Joy, respect as Mondragon ends quest
No sooner had the final whistle blown than Faryd Mondragon was down on his knees. Even with the world's TV cameras zooming in, the then-27-year-old goalkeeper could hold back no longer. Head in his hands, he started to cry.
Goals from England's Darren Anderton and David Beckham in Colombia's final group game had sent the South Americans tumbling out of the 1998 World Cup in the first round.
Mondragon was inconsolable. He had been the star performer as an aging Colombia, led by 36-year-old talisman Carlos Valderrama, marked their last appearance at a World Cup finals with an insipid display.
But 16 years later, the unthinkable happened. With Colombia marching to a crushing 4-1 win over Japan in their final group game, the 43-year-old made World Cup history.
For 20 years, Cameroon's Roger Milla had held the tournament's record as the oldest player to ever appear at a finals. But with just six minutes left on the clock in Cuiaba and with Colombia's place as Group C winners sealed, coach Jose Pekerman beckoned for the veteran keeper to enter the field.
In a crescendo of joy, emotion and pride, Mondragon took the gloves from Colombia custodian David Ospina and slotted between the goals.
The clamber for Mondragon's inclusion had rippled around the Arena Pantanal only minutes before with chants of "Fayrd, Faryd, Faryd." But the realisation of that demand lifted the roof on a stadium again swamped in yellow Colombian jerseys.
Even the Japanese journalists, drowned in sorrow at seeing their side limp out of the tournament as Group C's bottom side, took to their feet in appreciation.
It may have been a symbolic gesture from Pekerman in fulfilling Mondragon's most special night, but few could argue he didn't deserve it.
Only three days before, he had celebrated his 43rd birthday trapped in the confines of Colombia's training ground on the outskirts of Sao Paulo. It was perhaps the fitting setting for a man who has spent almost his entire adult life as a professional footballer.
Having made his debut for Colombian side Deportivo Cali in 1990 in a 1-0 win against Santa Fe in Bogota, Mondragon played the next 24 years in seven countries before returning home to Colombia two years ago to pull the curtain down on a glorious career.
His early career showed rich promise, but after moves to Santa Fe, Real Cartagena, Paraguayan side Cerro Porteno and Argentinos Juniors, it was at Independiente in Buenos Aires where he began to make his name.
To this day, El Turco is considered the best foreigner goalkeeper to ever play for the club, and his startling performances won him a move to Europe, where he would really leave his mark.
Spells in Spain and France didn't really work out and it was while at Real Zaragoza that he hit the bottom, admitting he almost packed football in for good.
"I wasn't playing well and the fans didn't like me," Mondragon recalls in an interview with Colombian journalist Mauricio Silva. "I locked myself in my room, turned off the lights and really doubted myself. There was even a moment when I considered accepting one of the many offers I had had to become a model."
The catwalk's loss was Galatasaray's gain, and in a six-year spell playing in Turkey, Mondragon sealed his place as club legend. His performances in the domestic league and in the Istanbul side's Champions League campaign were his finest years, but in an interview I did with him last year he admitted it was during this time that brought him his biggest regret.
"I've played everywhere but I always wanted to be in the Premier League," Mondragon confessed over an ice-pop at Cali's training ground.
"I almost signed for Liverpool [in 1994] but on the day I landed at the airport, manager Gerard Houllier was sacked."
The deal fell through and in 2007 Mondragon shuttled off to Cologne in the German second division, where he played a key role in their promotion campaign. Even back then and well into his thirties, the records kept falling. In keeping 10 straight clean sheets for Cologne, he beat German great Oliver Kahn's run for the most shutouts in the Bundesliga.
A move to the United States with the Philadelphia Union followed before he returned to his hometown club Cali in 2012 to complete a cycle of more than two decades.
It was meant to be the final chapter of his career -- the slump into retirement with the club that had provided him with his big chance.
But a call from Colombia coach Jose Pekerman in August 2012 provided Faryd with his final swan song. Having appeared as an unused sub on Colombia's 1994 World Cup squad and as the country's No. 1 in 1998, he was now brought back into the national team fold.
In his first two qualifiers in charge Pekerman had seen his young side shorn of leaders and experience. Faryd would be the bridge between Colombia's last golden generation and the new one.
For the rest of qualifying Mondragon would be there, offering advice, working the changing room and imparting his many years of experience playing at the highest level to Colombia's rising tide of talent.
One of the most under-played parts of Pekerman's extraordinary impact has been in the small details the wily coach has introduced, worked on and perfected in his two years in charge.
"These are human beings and we have to look after that side of affairs," Pekerman said just last week. "We have to really make sure everyone is OK."
Mondragon played a key role in the silent but vital development of the squad and Colombia's rise to international football's top level once again.
"This achievement is not about me," Mondragon said post-match, having had time to wipe away the tears of joy at the final whistle. "This is for Colombian football and all those who have supported me throughout my career."