Is it that time already?
The players looked down-trodden and distraught as they trudged off the water sodden surface at the Metropolitan stadium in Barranquilla late on Friday evening. Soaked and stained by a pitch which had gradually degenerated to the point of being a nascent swamp over the previous two hours or so, the faces looked as devestated as the bodies when the unlucky ones who were chosen did their best to avoid eye contact with the camera lense as they expressed their profound frustration and angst in the post-match interviews. In the stands and throughout the country in the bars, the convenience stores and in millions of households the football mad public shook their heads in disappointment, perhaps offering their criticisms here and there , or bemoaning their luck. The reason for such aching disappointment? The Colombian national side had just drawn at home against neighbours and rising force Venezuela to leave them sitting second in the South American World Cup qualifying group, three points off leaders Uruguay with a game in hand. For the faithful here there seems only to be the agony or ecstasy, with not a lot in between. The frustrations of the past appear to guide the emotions of the public and the swing from uncontrollable optimism to extreme disappointment can be as swift here as it is for the English public every other June.
For country with a population of almost 46 million and one which is fervently drawn to the beautiful game, Colombia´s World Cup record is an extremely disappointing one. In four finals appearances they have only reached the knockout stages once when Cameroon sent them home from Italia 90. That finals appearance was to mark the beginning of what went on to be the most successful period in the history of the national side with qualification for the two subsequent finals followed in 2001 with a somewhat unglamorous Copa America triumph on home soil, giving the country it´s only senior title. Despite the importance of honours and medals in the world of top level football they do not hold a monopoly on the hearts and minds of it´s followers. The stylish short passing game of Los Cafeteros throughout the early and mid-nineties in addition to the colourful characters who donned the shirt in this period have ensured that the teams of that era are remembered fondly by fans the world over. However whilst the names of Carlos Valderrama, Rene Higuita, Freddie Rincon, Tino Asprilla and regrettably the tragic Andres Escobar are instantly reeled off when one thinks of those teams, it is another protagonist who is now hoping to stir the dreams of the Colombian public.
Leonel Alvarez was a hard working and diligent midfielder who appeared for Colombia at both the 1994 and 1998 World Cups as well as featuring in the team that humbled Argentina by becoming the first team to defeat them on home soil in a qualifying game with a famous five nil victory in Buenos Aires back in 1993. Still donning the same mop of curls and facial hair which was in vogue twenty years ago, the humble yet ambitious Paisa now has his eyes set on leading the national side back to the world stage for the first time in 16 years. As a coach he guided Independiente Medellin to the title in 2009 and had been involved as an assistant with the national side since last year. He was immediately keen on the top job once former coach Hernan Dario ”The Baton” Gomez was forced to step down following an incident where he struck a woman outside a Bogota bar in the aftermath of the team´s quarter-final exit from the Copa America. After initially looking towards a foreign coach the Colombian Football Federation eventually appointed Alvarez after some informal consultations with the players, and the amable coach took control of the reins in September this year.
He inherited a squad which boasted a strong spine but one which had perhaps been light on guile and invention in recent times. They looked solid at the Copa America but were ultimately punished for a lack of cutting edge as Peru dumped them out in extra time of a quarter-final tie which should have been put to bed by that stage. Both David Ospina and Breiner Castillo offer a safe pair of hands whilst in defence they have a healthy mix of experience and physicality with the likes of Camilo Zuñiga, Luis Amaranto Perea, Mario Yepes, Cristian Zapata and Pablo Armero all plying their trade at top European sides. Porto´s Freddy Guarin offers a presence and a threat in the middle of the park and further grit is to be found in the shape of Carlos Sanchez. The flanks were strong at the Copa America and the wide area is one part of the squad which looks particularly strong with Adrian Ramos, Dorlan Pabon and Dayro Moreno all offering pace and power as well a goal threat. Up top the manager can call on Atletico Madrid hitman Radamel Falcao who has been one of the world´s leading strikers over the past few seasons. Despite having a relatively poor record at international level El Tigre will always offer a goal threat and he further underlined this point by coming off the bench to score the team´s injury time winner against Bolivia last month. Beyond him there are other capable strikers such as Hugo Rodallega, Jackson Martinez and Teofilo Gutierrez. With Falcao picking up a training ground injury it was the latter two who led the line against Venezuela and despite having a night to forget in the torrential rain Gutierrez in particular remains a figure who will likely have an important role to play over the coming years. His Racing Club teammate Giovanni Moreno was a surprising ommision from the squad for Friday´s game and the upcoming tie with Argentina in Barranquilla on Tuesday. The lanky playmaker offers a welcome touch of creativity and craft but is struggling for form following his recent comeback after a long injury lay-off. If he can rediscover the form that saw him being labelled as the best player in the Argentinian league earlier this year, the big man with the deft left foot will surely feature again.
The main reason that Alvarez felt comfortable leaving a player of Moreno's quality out of his squad has been the remarkable ease with which youngster James Rodriguez has taken to life in the senior team. His star has long been on the rise with the twenty year old attacking midfielder progressing from Envigado in the Colombian league to Portuguese giants Porto via a brief but successful stint with Banfield in Argentina. He has made steady progress throughout this period and has starred for the national side at junior levels. It is possible his senior call up would have come sooner had he not been so important to the under-20 side who hosted the youth World Cup this past summer. He started this season in fine form at Porto, netting and creating goals in both the league and champions league and the new coach had no hesitation in calling him up for the senior squad ahead of their opener in La Paz last month. He started that game on the left of midfield and put in an assured performance full of poise and promise, helping to set up Falcao´s injury time winner with a crisp left footed pass. His progress has been remarkable and when legendary former skipper Carlos "El Pibe" Valderrama proclaimed the youngster to be the worthy heir to his hallowed number ten shirt, Alvarez duly obliged ahead of Friday´s encounter against Venezuela. Amidst the frustration of losing two points to a late leveller in difficult conditions, the star of James shone bright once more with an exciting display of dribbling, passing and shooting ability. Only the cross bar denied the young starlet a dramatic injury time winner following his firmly struck free kick. The new manager has intensified the interest in this campaign by sending the team out with a notably more attacking mind frame than in previous years and none embody this spirit more so than the talented Porto man. His is surely a name we can expect to hear a lot more about in the coming years.
For a nation whose followers never seem to be too far away from dreams or despair, this precocious young talent perhaps offers the best reason for confidence in reaching the promised land in the form of Brazil 2014. The South American zone is arguably the most competitive group from which to qualify and a look to Fridays results with Argentina being held to a point at home by Bolivia offers proof of the treacherous path which lays ahead for the teams here. On top of this all of the nations have an extra incentive in the form of the relative proximity of the finals that await those successful in their quest. It would be foolish to make many firm predictions but if Los Cafeteros can make Argentina suffer in the afternoon humidity this coming Tuesday, their long suffering fans will allow the dream to sparkle once more.
You can read more from Paddy on the splendid Rocky Road To Rio