombian players in other big European leagues. Do you think that Colombian players have the attributes to be successful in England?
England is maybe one of the countries with least interest in Colombian players. I can only remember Faustino Asprilla (Newcastle United), Juan Pablo Ángel (Aston Villa), Hugo Rodallega (Fulham) and Pablo Armero (West Ham United).
I think that Asprilla and Ángel did well and played an important role, but the rest not so much, and one of the reasons is the style of football that a Colombian player exhibits. They don’t adjust easily to the fast-paced football in England.
Does the Premier League generate much interest in Colombia? Does Liverpool have much support amongat Colombians? And which are currently the most well-known and popular English teams?
Given that the English league doesn’t contain many Colombian players, it’s not as attractive for a Colombian football fan in comparison with Italian and Spanish football. But, if a player such as Falcao or Adrián Ramos were to be signed by an English club, the supporters would be more inclined towards the Premier League.
In Colombia it’s still common to hear about the English league, but the most popular clubs are Manchester United, Manchester City and Arsenal.
Finally, how far do you think Colombia can go in Brazil?
I think that they will get to the quarter-finals and probably finish in 8th position.
Jorge is playing things cautiously, but for Colombia the circumstances and the timing could hardly be better.
A singled-minded and experienced manager. A friendly group draw. A tournament played close to home and under familiar conditions. 2014 may just prove to be the year that ’Los Cafeteros’ overcome the curse of past underachievement.
Genuine dark horses for the cup (you can get 33/1 for them to win outright), or maybe just a decent outside bet for a semi-final place (a less attractive 9/2). Now is the time to consign Valderrama’s buoyant blond mane to the past and make Radamel’s slick dark locks the Colombian hairstyle of choice in Brazil this summer.