Colombia: That's entertainment
CUIABA, Brazil -- If this is a World Cup where defences and goalkeepers are coming a distant second to attacking play, then Colombia may well be the most symbolic team of all.
To lose as high grade a striker as Radamel Falcao and still look so potent going forward is a measure of the talent that coach Jose Pekerman can call on. Colombia's 2-1 defeat of Ivory Coast all but propelled them into the knockout stages, and Falcao, whose World Cup role has been reduced to that of a bystanding cheerleader, would have been proud of James Rodriguez's header for the first.
Fellow goal scorer Juan Quintero, on arriving as a substitute in the second half, looked, at 21, as if he might possess even greater potential than Rodriguez. Having neatly dispatched a goal that was set up by Rodriguez's robbery of Serey Die, he attempted to score from the halfway line in the game's closing moments. The arrogance of youth, perhaps, but Quintero's belief in his clearly huge talent was made obvious by a highly productive cameo.
After Colombia's initial attacking promise flagged at the start of the second half, Pekerman chose to switch the young Porto player into the No. 10 role that Monaco's Rodriguez had already been starring in. Colombia were rewarded with a goal from each in quick succession. Juan Cuadrado, out on the left flank, was a constant threat throughout, too.
The thought of that trio playing around Falcao suggests that Colombia might have been even better at this World Cup had it not been for their previous undoubted star ripping his cruciate in a January French Cup tie. Teofilo Gutierrez, who usually plays as Falcao's partner, did not look especially comfortable as a line leader, and was guilty of a horrendous first-half miss. That said, he provided the assist for Quintero's strike.
"It is not easy to substitute someone who was so important," said Pekerman in his postmatch news conference. "This is the effort made by many of our players. The high responsibility, the pressure of replacing Falcao represented a certain uncertainty."
Even without Falcao, Thursday's victory meant that Colombia have already surpassed the country's Italia '90 team, featuring the legendary Carlos Valderrama. That team, and both successors who flopped at both the 1994 and 1998 finals, did not manage to win two World Cup matches. Pekerman has been lauded, though the coach freely placed the credit for such success on his players, including captain Mario Yepes, who won his 100th cap leading a defensive effort that needed to be ever more dogged as the Ivorians chased an equaliser.
Pekerman was especially unsparing in his praise for Rodriguez. Unlike so many coaches in the modern game, he did not choose to play down the potential of one of his stars. "He is going to be one of the best players in the World Cup," said the former Argentina coach. "He has always shown that potential since he won a place in the national squad.
"I think that he is reaching the highest levels that a player with his characteristics can. He is maturing, he takes commitment seriously, and he has vision."
Pekerman expressed some surprise at the expert execution of the header for which Rodriguez climbed above Didier Drogba, who has always been a fine man marker, for his goal: "Today, he scored a header. That's something to add to his brilliant technical ability."
Rodriguez himself showed an engaging modesty. "I believe that when you have good players around it is easier to play," he demurred, before throwing out credit to Quintero, whose introduction was the spark for the spell of pressure that resulted in Colombia's goals.
"When Juan came in we did so well," added Rodriguez, receiving his man-of-the-match award. Quintero was the star player as Colombia won last year's South American Youth Championships, and looked anything but overawed when arriving into a match that was so finely poised.
"He has a great attitude," said Pekerman of Quintero, who has yet to fully impose himself on Porto's first team but now looks another star off a potent production line from which Rodriguez is a recent graduate. "Having him in the picture at this age is wonderful."
Colombia were willed to victory by 50,000 fans who had painted the Estadio Nacional banana yellow. Their fans have a privilege to follow a team whose entertainment levels have so far been matched only by Chile, the other South American country whose supporters are making a temporary colonisation of host cities.
Pekerman's team are not without faults; Yepes and co hardly looked as if they were impervious as Gervinho grabbed the Ivorians' only goal, but Colombia should be enjoyed as long as they remain in Brazil.