As the squad arrived at Bogota’s El Dorado airport on the morning of July 6, a crowd of over a hundred thousand fans gathered in the Simon Bolivar Park to celebrate the historic team. In their first performance in the tournament in 16 years, the Colombian squad surpassed the golden generation of the nineties, with the best result in Colombian football history.
The players were transported in an open top bus to the park and met by the thundering cheers and applause of a yellow and red mass. For sure, the park’s namesake would have been pleased to see the Colombian people united to welcome their country’s present day heroes.
What the great liberator would think of the idea of ‘Don’ José Nestor Pekerman as President will remain unanswered, but it’s certainly a popular idea amongst many a Colombian football fan. The Argentine manager’s at times unconventional style and unexplained decisions sometimes drove fans and especially media crazy. But he managed to keep the psychological and disciplinary problems that have often plagued Colombia at bay. And he managed to create a team willing to give everything for their country.
It was James Rodriguez, still only 22 years old and elected man of the match three times during the competition, who stood up and led the squad in the absence of Radamel Falcao – and he did it with no less than six goals in five matches to take them through to the last eight in the tournament. In Colombia’s final match against the tournament’s hosts, the Brazilian fouls went into double digits as they used both hands and feet in their attempts to stop the Monaco midfielder from becoming their sword of Damocles as well.
Colombia was the surprise of the tournament; with brilliant goalkeeping from David Ospina and an excellent 38 year-old captain Mario Alberto Yepes who played like he was in his twenties again. But it was as a team that Colombia truly shone, with every player performing extraordinarily – individually and together – to make the Colombia matches a pleasure to watch.
When it was established 10 days before the tournament that Falcao’s injury would definitely rule him out, the squad’s prospects didn’t initially look too good. Public opinion inside and outside the country was unanimous: without Falcao, Colombia did not have the necessary level of skill to be a serious contender in the tournament.
Don Pekerman knew better: he had a very talented squad and without their superstar, he was able to quietly work with them as a team towards their goal- the cafeteros’ return to the world stage.
That return came with a blast: the outstanding 3-0 start against Greece was followed by a close but deserved 2-1 victory over the Ivory Coast, sealing the qualification for the round of 16 before the third game. The final group match versus Japan permitted manager Pekerman to use a different lineup from his preferred formation, giving players like Fredy Guarin, Jackson Martinez, Eder Balanta and Carlos Valdes a chance to get used to playing on the world stage. The appearance of goalkeeper Mondragon in the final minutes was noteworthy, breaking the record for oldest player ever to have played in a World Cup match at 43 years and 3 days old. The joy was complete when the veteran made a steady save to maintain Colombia’s 4-1 lead and bring it to the finish.
Nine points in three matches with a goal difference of +7 was not only historic, it also marked out the Colombian team as the second best performers at the group stage with only the Netherlands topping them. The pressure was now on the squad as they were quickly viewed as favourites against Uruguay, the next hurdle on their way to history.
The Uruguayans, without the biting recidivist Luis Suarez, didn’t know what had hit them when right before half time James controlled a high ball outside the box, to immediately strike it via the crossbar into the back of the net. Colombia had been in control from the start and in spite of Uruguay’s efforts to come back into the game, James found his second goal halfway through the second half and without major problems the Cafeteros closed out the game to write Colombian football history.
The odds didn’t seem bad for the quarterfinal versus Brazil. The home country had not been convincing in previous rounds so Colombia sensed their chance. However, it took only seven minutes before Brazilian captain Thiago Silva punished the sleeping Colombian defence, finishing a corner that slipped passed everyone. In the hard-fought game that ensued, Colombia didn’t seem to have a game plan against the clever Brazilian style, which – it has to be said- involved stretching the limits of what was allowed by the referee.
In the second half, Colombia got back some of its original game and put Brazil under pressure but a perfectly converted free kick by David Luiz confirmed the Brazilian victory. James converted a penalty to bring Colombia back into the game ten minutes before the end but the team couldn’t complete the comeback, leaving them out of the tournament.
The tears of James after the elimination, as he was honoured for his great play by David Luiz and Brazilian manager Scolari, were the focus of worldwide media. Colombia’s world cup dream may be over, but they gave a remarkable performance in which they stole the hearts of most of the world.
And as Colombia gathers to welcome its heroes home, the team’s strong performance has left many wondering what might happen in four year’s time – perhaps even the chance to bring the cup home from Russian soil?
By Freek Huigen