This is redemption for Colombian soccer. The enthusiasm and vigor exhibited by Los Cafeteros since this World Cup began is in a stark contrast to the tense mood surrounding Colombia’s ignominious World Cup national team 20 years ago. They were one of the top teams in the world, but were forced to swim with sharks without a cage, got bit and are only now recovering.
The ’94 Colombian side had the fingerprints of drug lords and most notably kingpin Pablo Escobar's blood money all over it. The team, which was invincible heading into the Cup was vulnerable off of it as manager Francisco Maturana faced constant threats of violence related to his sides performance on the pitch.
The stakes were so high that joy was sapped from the tournament and was replaced by crippling fear. Those feelings were manifested in a pair of stiff losing performances against Romania and the prepubescent United States Men’s National Team, which had not won a match in 54 years beforehand. Colombia failed to live up to soaring expectations that had been building since they advanced to the Final 16 of the 1990 World Cup. Colombia, which had not lost a match in qualifying was outscored 5-2 in its first two matches, including a fateful own goal by Andres Escobar, that would reverberate for decades.
On July 2, 1994 just days after his infamous error, Andres was slain outside a bar in the El Poblado neighborhood of Medellínin, Colombia. Motive has never been clearly uncovered, but allegedly, betting losses by gambling syndicates with ties to the drug trade and the late Pablo Escobar may have been the inciting factor. The fallout from Andres Escobar’s execution set Colombian soccer back two decades as they failed to qualify for the World Cup field between 1998 and 2014.
Colombia’s illegal drug trade remains an unfortunate aspect of its national identity, but the only thing Colombia has smuggled into this World Cup are two spry, goal-producing mules they’re riding towards the nation’s first-ever Wold Cup quarterfinal.
Colombia's contemporary team is more synonymous with Colombia’s chief legal export coffee. Los Cafeteros (literally translated to Coffeers) play with the verve of a side that consumes copious amounts of caffeine before stepping out onto the pitch and dancing circles around more banal foes.
At the dawn of the New Year, most observers would have predicted that striker Radamel Falcao’s shiny boots would be the author of a new chapter in Colombian football. Last August, Colombia was ranked third in FIFA’s world rankings while Falcao, once considered tertiary to only Ronaldo and Messi in La Liga, netted nine goals in World Cup qualifying.
However, a ruptured ACL suffered in early January against Monts d'Or Azergues Foot sidelined Colombia’s talisman for the entire tournament. Falcao’s absence left a void behind on the roster and relegated Colombia to afterthought status. Yet still, Colombia’s Latin American soccer rebirth is highlighted by the flair of its attacking frontline.
The playmaking duties fell to 22-year-old AS Monaco midfielder James Rodriguez. Los Cafeteros’ resiliency was apparent from the moment they waxed Greece 3-0 in their World Cup opener behind the adroit play of James.
Three things need to be made clear about James. Like Django, James only goes by one name, he is a pinpoint shooter, but unlike Quentin Tarantino’s titular spaghetti Western protagonist, the J is silent (pronounced Ha-mez).
Thanks to James, there’s a prominent World Cup goal linked with Colombian soccer that doesn’t exhume horrific memories.
The genius of James’ chest touch, followed by his body twisting to square up while the ball dropped and propelling the ball into the net before it hit the ground as rocket fumes erupted from its tail is at least on par with Robin van Persie’s horizontal opening game header as the most picturesque goal of the tournament. Except James’ goal was the equivalent of an in-game alley-oop pass off the backboard.
That goal put his star on the casual fan's map, but James had put the world on notice before the World Cup’s 23-man rosters were even formulated. Last May, AS Monaco acquired Rodriguez for a €45million fee that was the largest in Portugese history and this summer, James is on the verge of a professional breakthrough as rumors of a transfer to La Liga’s Real Madrid swirl during the summer transfer period.
In four games, James has scored five goals, and assisted on two others but he has been buttressed by fellow wunderkind Juan Cuadrado.
Falcao was thought to be an experienced talent too vital to be replaced by one blossoming star. Fortunately, the football gods have bestowed Colombia with a pair of synergetic foot soldiers.
James’ early push for the Golden Boot, in combination with his one man chest alley-oop score has captured the single-minded media focus, but Cuadrado is always there, just out of focus giving Colombia’s James the helping foot or header he needs.
After his second goal against Uruguay, James turned, ran towards Cuadrado who had fed him the assist on a mid-air header and deflected the credit his teammate in a scene similar to Shaq pointing at Kobe following their iconic Game 7 Western Conference Finals connection. Colombia hopes this partnership also ends with at least one World Cup trophy.
The resonating image of Colombia’s tournament isn't just James' goal, it's their ebullient attitude demonstrated in their jocular post-goal scoring dance choreography.
However, it’s his movements on the pitch that have helped fuel Colombia’s matriculation into the quarter-finals.
Rodriguez gets the goals, but Cuadrado is the wingman setting up the pins for Rodriguez and Co. to knock ‘em down. In addition to always making the opportune pass, Cuadrado also creates space for others to operate. Cuadrado leads the team with four assists in part because of his blazing quickness and sticky feet.
Cuadrado has jet streams emerging from his cleats and deftly dribbles the ball through traffic as if he has suction cups attached to the end of his tentacles for legs. In football, dribbling is defined as a move in which a player runs with the ball at his feet past one or more defenders. In what will most likely be his last season, with Serie A’s Florentini. Cuadrado led the league in dribbles per match by a healthy margin.
His burst has been on display on multiple occasions in Brazil. Cuadrado doesn’t just look like the Redskins quarterback associated with that other football, he also leaves defenders choking on fumes like Robert Griffin III.
Soon, Cuadrado may also be taking his talents to the Premier League after powerhouse Manchester United bid £40 million for his services. James and Cuadrado aren’t considered to be on the same plane as Leo Messi, van Persie, Thomas Müller or even Neymar individually, but on the grand World Cup stage, Colombia’s dancing all the way into a looming showdown at high noon with Brazil’s young, anxious offensive maestros, Hulk and Neymar.
It’s an unexpected clash between young guns, but no matter the outcome, Colombia has given the world a new perspective on an old Latin American powerhouse. Two countries will walk out draped in flags and uniforms dipped in bright yellow dye, but only can leave with hopes of World Cup gold intact.