Colombia advanced to the elimination round of the World Cup Thursday on the back of a breakneck 2-1 win against the Ivory Coast and a 90-minute 0-0 snooze fest between Japan and Greece dull enough to make the prospect of a crushed spinal column seem at least interesting.
Playing in their first World Cup in 16 years, “Los Cafeteros” have already made it further than they have in the last 24. A momentous occasion, to be sure — especially in a country where only 47% of voters pretty much just decided the outcome of the longest standing armed conflict in the world — and momentous occasions are a time for reflection. A time for Meaning.
With that in mind, here are five things about the game that only sort of matter:
1. It could have been better
If you’re an objective soccer fan, the first half of Colombia v. Cote d’Ivoire was not nearly as entertaining as the second. If you’re a Colombian soccer fan, that should make you worry.
Los Cafeteros controlled the first 45 minutes, containing the Ivorian counter, forcing Yaya Toure to play deep in his midfield, and finding spaces in front of the Ivorian back line. Juan Guillermo Cuadrado got deep down the right wing, and James Rodriguez overplayed a couple of through balls that could have seen Colombia to goal. Were it not for a truly spectacular shank on the part of Teofilo Gutierrez, International Man of Mystery, Colombia would have walked into halftime up 1-0, with the potential to have scored several others.
The second half produced the scores but also the slew of bad errors that easily could have tied up the game, especially in the closing minutes, when the Ivorians enjoyed almost sole possession. It was electric back-and-forth soccer, which is exactly what you don’t need when you’re already up two goals.
Had it been an isolated incident, we could chalk things up to a physically dominant Ivorian side. But the Colombians also failed to really possess against the Greeks, and there’s no such easy explanation to be had there. Stretching back even into qualifiers, this is a Colombian side that lets large stretches of important games run away from it. Los Cafeteros will need to find a way to dictate the rate of play consistently before more of those letdowns start turning into goals.
2.Know the name
Given that half of the English-speaking world still spells “Colombia” with a “u,” it’s perhaps not the biggest deal that Lexi Lalas and most of the British announcing core seem to have decided James Rodriguez was born outside a pub in downtown Dublin.
Still, in the interest of journalistic integrity, it falls on us to set the record straight.
“James,” a relatively common Colombian name, is pronounced with two syllables, the second sounding like “mess,” as in: “Ja-mess stood, rosy-cheeked, over the gory mess of his opponents’ pride and smiled bashfully.” The first syllable, meanwhile, sounds like a forgotten word from Aramaic, with a deep, ringing ‘a’ — like the one in, “For not the first time Thursday morning, JA-mess felt just the slightest tinge of regret as it fell to him to hArvest another Ivorian soul.” — and a ‘ch’ that has been wholly lost to the English tongue. When you wish to speaketh the name of Colombia’s 22-year-old playmaker, channel your best rabbinical blessing or Sunday morning blueberry-challah-french-toast brunch order and give that ‘j’ all the love and throat snot it deserves.
We mention this because James Rodriguez is a name you will probably find yourself saying a lot in the coming years, and one that will never be far from anyone’s mouth up until such point as the Colombians can be excised from this tournament. He went for over $60-million to Monaco last summer, which might seem a bit excessive, until you consider that were the World Cup to end today, Monaco could resell him for closer to 100. Colombia are 2-0 in group play, and that is mostly because James has been playing like a (boyish) man on good terms with Yahweh indeed.
There’s a strong argument to be made that James has been the best player so far in the still-young tournament, as the soon-to-be 23-year-old wunderkind has been instrumental in all five of Colombia’s goals to date. It was his dummy against Greece that left Pablo Armero open for Los Cafeteros’ first goal of the cup, and James precision lazer of a third goal came after a designed hockey-assist from the corner flag on the second.
Against the Ivory Coast, he showed off a less-recognized aspect of his game with a powerful near post header to open the scoring. And it was his forced turnover in the midfield that set the Colombians on the break for Juan Fernado Quintero’s clinical lefty finish.
Almost as important has been his presence in the midfield. James has been smart about drifting back deep to receive the ball when play starts to get away from “La Tricolor,” and his combination on the right with the lethally fast Juan Guillermo Cuadrado has been Colombian soccer at its most dangerous.
We have said it before, but we will repeat, as CHCHA-mess goes, so too does Colombia.
3. Meet Thing 2
Juan Fernando Quintero is the diminutive lefty ball wizard Porto brought in when it sold James, its previous diminutive lefty ball wizard, to Monaco last summer. That was no accident.
Anyone who has watched the two of them play will have noticed the undeniable similarity in their games. The pristine, artful ball-striking, the vision, the decisive first touch, the quiet, bubbling momentum of a teapot always on the verge of boiling over with venom. Like all great playmakers, Quintero and James play soccer at a pace only they can perceive, at once faster and slower than everyone else around them.
The scary thing is that when Quintero chooses to turn on the burner, he’s quite possibly more dangerous than his once-again running mate.
Quintero and James have known each other since they were kids, developing alongside one another in Colombia’s Envigado youth system. Presumably, that’s where the similarities stem from. But while Quintero has followed in the elder James’ career arc, his growth has been more appropriation than mimicry.
Quintero’s game has acquired a sort of little-brother edge to it that makes him more aggressive and spiteful than the famously mild-mannered James. He’s more interested in embarrassing people for the sake of embarrassing them, more willing to scrap it up for his pride and over whatever perceived injuries have been inflicted upon it. Quintero plays like he has something to prove, a good quality to have in a player who already made a name for himself as one of the best overall talents in last year’s U-20 World Cup, leading a promising young Colombian side to third place in the tournament.
In less than a half of soccer Thursday, Quintero got off to a good start with the proving thing. His time on the field for Colombia was minimal all throughout qualifiers, but Quintero rewarded the faith head coach Jose Nestor Pekerman placed in him with a strong two-way performance and confident finish on the second and decisive goal.
Victor Ibarbo did not see much of the ball Thursday before coming out for Quintero, but he’s still the better option in a lone striker system. And with James providing more than enough lefty voodoo for one lineup, it’s unlikely Quintero will find a starting spot for himself elsewhere in the midfield. And yet, the thought of Thing 1 and Thing 2 going to work on this tournament does have a certain appeal. Before long, the prospect might be too compelling to ignore.
4. Aguilar is not very able
There is no good reason why Abel Aguilar should still be starting for a team with as much midfield depth as Colombia. It was never clear why he was, but two games have proven he shouldn’t have been.
Aguilar is a defensive midfielder who is not fast enough to play defense and too sloppy to serve any meaningful purpose in the midfield. So far this tournament, he’s contributed absolutely nothing on one end of the field and less than nothing on the other. On the Ivory Coast’s only goal Thursday, he arrived just late enough to flail uselessly at Gervinho before the latter could finish dismembering the Colombian defense. His hair is also stupid. (Is it a ponytail? Is it a bun? Just make up your mind already. This is soccer, not the campfire at a backpackers hostel in southern Patagonia.)
Alexander Mejia, who has come in for Aguilar in both games so far, is a better option for defense, and Fredy Guarin, who has somehow yet to play in the tournament, is a better overall option still. Pekerman can start himself in the midfield if he wants to, but Aguilar should be kept as far away from the field and from heavy machinery as possible. It’s best that way for everyone.
5. The Teofilo mystery
We have beat this horse dead so many times now it’s beginning to feel vindictive, but Teofilo Gutierrez is making a stronger case than we ever could for why he should be the third or fourth option in an absolutely stacked Colombian striker core rather than the first.
Just when you thought he had discovered every possible way of blowing easy goals, Teo produces this true wonder of ingenuity and grace, in which he somehow manages to volley a ball off of the bottom of his foot and miss the entire frame from six yards out:
It would be difficult to come up with a more perfectly Colobmian sequence. Juan Guillermo Cuadrado breaks out of a compact defense and releases James Rodriguez on the wing. James takes a strong forward touch and draws in the defense, before serving up a goal on a silver platter so fine and ornately decorated it could have been used in the Spanish coronation ceremony. In order for Colombia to make a run in this tournament, this exact situation needs to produce goals every single time it manifests.
Now, Jackson Martinez has made a pretty good show of fudging up similar opportunities for Colombia. But you would still prefer him staring down that chance to Teo, and at least he could bring hold-up play and an aerial presence in the event that he proves equally inept in front of goal. Adrian Ramos, meanwhile, would have buried that volley so deep down Boubacar Barry’s throat they would still be digging it out by the time the slaves finish building the indoor airconditioning in Qatar.
Teo Gutierrez has been an indescifrable choice from the start, even back when Falcao was still in the picture. Now, with a gimme of a goal in the first game and the most straightforward assist imaginable in the second, he’s doing just enough for his continued presence on the team to not be a complete scandal and just little enough to be a dead weight on an otherwise surging Colombian team.
He’ll do for now, it seems, but with Aguilar and Gutierrez on the field at the same time, this is not Colombia at its most dangerous or its most secure, and that should give the rest of the world good cause for concern.