Friday, July 4, 2014

Colombia are the World Cup winners, in joy at least

Win or lose tonight in Fortaleza, Colombia have lit up the World Cup and won a legion of fans across the globe.

Los Cafeteros have made the game beautiful again. They play to win and win attractively, dancing in joyous celebration and reminding the football world that a billion people are watching and want to be entertained.

God forbid we get another World Cup Final like 2010, when one team (the Netherlands) turned up looking to foul and kick their way to the trophy.

Colombia counter-attacking is about the best reason to get out of one's seat at Brazil 2014, and in the land of o jogo bonito, they have out scored and out performed the home side, whom they face today in the quarter-final.

Brazil v Colombia would have been a great final, but FIFA's misguided ranking system overloaded the first half of the draw and dumped four of the six South American teams in the same quarter of the second round.

Argentina have been spluttering along firing mostly blanks, leaving tonight's clash as the South American final of the World Cup.

Colombia have been on a steady upwards curve since former Albiceleste boss Jose Pekerman took over in 2012 and guided the coffee-makers to their first World Cup finals since 1998. Pekerman, who is distantly related to Hollywood legend Gregory Peck, carries himself with the same amount of dignity, refusing to get drawn into the narratives of journalists, whom he tends to shun.

Serious and austere he may be, a striking contrast to the singing and dancing image of Colombia, but he lets his results do the talking and is a national hero in Colombia, albeit a most reticent one. When the Cafeteros have found the net, Pekerman's exterior has melted somewhat as he has briefly joined in with the hysteria.

The Colombian nation has been allowed to smile again too. It suffered greatly from the narco-war of the 1990s, which spilled overt into its football, most notably with the collapse of the much-vaunted 1994 World Cup team and subsequent assassination of Andres Escobar.

Colombia is still a very economically divided nation with rampant corruption and paramilitary violence spilling over into people's lives too often. Football cannot solve these problems but can at least temporarily soothe them and give everyone a feeling of communal happiness.

The fact Colombia are a relative novelty at the finals created a lot of curiosity and the team have turned the global interest into admiration by winning every game with aplomb.

James Rodriguez, who also has an Argentine connection having spent two years with Banfield, is the unexpected top scorer at the World Cup so far, netting one more than the marketing men's favourites Neymar and Lionel Messi.

The unfortunate injury to Falcao, who scored nine in qualifying, has let the 22 year-old Rodriguez take centre stage unexpectedly, and his exquisite goals, particularly the shimmy and deft chip against Japan and the exquisite chest to foot rocket against Uruguay, have made him the tournament's poster boy.

There are also the flying wingers Andres Cuadrado and Victor Ibarbo, whose high-speed raids have been thrilling, and goals from Jackson Martinez. Carlos Sanchez is a strong midfield enforcer and Mario Yepes at the age of 38 has been solid at the back. Bringing on 43 year old Faryd Mondragon was a lovely touch, and Colombia have won millions of fans for their joyful dance routines after scoring. Football is fun again and this team is impossible to dislike.

All that could end in tears tonight if as widely expected, the home team respond to their fans and the ghosts of 1950. Such is life in the knockout stages.

Having sailed through one of the weaker groups and demolished a demoralised Uruguay, Colombia face their first real test tonight.

Whether Brazilian or Colombian coffee tastes the sweeter at the end, Colombia's return to the world stage has been a fantastic one.



Learn the Colombian dance steps

(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile

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