Colombia, Star of the Group Stages, Primed to Put Some Bad Memories to Rest

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Colombia, Star of the Group Stages, Primed to Put Some Bad Memories to Rest
Christopher Lee/Getty Images

Colombia coach Jose Pekerman has unfinished business with the knockout stages of the World Cup.

Back in 2006, as head coach of his native Argentina, Pekerman oversaw a sparkling Albiceleste side that impressed all who witnessed them in the group stages, as they established themselves as early favourites for glory that year.

No more was that in evidence than against Serbia and Montenegro, as Esteban Cambiasso rounded off a thrilling 26-pass move in what would prove to be a 6-0 demolition.

Pekerman, it seemed, had a World Cup-winning side on his hands.

It would not work out that way. After edging past Mexico in the last 16 thanks to Maxi Rodriguez’s wonder goal, Argentina faced hosts Germany in the quarter-finals.

Pekerman’s side went 1-0 up, but after some defensive substitutions (including a controversial Cambiasso-for-Juan Roman Riquelme switch that remains talked about to this day), they conceded a late Miroslav Klose goal and eventually lost on penalties.

Pekerman, devastated, immediately tendered his resignation.

"We said we'd play seven games and did not, so I failed,” he said that day. “We were close but not close enough. This spell is over."

Argentina, scarred by the disappointment, still rue the failure to this day. Diego Maradona’s near one-man band could go all the way, back in 1986, yet an impressive all-round side could not?

Eight years on, no wonder it is practically demanded of Lionel Messi that he elevate his side above the competition. As Argentina have experienced it, that is the only way to actually win it.

Pekerman, meanwhile, faces the prospect of redemption—or history repeating, if he is truly unfortunate. Eight years on, he again finds himself in charge of a side who have impressed in the group stages, and one that is again on course to face the tournament’s hosts in the quarter-finals.

It is even once again his “home” nation, after he was granted naturalised citizenship the day after their World Cup qualification. Colombia, however, also have their demons to exercise.

Twenty years ago, at the 1994 World Cup in the United States, Los Cafeteros (“The Coffeers”) entered the tournament much as Belgium did this time around, with increasingly frenzied talk about their “dark horse” potential. Having reached the last 16 in 1990, Pele—a man who can always be relied upon to predict something when asked—duly tipped them to go as far as the semi-finals.

Eric Draper/Associated Press

Their team seemed to have some big tournament experience and many desirable qualities; strength in defence, pace and power up front, and technique and organisation in midfield. Many anticipated that they could more than live up to Pele’s assertion.

Instead, the tournament was an unmitigated disaster. An opening defeat to Romania left them up against it, before defender Andres Escobar’s unfortunate own goal against the United States in a narrow 2-1 defeat put them on the brink of elimination. Even a final victory over Switzerland could not save them, as other results failed to go their way.

On July 2, 1994, back in Medellin, Escobar was shot and killed outside a bar. It was immediately reported as a recrimination for his part in the World Cup disappointment, although few now agree with that assessment.

Escobar was in the wrong place at the wrong time, just as he had been on the pitch when John Harkes delivered his cross.

Nevertheless, Escobar’s fate seemed to mark the start of a sudden decline in Colombian football. The team qualified for the next World Cup but again went out at the group stages, before failing to qualify for the next three tournaments.

Suddenly, words Escobar had written in Colombian newspaper El Tiempe (per The Guardian) after the elimination took on an added significance: "Life doesn't end here. We have to go on. Life cannot end here. No matter how difficult, we must stand back up."

Now, under Pekerman, they are back with a vengeance.

Shuji Kajiyama/Associated Press

Few teams have looked as impressive as Colombia so far in this competition, although many might justifiably point to the relative weakness of the teams they have faced as one of the reasons behind that.

Colombia scored nine goals, and conceded just two, as they won all three games to top a group that also included Ivory Coast, Japan and Greece.

In the process, they looked devastating on the attack, with James (pronounced "Ha-mez") Rodriguez and Juan Cuadrado pulling defences apart as Teofilo Gutierrez and Jackson Martinez also got on the scoresheet.

Suddenly, the absence of Radamel Falcao—unable to recover from a cruciate ligament injury in time for the tournament—did not seem to be the devastating blow many anticipated it to be.

There has even been time for some sentimentality, with Pekerman bringing on back-up goalkeeper Faryd Mondragon, 43, toward the end of the comprehensive win over Japan—making him the oldest player ever to appear at a World Cup.

Kirsty Wigglesworth/Associated Press

Mondragon was also a member of the ill-fated 1994 and 1998 squads.

"Jose Pekerman convinced me to continue playing. I will never forget that,” Mondragon told reporters after the game. "I feel privileged to be here, it was my best birthday ever." 

It is further upfield, however, where Colombia’s strength lies. Their defence is perhaps a touch prosaic, with veteran centre-back Mario Yepes (only the third player in his country’s history to reach 100 caps) getting by more on experience than anything these days, while both Pablo Armero and Cristian Zapata have European experience but perhaps lack that additional quality that makes a truly elite defender.

That is part of the reason why Pekerman likes to employ two anchoring midfielders, even if that means leaving out the talented Fredy Guarin (whose box-to-box tendencies would potentially leave his side exposed). But another reason is to give his attacking players a platform to fully express themselves.

That they have done so far, with various individuals impressing in their own distinctive ways. The likes of Martinez, Gutierrez, Victor Ibarbo and Adrian Ramos have all had their moments, illustrating Pekerman’s relative abundance of options either to start or bring off the bench.

But there are two players who have stood out above the rest: Cuadrado and Rodriguez.

Fernando Llano/Associated Press

Cuadrado, a Fiorentina winger who stretches the pitch with his pace, stamina and close control, has dragged opposition defences out of shape to devastating effect from his position out on the left. He has scored once, from the penalty spot, while adding three further assists.

Then there is Rodriguez, a classic No. 10 whose close control and eye for a pass allows him to bring others into play around him, or find the gaps in behind the defences struggling to keep tabs on the movement in front of him.

But it is his end product that has most impressed; the AS Monaco starlet has scored three goals and contributed two assists in the two-and-a-half games in which he has appeared.

Witness his sumptuous finish against Japan, following a mazy run. This is a player enjoying and embracing his emergence on the world stage.

“For a long time in Colombia they have been looking for the next Carlos Valderrama,” Carlos Valderrama, the wavy-haired midfielder who was perhaps the last iconic Colombian footballer, said at an event recently. “They’ve now finally found who that player is.

“James Rodriguez will be the country’s next big star, not just for now, but for the next 10 years.”

Few will doubt that assertion having watched the 22-year-old go to work in Brazil. The question, however, is how much further he can drive them over the next few weeks.

Colombia have never been beyond the competition’s last 16; to improve upon that, they will have to beat Uruguay on Saturday. Uruguay also are without their most well-known striker, albeit for entirely different (and far less savoury) reasons.

They are also a far more prosaic side than their South American rivals. Without Luis Suarez to call upon, beyond the industrious Edinson Cavani, they have an obvious lack of attacking invention.

That Uruguay have reached this stage is predominantly due to the solid work of their defence, which broke down in the opener against Costa Rica but rebounded with two solid performances against England and Italy.

On the first occasion, Suarez’s individual brilliance won them the game. In the second, it was a set piece that did the damage.

The match is therefore a classic contrast in styles, with the onus likely to be on the likes of Cuadrado and Rodriguez to make the difference if Colombia are to overcome the test of 2010’s semi-finalists.

If Colombia can get past the Celeste, then it is hosts Brazil who likely await. It is a fearsome prospect for any side, albeit one Colombia seem as well-equipped as any (bar Messi and Argentina, perhaps) to take on.

On current evidence, this is not a vintage Selecao side (Chile, Brazil’s last-16 opponents, should not be written off by any means). Brazil have looked workmanlike so far in this competition, with their attack seeming painfully predictable whenever Neymar is not involved, while their defence is perhaps not the rock-solid foundation that many thought it might be.

If Yepes and Co. can summon their best form to deal with Neymar then perhaps, just perhaps, Cuadrado and Rodriguez can help spark what would be one of the most memorable shocks in World Cup history.

It will be interesting to see what happens if Colombia go a goal ahead. For Pekerman, still scarred by memories of 2006, it's either redemption or repetition.

"This is the result of work and patience of all the players and a whole country's support,” Pekerman said on Thursday. "This is a reward for all Colombians.

"Uruguay is a team renowned in world history and really can play. But we are confident and we want to move forward."

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