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UEFA Europa League

Inside France's World Cup ceremony

 By Tim Vickery

Colombia finally impress amid mixed fortunes for South American teams

In 2006, Ecuador enjoyed their best-ever World Cup. Four years later, it was the turn of Paraguay and then, in 2014, Colombia. Meanwhile, the last two tournaments were also the best in the history of Chile, with the exception of 1962, which they hosted.

So while South America might not have taken home the prize since Brazil's fifth win in 2002, the continent has shown admirable strength in depth in recent times. Indeed, only one CONMEBOL team -- Ecuador in 2014, somewhat unluckily -- failed to make it out of the group stage in the last two editions. The current competition, though, has been more cruel.

True, Uruguay have coasted into the second round -- though even they are not happy with the way they have been playing -- but the continent had to wait for the second week to register another winner and that came only thanks to Brazil's stoppage-time triumph vs. Costa Rica.

Meanwhile, Peru are already out and Argentina are fighting for their lives. So it was something of a relief when, on Sunday, Colombia earned a 3-0 win against Poland that was, without question, the South American performance of the tournament so far.

No one who followed the qualification campaign can be unduly surprised that the continent's teams have struggled. Brazil finished a massive 10 points ahead of the rest through a mixture of their own merits and the deficiencies of the opposition, but the overall standard was the worst seen for 20 years.

In Russia, Brazil have occasionally come close to hitting the heights -- the first 20 minutes against Switzerland, for example, as well as the last six against Costa Rica -- but the fact that the opposition is tougher brings psychological problems as well as technical ones, so it will be fascinating to see how they cope.

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To be fair to Peru, despite back-to-back defeats, their performances have exceeded expectations and, with some better luck, they would be going into their final group game with a chance of making the last 16.

This was their first World Cup since 1982; for a side that did not even close to reaching recent tournaments, they have given a fine account of themselves. Ricardo Gareca's side has made huge gains in confidence over the last two years, and, with a young side, has laid a marker for the future.

Uruguay finished the qualifiers in second place, finding an interesting blend at the end of the campaign when they boldly promoted recent graduates of their under-20 side. Their ball-playing midfield has yet to impose itself upon the World Cup; the attacking limitations of 4-4-2 can see the central two outnumbered. Their look at 3-5-2 in training for the Russia game makes perfect sense, therefore, and should make for an interesting experiment.

Argentina are fortunate that they still have a chance to save themselves, and it will be fascinating to see whether backs-to-the-wall desperation will spark a revival. To date, though, they have replicated the shambolic, disjointed displays they were producing in qualification and which saw them reach Russia only on the final day.

Which leaves Colombia, whose win over Poland was almost certainly the best performance they have produced since the last World Cup and in a different league from their stodgy displays not only in qualification, but also in the Copa Americas of 2015 and 2016.

The explanation for this can be found in one player: Juan Fernando Quintero. He went to Brazil as understudy to James Rodriguez and scored against Ivory Coast but, since then, he did not play a single competitive game for his country until last week vs. Japan.

He lost form, focus and fitness and, it seemed, interest but the prospect of another World Cup has rekindled his fire and the return of Quintero to the national team has changed its characteristics. With him on his own, as was the case against Japan when he scored with a free kick, there is always the chance of something happening.

And with him and James Rodriguez, as was the case vs. Poland, there is the chance of pure football, with association and imagination at pace. With the ball for Radamel Falcao's goal among the highlights, Quintero laid the platform for Colombia to pass holes in the Polish defence and celebrate a memorable victory.

Tim Vickery covers South American football for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Tim_Vickery.


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