Radamel Falcao Garcia is an icon in Colombia. His image adorns billboards for banks, soft drinks and government tourism campaigns, and he is considered an excellent role model for the country’s youth. Media outlets gave hourly updates on his unsuccessful attempt to recover from knee surgery in time for the World Cup.
Yet say it quietly, find an isolated corner and whisper it: Maybe Colombia are a better team without him.
That is not to say that there won't be moments during this World Cup when Colombia will wish they had Falcao at their disposal. Or, indeed, that the fear factor he inspires in opponents would not have proved useful. In pure talent terms, he is Colombia's best striker.
But on Saturday, in their 3-0 victory over Greece, Colombia attacked with sufficient fluidity and vibrancy to suggest that he will not be overly missed.
Coach Jose Pekerman normally employed a 4-2-2-2 formation during the qualifiers, aware that Falcao performs best with an attacking partner in close quarters—be that Hulk drifting in off the right at Porto or Diego Costa or Adrian at Atletico Madrid.
The need to provide Falcao with a nearby associate did somewhat limit Pekerman's tactical options, and the absence of the Monaco marksman has allowed him to experiment with a lone striker—a role that Carlos Bacca, Jackson Martinez and Teofilo Gutierrez are all comfortable fulfilling.
It was Gutierrez, Falcao’s regular strike partner during qualifying, who was fielded up front by himself in the 3-0 victory over Jordan in Colombia's final pre-tournament friendly, and the River Plate striker was again given the nod on Saturday, starting at the head of a 4-2-3-1 formation.
Gutierrez performed superbly, moving well across the line and linking adroitly with his teammates with quick one- and two-touch layoffs. He can sometimes be too unselfish, seeking a pass when a shot on goal would be more appropriate, but he is otherwise a prototypical lone striker who excels at bringing others into the game.
His display got the goal he deserved when he stretched out a leg to divert Abel Aguilar's near-post flick-on into the back of the net for 2-0 just before the hour mark.
How far will Colombia go?
Behind Gutierrez, the strong and direct running of Victor Ibarbo, trickery of Juan Cuadrado and silky touch and creative passing of James Rodriguez consistently troubled the Greek defence. In front of a partisan crowd in Belo Horizonte, Colombia’s front four dazzled with their inventive play and varied movement.
Cuadrado was released down the right by Rodriguez in the buildup to Pablo Armero’s early opener, Rodriguez twice had efforts on target saved by Orestis Karnezis and Cuadrado also fired wide from long range.
Rodriguez then capped off an excellent personal performance by collecting Cuadrado's back heel and placing a nice shot low into the corner of the net for 3-0 in second-half stoppage time.
"I’m happy because we’ve won the game and because I scored, and that was a dream come true for me," said a delighted Rodriguez.
This was only one match. Greece did not offer a great deal going forward, and one would imagine that other teams will compete more ferociously in midfield. But as opening performances go, it was highly impressive and augured well for Colombia’s chances of both progressing from the group and performing at a good level in the knockout rounds.
There will certainly be few teams looking forward to facing their bright, quick and exciting front four.