It’s been a week now, and the shock has worn off. Colombia is getting used to the idea of a World Cup without its best player and spirit animal, Radamel “El Tigre” Falcao.
To many, it was only a matter of time before something like this happened. Those with vivid memories of the ’94 Cup, the last time the Colombian national team went into a major international tournament behind this much hype, seem to react with a certain fatal resignation to the image of their national icon being taken down from behind by some third-rate hack from the French league. For other, less jaded, fans, his torn ACL is a national disaster.
Falcao himself is convinced he could still be playing come June in Brazil, or at least pretended that he was when he spoke with Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos, who has apparently become quite the soccer fan in recent months and took time out of his busy schedule to visit the wounded hero on his hospital bed last weekend.
The Monaco striker had flown to Portugal last Friday, where he underwent surgery and began early rehab treatment with one of the world’s foremost ACL experts, Jose Carlos Noronha. Noronha, by all accounts, is a certified witchdoctor in all fields knee-related, and the surgery apparently went off without incident. So it is at least possible that El Tigre will be up and running through the tall grass by this summer.
Still, to anyone who’s spent the last week watching incessant slow-motion replays of the national team captain buckling over his own leg on Colombian television, it seems desperate and almost cruel to hope for such a scenario. Even if Falcao could be ready in less than five months time, it’s hard to imagine how rushing him into the world’s most competitive sporting event on one-and-a-half legs could be good for his long-term recovery, or the World Cup prospects of the Colombian side, for that matter.
Falcao’s injury is a blow, to be sure, but more to morale than to quality. “Los Cafeteros” always had an overabundance of attacking talent. Common thinking was that only a truly class performance from Falcao would make the Colombians a serious threat to win the tournament, but now that he’s fading from the picture, the expectations surrounding FIFA’s fourth-ranked team in the world are going to fall much farther than the actual level of play will.
For reasons that have never been abundantly clear, Head Coach Jose Nestor Pekerman hasn’t taken to Porto striker Jackson Martinez. Instead, Pekerman likes the mercurial Teofilo Gutierrez, who can sometimes be convinced to play decent soccer. It’s not clear why that is, either, but it seems like a classic example of the kind of forced over-coaching tacticians like Pekerman are susceptible to. Martinez is a lot better than Gutierrez, and not dramatically worse than Falcao, or any other striker in the world.
Because Martinez only occasionally plays for Colombia, and has played a bit nervously when he has, it’s easy to forget that he would be the top attacking threat on about half the teams in the World Cup and a regular feature for most of the others. At 6’1″, Martinez is strong in the air, holds up play well and is faster and better with the ball than he has any right to be. He finishes with either foot or his head, and finds a way to do so at a consistently high rate. So far this season with Porto, he has 13 goals in 16 games — as compared to Falcao’s nine goals in the same number of appearances with AS Monaco — along with two goals in six games in the Champion’s League. He shoots twice as much per game as Falcao, makes twice as many key passes, and is offsides half as often, according to WhoScored.com.
In other words, not only does Martinez’s size bring a target presence and aerial threat Falcao doesn’t, but — as weird as this is to say — he has also been statistically better than his Porto predecesor so far this season.
It’s useful to keep in mind that this wouldn’t be the first time Martinez has been asked to fill in for Falcao. When Martinez arrived in Porto, the team had just sold its two best players in Hulk and the Tiger, and the doubts were swirling all around. That year, Martinez took Porto to Portuguese Superliga — going undefeated in league play — and Portuguese Supercup championships and to the round of 16 in the Champions League. He scored 34 goals in 43 total games, approximately 20 of which were silly, and broke a record set by his Colombian counterpart, scoring 11 goals in his first 12 games. Along the way, it’s fair to say, he answered a number of questions.
Martinez didn’t do all of that alone, but that’s actually another reason to get excited about incorporating some “Cha Cha Cha” into the sometimes chaotic symphony of speed and aggressive talent that is the Colombian offense. During that 2012-2013 run, Martinez benefited from the services of fellow countrymen James Rodriguez, who has since assumed conductor duties for the Colombian national team. In international soccer, where the best teams have all taken to using club soccer as a proxy for the training ground, these little connections are devastating. Now it’s Rodriguez who’s left Porto, leaving Juan Fernando Quintero, another diminutive lefty ball-wizard for Los Cafeteros, with the enviable task of feeding Jackson Martinez goals.
The relationship has worked well for both of them over in Portugal, and there’s no reason to think it wouldn’t transfer to Brazil. Of course, there’s not much time for Pekerman to go tinkering with the formula, and his generally conservative approach to things so far suggests he wouldn’t want to anyways. If anything could force the Argentine out of his comfort zone, though, the loss of his best player and captain might just do it. Unfortunately, Falcao’s injury is probably the excuse Pekerman never needed to turn a legitimately deadly group of talent into a stale defensive shell. But even the possibility that Quintero, the 2013 U-20 World Cup Golden Boot winner, sees the light of day — alongside a midfield comprised of, say, Freddy Guarin, Juan Guillermo Cuadrado, Macnelly Torres and Carlos Sanchez, with Martinez lurking up top, Pablo Armaro and Camilo Zuñiga flying down the wings, and James Rodriguez keeping time — should be enough to restore most of the faith that snapped along with Radamel Falcao’s anterior cruciate ligament.
Martinez isn’t the only option. Carlos Bacca has been playing well for Sevilla, and Luis Fernando Muriel is coming back into form at Udinese after sitting out several months with an injury. There’s little doubt that Colombia is still a better team with Falcao on the field, but Falcao was also an excuse to err on the safe side. Now that he’s gone, the need for a proactive attacking lineup is hard to ignore. And even if Pekerman decides to stay the course, Colombia doesn’t lack for players who can do an at least passable job of anchoring the offense.
What Colombia lose in Falcao is the sense of constant danger, the atmosphere of fear, he inspires in opposing defenses, the confidence that given a sliver of an opening, Los Cafeteros can sieze a game. What Colombia doesn’t lose, however, is the ability to compete at an elite level and put up goals against any team in the world.
Relax a bit if you want, world, but don’t sleep on Colombia.