Colombia exorcise ghosts in victory
RIO DE JANEIRO -- The quadrennial nature of the World Cup breeds ghosts.
Were it an annual event, they would get lost in sameness and repetition. Instead, they thrive on the four-year pattern that virtually ensures that every country -- save, perhaps, for the juggernauts who always go deep into the competition, the Germanys and the like -- will develop a shared history, a watercooler of the mind to be stowed away and exhumed when appropriate.
It worked that way for Colombia. Twenty years ago, the team of Pacho Maturana and Carlos Valderrama suffered tragedy on the pitch at USA '94, entering the tournament among the favourites, exiting it with the humiliation of a first-round exit and a defeat to the host nation. Tragedy off the pitch would follow, with the death of Andres Escobar. Only once before had they ever advanced to the knockout stage of the tournament. This game against Uruguay was their opportunity to boldly go where no Cafetero had gone before.
Uruguay, of course, live on ghosts of a glorious past, the spectres of Hector Scarone and Jose Nasazzi, Obdulio Varela and Juan Alberto Schiaffino, staring down on them every time La Celeste take the pitch, daring them to live up to the legend of when Montevideo was the navel of the football universe.
Wherever those men are now, you know they were watching, urging Uruguay to chase what would be their biggest feat since the day they turned Maracanazo into a noun, on this very ground, 64 years ago. They took the Luis Suarez ban and the national outrage it provoked and stoked it, hoping to achieve an extra (legal) performance-enhancing dose of "Garra Charrua."
"We all know what happened; we decided to only bring out the positives from that situation," said Uruguay boss Oscar Tabarez after the game. "And that generated strength and willpower."
It also led to a Uruguay performance straight out of central casting. Without Suarez, Tabarez put his faith in Diego Forlan, hoping to coax one last miracle out of his 35-year-old legs. And, at the back, he brought down a Celeste curtain, switching to a 5-3-2 with Alvaro Pereira and Maxi Pereira wide and Diego Godin marshaling the three centre-backs. Edinson Cavani often turned into a fourth midfielder, running himself ragged chasing the speedy Colombian wide men, from Pablo Armero to Juan Cuadrado to Juan Camilo Zuniga.
It was like retreating into a nuclear bunker to weather Colombia's atomic attack. Which, on the day, Jose Pekerman had reinforced with another genuine front man, Jackson Martinez, alongside Teo Gutierrez and, behind, the legs of Cuadrado and the imagination of James Rodriguez wreaking havoc.
You knew it was going to be a siege. And it probably would have been a physical, possibly nasty one too, if referee Bjorn Kuipers -- arguably the cream of this World Cup's class -- hadn't snuffed out aggression early.
"Uruguay in the international arena has to play this way, we have to have that physicality, that attitude, that ability to take advantage of situations," Tabarez said. "I believe people understand this."
You wondered, though, to what degree the plan worked when the first 20, 25 minutes consisted of Uruguay massed deep with no signs of being able to cross the halfway line coherently. That said, maybe it was what Tabarez wanted. Colombia simply could not find a way through. They turned to the old standby. Cuadrado, often from a standing start, taking on defenders and either beating them or sucking enough of them in to lay it off to a teammate who could then circulate the ball and find space. It's the sort of thing very few players in the world can do, some kind of modern Garrincha-like voodoo, and it's one of the few potential can openers that work against the type of barricades that Uruguay erected.
Of course, one of the others is a moment of genius. Which is what James Rodriguez delivered in the 28th minute. A headed clearance fell to Abel Aguilar, who nodded it toward the Monaco virtuoso, lurking near the D with his back to goal. In one fluid, outrageous motion he chested it in the air, turned and uncorked a shot that streaked elegantly but powerfully toward Fernando Muslera's goal, before going in off the crossbar.
Standing-ovation-type stuff out of the blue. And evidence that Colombia don't just beat you with pace and power.
You expected a reaction that didn't come. At least not instantly. Uruguay seemed unable to extricate themselves from their defensive crouch, like when you've been sitting too long and your leg falls asleep.
When they did make it out, it got nervy, the great veterans Forlan and Mario Yepes (incredibly three years his senior) having their own personal stare-down after a Forlan penalty claim.
Uruguay came out for the second half with a touch more enterprise but paid a hefty price for a defensive lapse. Armero's cross to the far post found Cuadrado, who knocked it down for James' tap-in, just ahead of a scrambling Godin. Tabarez, ever the "team-first" type of manager, called it a "collective mistake." In some ways it was: the centre-backs evidently didn't believe Cuadrado could climb high enough to redirect the cross back to the waiting James.
"When they scored so early in the second half, we had no choice -- we had to gamble and go on the attack," Tabarez said.
It sounded a bit odd. Surely, being already a goal down, they would have needed to attack anyway? As it happened, with 40 minutes to go, he unleashed all the artillery he had left: Christian Stuani and Gaston Ramirez first, then, 10 minutes later, Abel Hernandez.
But in many ways, the damage was done. What had been a tremendous atmosphere at the Maracana turned distinctly Cafetera. The mixing of yellow Colombia and Selecao shirts made it seem as if there were more Colombians than Uruguayans (when, in fact, the two sides were likely even). After James' second, though, the singing was so loud, the tune carried all the way back to Bogota ... and possibly all the way back to 1994 as well.
Colombia prepared for the onslaught and, perhaps, Jose Pekerman got a little too conservative. Off went Gutierrez, on came a defensive specialist like Alexander Mejia, and the Cafetero centre of gravity was pushed back, right to the edge of their box, in what became a photo negative of the first half.
And, perhaps because Colombia aren't used to defending this way, Uruguay had their chances. Cristian Rodriguez's driving run and shot elicited a superb save from David Ospina. A mistake by Armero released Maxi Pereira one-on-one with the Nice keeper, who made himself as big as his 6-foot frame would allow to snuff out the danger. And, at the death, Cavani's fierce drive was pawed away by the scrambling Ospina.
Somewhat too close for comfort for Colombia. But what matters is they live to fight another day. And what a day. Fortaleza. Brazil. The Fourth of July. This as far as any Colombian team has ever gone; Pekerman has taken them into uncharted waters.
As for Uruguay, the pride could go only so far. You can wonder what might have been had a certain Liverpool striker been around. But you can also acknowledge that, perhaps, Colombia were shown too much respect before they had earned it. And, once they did -- with James' outrageous goal -- it took too long for Uruguay to react.
It was left to Tabarez to deliver the last bit of philosophy: "No victory is as great as it appears and no defeat as bitter as it seems. The difference between the two is actually quite small."
The ghosts of La Celeste know this all too well. Which is why they won't begrudge the men who today wear their shirts.
Gabriele Marcotti is a columnist for ESPN FC, The Times and Corriere dello Sport. Follow him on Twitter @Marcotti.