These last 16 years have been long ones for Colombian soccer, long and unkind.
In a country with nearly six-million internal displacement victims, the trauma of the Golden Generation — the generation of Valderrama (he of the Golden Fro), Higuita (he of the Golden Scorpion), and Asprilla (he of the full-nude frontal) — and its epic fall from grace has been a strangely enduring one.
Like the calf of Biblical tradition, the Golden Generation was burned, ground to a fine powder, scattered over the water, and force-fed intravenously to the Colombian people, first in 1994 USA and then again in ’98 France. Over the course of 16 long years, embarrassment has had plenty of time to gel into shame to crust over into hardened cynicism.
It’s all a trick, the old-timers will tell you. They’ll lose in the first round like always.
And maybe so. There would certainly be something fitting about that kind of end in Brazil. The last time there was this much hype surrounding the Colombian national team, they lost — Ave Maria — to the gringos.
It was Pele, after all, who brought this plague down on the house of Colombian soccer. Los Cafeteros had beaten Argentina 5-0 in Buenos Aires, and O Rei do Futebol was confident they were the Favorites to win the tournament. Then came the tournament itself, and the Colombians lost 1-2 to a US team whose consensus best player was Lexi frickin’ Lalas, in a game that would later cost the life of defender Andres Escobar and supply Lalas with another reason he never needed to humblebrag on national television.
Dark omens, to be sure, the kind not so easily forgotten. In a country condemned to 100 years of solitude, the lingering expectation of doom is still at least as strong the very real hope this new team inspires.
And with good reason, too, it would seem. Watching Radamel Falcao buckle over his own knee in a meaningless French league game five months before Colombia’s first World Cup in 16 long years was a confirmation of everything Medellin’s cab drivers already knew about universe. It’s almost cruel that his injury doesn’t damn Colombia’s chances outright, that a tournament without “El Tigre” is the only real test of the quality that’s still obviously there against the inflated expectations of the team’s marketed image.
You think about the game that brought Colombia to this moment, for the first time in 16 long years — that electric, dizzyingly bipolar performance against Chile, that brilliant three-goal comeback of a draw — and you realize that there is simply no way it could have happened any different.
No one ever really believed the fourth place world FIFA ranking, but no one who watched how consistently this team has defended, who caught those rare flashes of genius and power, could help but sit back and wonder. This is a group, Group C, that seems too soft on paper to not have the country’s hopes on fever setting and one that has been written off too thoroughly by too many people in too many medias to not get the angst bubbling underneath. Somehow, that seems wholly appropriate.
Try as they might, even the cabbies and old men cemented to the tables outside the tiendas are beginning to come around to the very reasonable prospect that Colombia makes a run in this tournament. Whatever happens in Brazil, regardless of whether they ultimately dash its brains out or not, this generation’s team has brought back the spirit of Colombian soccer.
It’s not simply the second place finish in the always-tight South American qualifiers, or the discipline and efficiency that earned it. Nor is it the line-up, stacked as it is with legitimately world-class talent. Nor the burgeoning youth system, already bearing fruit for the national team and poised to ensure that Colombians won’t have to wait another decade-and-a-half before their next Cup.
It’s that for the first time in a long time, Colombian soccer has given the country of salsa and champeta — of currulao and bunde, cumbia and mapale — a good cause to dance again.
This is a team that never looks so much in its element as when it’s chasing Pablo Armero to the sideline, getting ready to make sweet love to the corner flag. A team that, for all the technical grace and strategic integrity around which it has learned to play, never looks so dangerous as when it cuts loose and lets raw skill, athleticism, and joy for the Beautiful Game take over.
According to people who purport to measure this stuff, Colombia is the most soccer-obsessed country in the world. Whether that’s true or not, there are an insane amount of passions riding on this team — and, quite possibly, a presidential election that could determine the fate of the longest-standing armed conflict on the planet.
With the emotional stability of an entire nation hanging in the balance, you’d probably rather have the conservative, dependable system that Pekerman has implemented in an amply capable Colombian squad. But after 16 long years of waiting, here’s to hoping Colombia can also remember to dance.