For both sides and for very different reasons, history will be hanging thick as the coastal humidity Friday, when Colombia faces off against Brazil in the afternoon Fortaleza sun.
Colombia has never before appeared in a World Cup quarterfinals. Prior to this summer, it had been over a decade and a half since “Los Cafeteros” even appeared in the tournament — which at least was not as bad as the 28 years they had to wait before Italy 1990 came around.
Brazil, meanwhile, is the winningest country in the history of the World Cup and the celestial ideal of international soccer culture, with five stars emblazoned onto that iconic canary-yellow jersey by the otherworldly talents that were Pele and Garrincha, Ronaldo (the real one), Romario, Socrates, and other one-named galactic phenomena too numerous to count.
Whereas Colombia’s last “Golden Generation” went up in violent flames in the 1990s, golden generations are all anyone seems to expect from Brazilian soccer, a tradition that has become so marketably synonymous with The Beautiful Game it’s a wonder they don’t weigh their rosters in carats.
When Radamel Falcao went down with his knee injury, leaving a team no one ever seemed to believe was the fourth best in the world without its best player, there was not a taxi driver in Colombia who wasn’t absolutely convinced that the country was doomed to another first round elimination. When Brazil trounced the Spanish 3-0 in last summer’s Confederation Cup finals, anything less than Total Victory in this tournament became a legitimate cause for national uprising.
That’s where the divide truly begins heading into Friday’s game. Because while the Brazilians have been dragging their legacy around like the Sugarloaf Mountain on sleds, the Colombians seem genuinely energized about the prospect of creating one for themselves.
For those who haven’t had the distinct pleasure of paying attention yet, Colombia has been quietly putting together the sort of dynamic two-way showcase of a tournament experts were initially predicting for the host side.
Los Cafeteros have scored 11 goals in four games and let in only two. The Ivory Coast is the only team to give them any real trouble, and the Colombians have yet to trail in this tournament. You have to go all the way back to September to find the last time Los Cafeteros actually lost a game, and head coach Jose Nestor Pekerman has never lost in World Cup play during regular time.
Tournament leaders in assists, goals and general awesomeness
Juan Guillermo Cuadrado is leading the whole tournament in assists. James Rodriguez is leading the whole tournament in goals. Pablo Armero is leading the whole tournament in inciting mass hysteria. The team, as a whole, is playing with more confidence and focus than whatever International Giants haven’t already been torn crashing down by the kind of gritty smaller teams Colombia has been bulldozing.
Naked counterattacking seems to be the theme of a tournament in which the cultivated passing lullabies that dominated international play during the Spanish Reign Of Terror got heckled off the stage early. But the Colombians have been a vicious hybrid of all the things that make soccer most attractive and most lethal. Poised in front of goal and patient away from it, fast and controlled and decisive, Los Cafeteros have been putting on an exceptional end-to-end stylistic performance that looks more and more like a vision into the future of the sport.
Colombia has a very real chance of winning this game, and potentially winning it big. That we are even having this discussion is something of a small victory unto itself.
If you had to bet, you would still probably throw your money down on Brazil, because it is still Brazil, after all, and home side advantage and all that good stuff. But assuming this game isn’t fixed — and if we look back to the early penalty in Brazil’s Croatia opener, that’s hardly a given — the question of favorites is meaningless. Colombia has a very real chance of winning this game, and potentially winning it big. That we are even having this discussion is something of a small victory unto itself.
The Brazilian defense is the most individually talented in the world, but the unit has looked shaky at best and is getting by on athleticism more than any reliable tactic. Which is unfortunate, if you’re a Brazilian fan, because in four games so far, this Colombian attack has already managed to score goals in essentially every way conceivable.
Chelsea center back and Sideshow Bob-lookalike David Luiz can be counted on to wander off at least twice per game, and even Thiago Silva is having trouble plugging all the holes his partner is leaving open. At this point, Dani Alves is playing closer to the other team’s backline than his own, and with Luis Gustavo out on accumulated yellow cards, the extra help from the midfield that allows coach Felipe Scolari to push Alves and Marcelo all the way up to the opposite corner flags may not be as dependable.
This sort of high, quintessentially Brazilian wing play has not been paying dividends in this tournament, not with Fred lounging around uselessly with his 70s porn stache and Hulk seemingly convinced that the best way to help his team is to launch 35-yard screamers into the bleachers. In the absence of effective target play and an aerial presence, Brazil’s only consistent offense has come through set pieces and Neymar, or Neymar taking set pieces.
Hard in the middle
There’s no easy answer for how to stop either, but if Pekerman lets Oscar and Neymar pick on “Not Very” Abel Aguilar in the midfield, instead of giving the more athletic Fredy Guarin or Alexander Mejia a go, Colombia will deserve every scorching run through the middle it gets. Colombia has defended well so far because David Ospina is a superhero in goal and because Los Cafeteros have managed to snuff out the counterattack. But playing a high press against Brazil is a good way to get run on, and as well as he’s played so far in the middle of the defense, captain Mario Alberto Yepes doesn’t have the legs to keep up with the Brazilians’ pace.
The Colombians would do better to stay organized in the back and try and crack the Brazilian press themselves to exploit the spaces Alves and Marcelo leave open on the wing. Colombia’s own ninja fullback pairing of Camilo Zuñiga and Dance Dance Revolution champion Pablo Armero should look to punish Brazil down the sidelines whenever possible, and if the Christ The Redeemer statue came to life tomorrow and suited up for Brazil, you would still take Cuadrado in a footrace against anyone on what is probably the fastest overall team in the tournament.
Brazil’s break is fueled by turning other teams over in the midfield, and loose possession from Carlos Sanchez and Aguilar and poor distribution out of the back has been a problem for Colombia in the past. The inclusion of Jackson “Cha Cha Cha” Martinez, coming off two strong showings in a row following his return from exile, could provide a key release valve to relieve pressure on the backline and defensive midfield. Martinez is by far the best holdup player on the Colombian roster, and his vertical presence could be invaluable, especially if Luiz gets caught out of position or if Colombia hopes to attack the wings without committing numbers forward.
Ultimately, though, things are going to revolve around the treacherous left foot of James Rodriguez, where they have been spinning at quite an impressive rate all tournament. James has been nothing short of brilliant, to the point where you would remove Falcao’s good ACL with an icepick if it meant keeping James healthy.
He’s brought both depth and precision to the Colombian attack and is scoring goals even faster than he’s producing them. Colombia has been at its best working combination play through him, and against a Brazilian team that tends to over commit in the midfield, two or three passes is all it will take to bust open the game.
Friday will see two of the youngest, most exciting teams in the world run at each other frantically in a tropical heat only they are really prepared for. One has the weight of all those years and all those names and all those expectations hanging over it. The other is quickly reviving the spirit of a country whose passion for soccer hasn’t even begun to be tapped yet.
This game has all the makings of a classic, and whatever the outcome, Colombia is already making its history.