Colombia lost 1-2 to Brazil, the host country in the 2014 World Cup, in what became a gutsy, all-out blitz for the semifinals.
The first half of Colombia’s first ever World Cup quarterfinal was a disaster, and if David Ospina hadn’t been doing David Ospina-like things in goal for “Los Cafeteros,” it would have been much worse.
It took seven minutes for a team that hadn’t trailed for a single minute all tournament to concede the first goal. Neymar — who, in an ideal world, would never be allowed to touch the ball with any less than three people around him — broke down the left for Brazil, and only a heroic tackle from Cristian Zapata saved what we can only assume would have been another photogenic bit of magic for the Brazilian sprite.
“Postponed” would actually be more accurate. On the ensuing corner, three Colombian players, including both the big center defenders, swarmed around David Luiz’s butterfly bush of an afro at the near post, and the usually relentless Carlos Sanchez was caught sleeping at the back, where Brazilian captain Thiago Silva came crashing in for the half-volley on an open net.
Bringing the ball out of the back did not get any easier for Colombia after the goal, especially without a reliable target up top. Whereas Fred did a better job holding up play for Brazil than he has all tournament, Teofilio Gutierrez did little to nothing for Colombia but lose possession and take a starting spot from the infinitely more impressive Jackson Martinez.
Without Martinez to collect the ball and distribute, James Rodriguez was forced into a much deeper role in the midfield, where he was harassed by the curiously card-free duo of Fernandinho and Paulinho. Victor Ibarbo spent more time tracking back to cover Maicon on the right than he did running off James on the attack, and Juan Guillermo Cuadrado was stuck trying to sprint out against the only team in the world that has the speed to deal with him. Fredy Guarin held up better than Abel Aguilar would have, but he was asked to do so much chasing, it hardly made a difference.
Zapata and Ospina were Colombia’s best players through the first 45 minutes, and that tells you all you really need to know about that.
The Brazilian press, in short, was stifling. There’s a reason this team hasn’t lost a meaningful home game in 35 years — multiple reasons, in fact, and most of them were on display Friday.
They closed fast, they tackled hard, they didn’t get called for fouls — or, at least, didn’t get punished for them. The fullbacks defended high, the midfield collapsed on a heartbeat, and for one half of rather brutal soccer, the proud canary yellow of Jogo Bonito and ginga was as much an homage to Genghis Khan as to Garrincha or Romario.
When they came forward, they came with speed, and with enough space to build up a full head of steam. Under those conditions, there is not a side in the tournament that wouldn’t have looked shook. Assuming there even is an answer to the raw athletic fury Brazil unleashed that half, Colombia certainly wasn’t able to find it.
The second half didn’t prove dramatically more illuminating.
Colombia started with more momentum, but the final third remained a war zone. Everything came difficult for Los Cafeteros, even the first goal they managed to score in the game.
It was the third or fourth dead ball James had to work with but the first from his preferred right side. He whipped in a cross to the heart of the box, where it pinballed around the defense until Mario Yepes could get a foot to it.
The offside call settled like a wall of smog on the delirious streets of Medellin, and the David Luiz free kick that followed a short minute later came on like a shower of cold drain water.
In the English Premier League, Luiz sends that 30-yard prayer sailing over the upper deck eight times out of ten. In the World Cup quarterfinal, he did things to a soccer ball the laws of Newtonian physics are not supposed to allow for, and the second goal of the game went wormholing into the upper far post.
Whatever had been missing from the Colombian mindset up until that point came as a revelation soon after, and the last 20 minutes flew by in a maddening rush. The play remained at the same frantic pace Brazil had imposed since the beginning, though the balance may not have been as much to the home side’s liking.
In the 79′, who else but James Rodriguez was brought down in the box following a slew of Colombian assaults, and who else but James Rodriguez got up to bury the penalty to Julio Cesar’s right. It was the sixth goal of the World Cup for the tournament’s leading scorer, completing a truly miraculous run for soccer’s newest superstar that saw the 22-year-old wunderkind tally in each of Colombia’s five games and assist in every one in which someone else managed to get in on the action.
With a tie now just one score away, Colombia played the way it had the whole tournament, with pride, with passion, with class, with joy.
Pablo Armero found depth down the left side, and the combination of James and Juan Fernando Quintero brought back the sense of mischief that has defined the Colombian attack in this tournament. Teofilo Gutierrez, for his part, made his most meaningful contribution to the game when he came off for Carlos Bacca, who dispelled the persistent rumors that “The Professor” Jose Nestor Pekerman had decided to ban his team from playing the striker position.
There were a couple of close calls, but no tying goal. What there was, instead, was an enduring reminder of the stubborn, electric energy that brought Colombia through the hardest qualifying group in the world, to its first World Cup in 16 years, its first elimination round in 24, and its first quarterfinal in history. That brought a perennial outsider into the spotlight of international soccer, that captured the imagination of a deeply divided country and a deeply skeptical world.
Colombia lost a tough game to a tough opponent that, five World Cup championships and unprecedented namebrand recognition be damned, was by no means its better. But for 25 memorable minutes, after getting beaten bloody for the previous 65, this team reminded us all what Colombian soccer is capable of.
James Rodriguez left the field crying, and the tears were flowing almost as fast as the guaro back in Colombia. But when you look back on this tournament, and look at how young this team is and how much room there still is to grow, it’s some consolation to know that this will not be the last time we’ll get to see Colombia dance.