Thursday, October 4, 2012

The coffee is brewing


Colombia have jumped 13 places to ninth in the latest FIFA World Rankings, another sign they are the South American country to keep an eye on as we approach Brazil 2014.

Los Cafeteros (coffee-growers) have not qualified for a World Cup Finals since 1998, when they went out in the first round after defeats by England and Romania.

But after seven games they currently sit second in the CONMEBOL qualifying table for Brazil 2014, and with four and a half South American places up for grabs, Colombia has a wonderful chance of returning to the World Cup after 16 years away.

Always the bridesmaid it seems, for a country capable of producing so many skilful footballers. Even when Colombia were granted the staging rights for the 1986 World Cup Finals, they had them taken away and handed to Mexico after FIFA altered the hosting requirements.

At Itaila '90 Francisco Maturana's team looked outrageously talented, at one point making the eventual winners West Germany chase shadows with their passing game. But with the flair came the hubris, as Colombia's crazy goalkeeper Rene 'El Loco' Higuita, he of the Wembley scorpion kick, dribbled the ball upfield in the second round clash with Cameroon, only to be robbed by Roger Milla, who went on to score and knock Colombia out.

At USA 1994 Higuita was not there having just served a jail term for his role in a kidnapping, but the sublime mop-haired passer Carlos Valderrama and attacking midfielder Freddy Rincon were, and Los Cafeteros also had the outstanding long-legged marksman Faustino Asprilla.

Expectations reached fever pitch pre-tournament as Colombia thumped Argentina 5-0 in Buenos Aires in the final qualifer, topping the group and sending the Albiceleste to Australia for an Intercontinental Playoff.

Pelé tipped them to hoist the trophy, but the supposed golden age of Colombian soccer collapsed in misery as the team lost 2-1 to a weak host nation and an own-goal by Andres Escobar, who ended up riddled with bullets in a Medellin car park ten days later.

The evil influence of the drug cartels on Colombian soccer was suddenly, shockingly, laid bare to the world. Asprilla later said the players were terrified going into the US match, expecting snipers would take them out from the stands of the Rose Bowl.

Almost two decades on and the cartels' power has been curbed, not least thanks to the death of Pablo Escobar, who 'invested' heavily in his favourite sport.

The Colombian national team is recovering well too and in Atletico Madrid's Radamel Falcao they now have one of the hottest strikers in Europe. At the helm is former Argentina coach Jose Pekerman.

There were high hopes going into last year's Copa America, and Colombia duly topped their group, but made an unexpected exit in the quarter-finals after two late goals from surprise package Peru.

With the next World Cup on South American territory and five and a half places on the table for CONMEBOL teams, Brazil 2014 should see Colombia make a welcome return to the highest stage.



FIFA TOP TEN October 2012

1 Spain
2 Germany
3 Portugal
4 Argentina
5 England
6 The Netherlands
7 Uruguay
8 Italy
9 Colombia
10 Greece

(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile

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