After nearly 11 years of underachieving—since their 2001 Copa America championship victory—the Colombian National Team has finally been playing to their potential. Years of defensive play and rotating lineups, game after game, finally stopped when the old guard of managers was no longer involved.
Prior manager and former Colombian legend Leonel Alvarez started sticking to a core team that consisted of David Ospina (OGC Nice), Juan Zuniga (Napoli), Pablo Armero (Udinese), Mario Yepes (AC Milan), Carlos Sanchez (Valencienes), Abel Aguilar (Deportivo La Coruna), Freddy Guarin (Inter Milan) and Radamel Falcao (Atletico Madrid). But the results didn’t coincide with the talent at hand.
After a rough start to the 2014 World Cup qualifiers, Alvarez was replaced with Jose Pekerman, former Argentina manager during the 2006 World Cup. Pekerman has an exceptional reputation for organizing tactics and playing to win as opposed to playing not to lose—the Colombian mentality for many years.
Pekerman, who has been a big fan of incorporating playmakers on the pitch (Juan Riquelme with Argentina during 2005 and 2006), brought back to the national fold players like Aldo Ramirez (Morelia) and Macnelly Torres (Atletico Nacional) who were used sparingly under managers such as Eduardo Lara, Hernan Dario Gomez and Jorge Pinto.
But even more crucial has been the emergence of James Rodriguez (FC Porto).
The attacking left midfielder brings pace, ball control, free kick ability, and pinpoint passing. At just 22 years old, James has already become Porto’s best player and has changed Colombian soccer to an attack-oriented team.
The days of hunkering down no longer exist as James has had “man of the match”-like performances against Bolivia (2-1), Peru (1-0), Uruguay (4-0), Chile (3-1) and Paraguay (2-0). While James is already a household name in Colombia and Portugal, expect him to become a mainstream star in due time like his former Porto teammate and current best striker in the world, Radamel Falcao.
Falcao has been the epitome of consistency over the past four years. Ever since leaving River Plate in Argentina, the striker has become more dangerous with each passing game. While at Porto for two seasons between 2009 and 2011, the striker led the Portuguese powerhouse to a Europa League title while setting the record for most goals scored in the tournament.
Receiving an offer they could not refuse, Porto sold Falcao to Atletico Madrid, where the striker linked up with his former River Plate manager Diego Simeone. Without wasting any time in transition to the new league, Falcao had the third most goals in La Liga during the 2011-12 season and was integral in leading Atletico to the Europa League title, Atletico’s second such title in three years and Falcao’s second title in as many years.
The world really took notice of the No. 9 when he scored a hat-trick in the first half against Chelsea in the UEFA Super Cup, leading Atletico to a 4-1 victory. So far in the 2012-13 campaign, Falcao has yet to slow down and has been able to keep up with the likes of Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo as top scorers in La Liga.
Between the rise of James Rodriguez and the tactics of Pekerman, Falcao has been able to duplicate his club form at the national team level by scoring five goals in the last six matches (five of those games being World Cup Qualifying matches).
Additional factors such as super-sub Juan Cuadrado (Fiorentina) and defensive midfielders Carlos Sanchez and Edwin Valencia (Fluminese) have been able to provide a good balance of possession and defense, thus allowing players like Falcao and James to roam more freely up the field.
The main concern for Colombia has been in the middle of the defense. While captain Mario Yepes (AC Milan) has been able to prove that there is still gas left in the tank, one must wonder if the 36-year-old can continue to play amongst the world’s elite. What he lacks in match fitness (not the everyday CB for Milan), he makes up for with his brains and leadership.
The depth chart for the defensive line is quite thin, so it is crucial that players such as Zuniga, Armero, Yepes, Luis Perea (Cruz Azul), Aquivaldo Mosquera (America) and Carlos Valdes (Philadelphia Union) stay active and healthy. So far the defensive core has been able to perform well in every match, but Pekerman must be sure to phase in new players as the qualifiers continue so that any potential defender is prepared to handle such a high-pressure role.
To wrap up 2012, Colombia will face Brazil in an international friendly on November 14 at Metlife Stadium in New Jersey. Brazil is starting to form an identity by putting together a core team that includes Neymar (Santos), Hulk (Zenit), Oscar (Chelsea), Ramires (Chelsea), Lucas Moura (Sao Paulo) and veteran playmaker Kaka (Real Madrid). This match will be a good test for Colombia.
For the first time since the days of Carlos Valderrama and Faustino Asprilla, Colombia now has a team that is not only playing to their potential but is in control of their own destiny as they look to qualify for their first World Cup appearance since 1998.
With less than two years to go before the 2014 World Cup, things are looking very bright for Colombia.