Colombia: Back in the Big Time?

As Colombia look set to qualify for the FIFA World Cup for the first time since France hosted the competition in 1998, the current crop of players bring back memories of their greatest team to date.

As Colombia look set to qualify for the FIFA World Cup for the first time since France hosted the competition in 1998, the current crop of players bring back memories of their greatest team to date.

Ultimately, that team failed to live up to the hype surrounding them and their early exit from USA '94 proved to be more costly than one could ever have imagined.

Leading up to the tournament, Pele identified los cafeteros as tournament favourites. Sitting pretty in their highest ever position in the world rankings - overtaken by the current crop who place third - Colombian football was making a name for itself.

Arguably two of their greatest ever performances came in the few years leading up to USA '94, when this 'golden generation' of players were at the peak of their powers. A 2-0 victory over Brazil in the 1991 Copa America saw them reach the semi-finals for only the second time in their history and much of this was down to their rampant style of play.

Brought up playing football in the favelas gave them an air of freedom and flair that is so often missed in other countries that take a more structured route in their development. The flair they possessed saw them finish top of the South American qualifiers for USA '94, with the 5-0 victory over Argentina in Buenos Aires being the icing on the cake.

Going into the game on top of the group by a single point, many expected Francisco Maturana to send his men out for a draw, but this was simply not the Colombian way.

After a nervous opening half hour, Colombia found their feet and began to create chances with their midfield playmaker, Carlos Valderrama, at the heart of every attack. And it was the iconic midfielder that found enough space in the middle of the pitch to slide Freddy Rincon through on goal, rounding the goalkeeper before slotting in to the empty net.

Valderrama was key to everything that went right for Colombia. His elegance on the ball dragged defenders towards him, freeing up space for his team-mates and finding gaps in the oppositions defence.

As much as the team needed Valderrama, though, Valderrama needed the team. Without the tenacity of Leonel Alvarez, or the pace of Faustino Asprilla to capitalise on Valderrama's brilliance, you would see nothing but pretty feet from the hairy playmaker. This was a team full of great players that managed to forge their qualities to be an even better team.

Colombia went in at the break one goal to the good, but Maturana made sure his players did not get complacent. Leaving three forwards on the pitch, his positivity soon shone through as Asprilla doubled the visitors' lead just after half time.

This was an Argentina side that contained the likes of Gabriel Batistuta, Fernando Redondo and Diego Simeone, but names did not matter when the third and fourth goals hit the back of the net; this was a drubbing. It was Rincon who got his brace first, joined only a minute later by Asprilla before the Argentina players looked on in disbelief as Adolfo Valencia added a fifth five minutes from time.

This result almost justified Pele's comments but, unfortunately for Colombia, the story did not end in Buenos Aires.

The tale of former Colombian national team star and captain, Andres Escobar, is known worldwide. Heading into USA '94, Escobar was on the verge of becoming the first Colombian to play for AC Milan and was at the peak of his defensive powers.

Escobar had grown up on the pitches of Pablo Escobar and links between the drug-lord and Colombia's national football team were strong. Throughout his life he was considered one of the most powerful men in the world and this was no different in the football world.

"Pablo Escobar was more powerful because he was more bloody [sic].

He threatened everybody and said, 'National wins, or everybody dead'." - Fernando Rodriguez Mondragon, member of Cartel de Cali.

During his time as owner of Atletico Nacional, the club won the Copa Libertadores with future national team coach, Maturana, in charge. The power and influence that Pablo Escobar and other drug cartels were gaining in Colombian football was beginning to show and it would soon spread to the national team.

The national side turned in a dismal display in their opening fixture of USA '94 against Romania in which Georgie Hagi scored a wonderful long-range effort. Colombia then came up against the tournament hosts in the second match of the group stage, where a loss would send them crashing out.

"The team had received death threats, so we all went up to our rooms.

"The threats were displayed on our television screens. If Barrabas played, they'd kill us all." - Faustino Asprilla, then striker for Parma and the Colombian national team.

Building up to the match the squad received death threats demanding that Barrabas Gomez should not feature against the USA. Barrabas soon departed, but the threats had left a tepid atmosphere in the camp. The news that Chonto Herrera's brother had been fatally injured in a car crash just days earlier made matters worse and the bad feelings spilt over onto the pitch.

"Someone had programmed the hotel televisions, it freaked us out. I couldn't put another life in danger.

"Barrabas was a key player, but they had me beat. I pulled Barrabas." - Francisco Maturana, head coach of Colombia during USA '94 and former Atletico Nacional coach.

The players looked nervous and the country stood still when their hero, Escobar, inadvertently diverted a hopeful cross past his own goalkeeper Oscar Cordoba (Rene Higuita was serving time for his involvement in the other Escobar's dealings) to put the hosts in front. A double change at half-time saw no change in the Colombian's play and the USA soon doubled their lead in the 52nd minute. A late goal from Valencia meant little compared to his one against Argentina and the up & coming team of South America was out of the tournament.

Not long after the events at the Rose Bowl, Escobar was gunned down outside a nightclub back in Medellin. The country grieved for their fallen idol and more than twenty years on, fans still talk of him as the country's greatest ever defender.

The fruitless journey to North America, coupled with the death of the national team's captain, led to the country's footballing standards dropping dramatically. They picked up a shock win in the 2001 Copa America, but have failed to qualify for a World Cup since France '98 where they were knocked out in the group stages.

Times are changing for Colombian football, though. They are beginning to produce players that can compete at the biggest clubs in the world, most notably in the form of AS Monaco striker Radamel Falcao (17) who is honing in on Arnoldo Iguaran's goalscoring record of 25 goals.

Contrary to popular belief they aren't just a one-man team. Falcao is supported by a dearth of attacking talent, such as his Monaco team-mate James Rodriguez, Jackson Martinez (Porto), Carlos Bacca (Sevilla) and Juan Cuadrado (Fiorentina).

All these plays have attributes similar to that of Asprilla and Rincon; fast & powerful with the ability to dominate teams on the counter attack. All they were missing was a creator, one in the form of Carlos Valderrama, maybe.

Juan Fernando Quintero, come on down. The creative force of the U-20 side that took this years South American Youth Championships by storm; the 20-year old picked up player of the tournament after helping Colombia to their 3rd title and scoring five goals along the way.

Quintero's close control and ability at set-pieces draws obvious comparisons with record cap holder, Valderrama, and if the start of his Porto career is anything to go by then he could go one better than El Pibe (The Kid) and have a successful career in Europe.

Choking on the biggest stage followed by the death of a national sporting hero will leave the most stable of country's in disarray, but one such as Colombia took it even worse.

The nation has been through times of suffering, but looks to be on the rise again and many neutrals across the globe will be hoping Jose Pekerman's side can regain some pride when they cross the border for Brazil next summer.

One thing is for sure; Pele won't be making the same mistake and name them favourites this times around.


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