Hoping to forget the past

Colombia’s World Cup history is anything but colourful and the nation has nothing to show for its four appearances thus far.

To a modern spectator, the imagery of a footballer is one with tattoos and hairstyles ranging from the crew cut to the Mohawk, to the gold standard from the 70s — the Afro.

Think Colombia, and the one enduring image is that of Carlos Valderrama — also its most capped player at 111 games — with his Tina Turneresque lion-mane Afro.

Running him close in player iconography is goalkeeper Rene Higuita — he of the famed scorpion-kick. Higuita was also infamous for that gaffe against Roger Milla of Cameroon in Italia ’90.

But, sadly for Colombia its World Cup history is anything but colourful and the nation has nothing to show for its four appearances thus far.

The national team formed in 1938 played its first official game in that year’s Central American and Caribbean Games. And as if to set the template for its future, Colombia lost to Mexico 3-1 on debut.

Colombia did not take part in the early editions of the World Cup in the 1930s and 40s. Later FIFA, after the infamous El Dorado incident of the 1950s, consigned it to the sidelines.

This was the direct result of DIMAYOR, the Colombian professional league organiser, and Adefutbol, the amateur league authority, not seeing eye to eye. FIFA stepped in and suspended Colombia’s national teams from international games.

Perversely though, this was a period in which the local league blossomed like anything.

With no affiliation to FIFA, the league was free to do as it pleased. And with Argentine players — making their way out under General Peron’s dictatorship — heading to Colombia, the team owners cashed in on it as they were not required to pay any transfer fees. Colombia finally returned from the wilderness in 1958 when it participated in the World Cup qualifiers, but failed to progress. It eventually entered the main draw four years later but was unable to progress beyond the first round.

The nation’s only noteworthy show came against the USSR. Down by three goals twice, the Colombians finally managed a 4-4 draw — a commendable result, as the Russians had Lev Yashin, considered by many as the greatest goalkeeper ever.

That match also saw a unique feat in a World Cup, being performed. Colombian Marcos Coll scored an Olympic Goal — a goal scored directly from a corner kick and named so after Argentine Cesareo Onzari had scored in similar fashion against Uruguay in the 1924 Olympics. Uruguay eventually won the title.

What followed was another 28 years away from the global spotlight. Then came the purple patch in the 1990s when Colombia qualified for three successive World Cups starting with Italia ’90. The Italian sojourn marked its best ever showing. But after having progressed to the second round for the first time, it ran into the irrepressible Milla and floundered.

Four years later, with what many consider as Colombia’s best team at the Cups till date, an off-field incident capped its dismal first round exit.

Following its opening game loss to Romania, Colombia needed a win against the U.S. But unfortunately for the side, that game came to be known for Escobar’s own-goal than anything else. And the poor fellow paid for it with his life — he was gunned down in his country by the drug cartels reeling under heavy betting losses.

The year 1998 saw the team return home with one win from three games.

Even in continental tournaments its achievements were nothing to brag about with only a 2001 Copa America title to boast of.

This win too was tempered by the fact that CONMEBOL, South America’s football governing body, was contemplating shifting the tournament to Venezuela over security issues.

It did not help matters that regional powerhouse and traditional rival, Argentina, chose to skip the tournament and other teams were alleged to have sent second-string squads.

Come June, the current crop of Colombians will be hoping to forget the past and forge a new direction for themselves.

* * * EL PIBE

1. Carlos Valderrama (1985-98): With a game as fiamboyant as his hairstyle, El Pibe (the Kid) is the face of Colombian football for most. But with just 11 goals from 111 National team appearances you could be faulted for saying he did not do enough.

As a midfielder Valderrama's (in pic) job was to create openings and here he excelled both for country and the various clubs he played for. His standout stint was in the Major League Soccer in the U.S. where he played for three different teams and racked up 114 assists.

2. Rene Higuita (1987-99): Do a youtube search for scorpion-kick goalkeeper and you will realise why he dominates the search results. Aptly called El Loco (The Madman) he is responsible for some great saves and equally foolish dribbles - he favoured the sweeper playing style often leaving his post empty - and it cost Colombia dearly in 1990.

3. Arnoldo Iguaran (1979-93): Colombia's all-time highest scorer with 25 goals for country. When he retired from professional football at 40, he was one of the oldest players ever in the country's league.

4. Freddy Rincon (1990-2001): Part of the team that hit its peak in the 1990s, Rincon is Colombia's second top-scorer with 17 goals. He was part of the team that blanked Argentina 5-0 in the 1994 qualifying phase, which led to his move to Europe via Parma, Napoli and then Real Madrid.