The Rebirth of Colombia


World Cup 2014

A team emerges from the shadow of its past.

Teams in the World Cup are generally split among three tiers. The top one consists of those that year in and year out field the best squads in the world—including most of the previous World Cup winners and finalists, such as Brazil, Germany, and Argentina. The bottom tier consists of those from whom no one expects much, other than that they show up on time for matches. Among that group this year are Iran, Australia, and Algeria. But most teams fall somewhere in that second tier, where fans begin the tournament holding out hope that—through a perfect storm of lucky bounces, mistaken calls, beneficial match draws, and brilliant overachievement—their team will cobble together a World Cup championship. Colombia, who have qualified for the World Cup for the first time in sixteen years, is one of these teams.

“We qualified for the 1962 World Cup, and the best thing you could say about the Colombian team from then until 1990 was that we tied with Russia in 1962 … It wasn’t even a victory,” said the Colombian writer Juan Gabriel Vásquez, forty-one, the author of the highly acclaimed 2011 novel The Sound of Things Falling, and an avid soccer fan who has closely followed the Colombian team his entire life. “Football is a very big element of the national unity. So the importance that football has had for Colombia has not been really reflected in the results on an international scale.”

That all seemed about to change with the emergence of the Colombian teams of the 1990s. Under its coach Francisco Maturana, the team developed a style of play known as “toque toque,” or “touch touch.” “It’s like the tiki-taka style we see today in Barcelona,” said Sarah Castro, a sports reporter for Caracol Radio in Bogota, referring to the style of possession soccer that won Spain the 2010 World Cup.

The Colombian teams of the nineties centered around the midfield genius of Carlos Valderrama. With his lion’s mane of wild orange curls, Valderrama looked top-heavy, but his feet seemed to rotate on a dancer’s pivot. No defender could keep track of him. “He could do unbelievable stuff in just one square meter and dominate the field from there with incredible passes,” Vásquez said.

Valderrama was surrounded by other flamboyant figures, including the powerful attacking midfielder Freddy Rincón; the deadly, unpredictable striker Faustino Asprilla; and the goalkeeper René Higuita, who created the scorpion kick, a ridiculous move in which he saved a ball sailing toward him by doing a standing backflip and kicking it free in mid-air with the soles of his feet. The team made Colombian soccer history when, in a World Cup qualifying match in 1993, it beat Argentina, in Argentina—something no team had ever done before—5-0.

“When you refer to this match in Colombia, you don’t even need to mention the rival,” Castro said. “Colombians just say, ‘El 5-0.’”

“That game is like a national holiday for us,” Vásquez said.

But the team never achieved the greatness that games like El 5-0 prefigured. In 1990, Colombia was knocked out of the World Cup by Cameroon in the round of sixteen, after a famous Higuita blunder, when he’d come far out of his goal and mishandled the ball, leaving an empty net for Cameroon to score into. In 1994, the team didn’t even make it that far. In place of great soccer achievement, those Colombian teams are largely remembered for their link to the Two Escobars, the drug lord Pablo and the soccer player Andrés, a story well told in a 2010 ESPN 30 for 30 film of that title.

“Those footballers were the products of a very difficult moment in our history,” Vásquez said. “In the eighties, the Medellin cartel and the Cali cartel had begun investing in football because they loved the sport. This legendary team of Colombia was in part a collateral effect of those drug years, the years in which Pablo Escobar, the Medellin cartel, and the Cali cartel were basically dominating Colombian life in all aspects.”

Six days after Colombian defender Andrés Escobar scored an own goal in the 1994 World Cup, he was murdered outside a bar in Medellin. Pablo Escobar had been killed eight months earlier. The drug war within Colombia would soon begin to recede. “It is like a myth that Andrés Escobar’s death was related to the own goal in the World Cup,” Castro says.

“The nuance is not interesting, and the whole thing is despicable,” Vasquez said. Essentially, it was a bar fight gone wrong—one in which the well-mannered Escobar, known in Colombia as “the Football Gentleman,” wanted no part. “We all remember where we were when Andrés Escobar was killed, much in the same way we remember where we were when presidential candidate Luis Carlos Galán was murdered in 1989. It’s one of those big moments of unreasonable violence that sticks in your mind,” Vasquez said. “It was the last big murder to happen in a series of big murders that constituted the war between the drug dealers and the mafia against Colombian citizens.”

It may have had a lasting effect on the soccer team as well. The Colombian team made it to the 1998 World Cup, in France, but it couldn’t get out of the group stage there, either. “We thought we were here to stay,” Vásquez said of the country’s three straight World Cup appearances in the nineties. “And then for sixteen years, there was nothing.”

In January 2012, Colombia was once again near the bottom of the South American qualifying standings. Over the five previous years, the team had essentially failed with four different coaches, most of whom had links with the teams of the nineties and none of whom lasted even two years in the job. For the first time since 1982, the Colombian soccer federation hired a foreign coach, the white-haired Argentine José Pékerman, who had led Argentina to the quarterfinals of the 2006 World Cup, where it suffered a heartbreaking loss on penalties against the host nation, Germany. He turned things around quickly.

“Pékerman is independent of all the media and the whole sphere of sports in Colombia,” Castro said. “You cannot link him with anyone in the Colombian soccer federation. He has started a new story with the Colombian national team.”

That new story has focused around the team’s striker, Radamel Falcao, twenty-eight, who suffered a serious knee injury in January and may not be fully fit in time for the World Cup; and the twenty-two-year-old playmaker James Rodríguez. Both play for the club Monaco. Like Pékerman, as well as the Colombian team as a whole, Falcao and Rodriguez are distanced from the corruption of the nineties by more than just sixteen years. “They have become normal stars,” Vasquez said. “That is something that can exist. This team hasn’t grown up with the drug money. It hasn’t grown up in a league where teams are owned by drug lords.”

Pékerman has tried to balance the youth and vitality of his team with experience. The team’s captain, the defender Mario Yepes, thirty-eight, is the third-most capped player in Colombian history (behind Valderrama and Leonel Leonel Alvarez, the coach Pékerman succeeded), and he is partnered in central defense with Luis Perea, thirty-five. The backup goalkeeper, Faryd Mondragón, a fan favorite and the only remnant of the Colombian teams of the nineties, will turn forty-three during the World Cup. If he sees action, he’ll become the oldest player ever to play in the tournament.

For a team that has lived in the shadow of its past for so long, this World Cup could become its defining moment. “This is part of the story,” Vásquez said, “that there are no stories about this team. These guys now are really so regular. They’re just good footballers. There’s nothing much you can say about them.”

Next month in Brazil, they hope to change that.

David Gendelman is research editor at Vanity Fair. Follow him on Twitter at @gendelmand.