Made in Colombia

In a country desperate to believe in something, Colombian soccer offers...something.
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Blow the whistle.

Image via Wikimedia Commons.

BOGOTA—Colombia is a country desperate to believe.

The drug wars are not over, the politics are not clean, the city is not safe, but life is changing slowly, inevitably, and almost certainly for the better. The 2010 transition of power from President Álvaro Uribe to President Juan Miguel Santos Juan Manuel Santos was “one of the most peaceful in decades.” Sure, there were car bombings soon after in protest of Santos’ assumption of power—officials blamed the left-wing FARC rebels—and Uribe was tied to paramilitary groups. But his associates in question were sent to jail. Former navy colonel Luis Fernando Borja Giraldo will be behind bars for the next 21 years after he was convicted of murdering civilians. Colombian citizens consider this great progress. And it is. This is no longer Pablo Escobar’s Colombia. It is something much closer to an organized, impressive, legitimate country.

Obvious signs of progress pop up everywhere in the capital city: the constant, massive public works projects, the ambitious TransMilenio rapid bus system, the trendy shops, the beautifully architected galleries, and the new restaurants scattered around neighborhoods like La Candelaria and La Macarena. One man’s dilapidated concrete mass is another man (or woman’s) Italian joint, where the chef hangs freshly made pasta in the dining room’s antique armoire. The here-and-there boutiques wouldn’t be out of place in Brooklyn, Philadelphia, or San Francisco, although the crumbling buildings that surround the individual outposts of culture remind a tourist that he is decidedly not in Williamsburg, or even Mendoza, anymore.

But you can easily imagine these neighborhoods developing, slowly filling out a vision of what they can become if a few more young Colombians say ¡Si! to the ¿Se vende? signs that dot the landscape. The local entrepreneurs are always young, because only kids dare to invest. While they understand the past—the failed reforms, the failed presidents, the almost-failed state—these optimistic pioneers also imagine progress. They believe, but they are a minority. They need some compadres to join their ranks.

Like the nation's capital city, Colombia’s soccer team appears on the brink of revising some terrible trends, although the bright yellow of their jerseys could also be read as caution flags. A quarterfinal appearance in the 1990 World Cup—the country's first World Cup since 1962—and a stunningly impressive qualification campaign led to massive expectations for the 1994 tournament. Those expectations crumbled into a shocking first-round exit, and soured into tragedy with the shooting death of defender Andrés Escobar in Medellin. Eccentric but brilliant goalie René Higuita—he of the Scorpion Kick—missed the World Cup disaster while serving a seven-month jail sentence for acting as a ransom money courier in a kidnapping case. (See The Two Escobars for more on 1994 and the Colombian national side.) The Golden Generation—Carlos Valderrama, Freddy Rincón, Faustino Asprilla, Harold Lozano— bowed out after the first round of France 1998, failing to meet even reasonable expectations. While Colombia (nicknamed Los Cafeteros or the Coffee Growers) prevailed in the 2001 Copa America, CONMEBOL almost moved the tournament from the country due to security concerns. Argentina, the best team in the region that year, dropped out at the last minute citing dangerous conditions. Despite boasting impressive talent, Colombia failed to qualify for World Cups in 2002, 2006, and 2010, a trio of results that didn't shock a local population steeled against chaos and disorganization.

But belief in the national team is returning. Led by the offensive brilliance of FC Porto Atletico Madrid's Radamel Falcao—happily married to Lorelei Dahiana Taron, whom he surprisingly met at a church (Even in a continent that prides itself on the marital transgressions of its footballers, Colombia’s men are legendary)—the backline work of Cristián Zapata and captain Mario Yepes, and the strong leadership of Medellin-born manager Hernán Darío Gómez and his 4–1–4–1 system, the squad entered the 2011 Copa America hoping to finish second in their group to host Argentina. They were 20–1 underdogs to win the entire 12-team affair, but they could certainly earn enough points against Bolivia and a depleted Costa Rica to reach the quarterfinals. After that, perhaps this new, uniting Colombia could experience a miracle together?

CARTAGENA—The fifth-largest city in the country is one that finds itself lost between worlds. The Spanish colonized the area in 1533, and more than 450 years later, huge, Miami Beach-style hotels crowd the coastline mere miles from the airport. Just down the road, the walled city smashes together architecture styles of the past three hundred years. The fluorescent lights of a Benetton shop illuminate the disorganized shelves of a neighboring general store whose grizzled owner survived the worst of the drug wars. The highlight of a local history museum is its collection of grisly torture devices, including the rack, a crown of thorns, and a display detailing (in English) the 25 questions to ask a potential witch. The beach across the main road from the opulent high-rises has more in common with New England's gray coast than the Caribbean's limpid splendor. It's an odd place.

It is June 2, 2011. Colombia is playing Costa Rica in both teams’ first match of the Copa. In the southeast corner of Plaza de San Diego, sweating locals watch the game on a tiny television perched on a bodega’s Coca Cola cooler. Heat and apathy mute their support. They watch mostly because doing so provides an excuse to stand without moving for two hours. Rabid passion this is not.

Supporting Argentina and Brazil is easy; they may fall short of expectations, but they compete and traditionally play a pretty brand of football. Colombians know better than to expect anything simple. They aren’t fairweather fans so much as they are realists with the perspective gained through decades of disappointments. At some point, they learn. Politicians aren’t the only ones who inspire hope, then crush dreams.

Eight people watch in a nearby sports bar that features four too-small TVs and enough speakers to overwhelm 80 spectators. Photos of random icons—Pedro Martinez, Hakeem Olajuwon, and, for some reason, John Lennon—adorn the walls. Three young men spend the entire first half playing with their cellphones. Another trio (two retirees and their granddaughter) half-watch the action through three sets of glazed eyes. No one touches the one-third full bottle of Chivas Regal in front of them.

Costa Rica goes down a man in the 27th minute after Randell Brenes’ sloppy challenge, and Los Cafeteros capitalize seconds before halftime. Gustavo Adrián Ramos receives an impressively weighted chip, takes a heavy touch with his right foot, and barely catches up to the pelota in time to slot it home with his left foot. The effort is simultaneously brilliant and humbling, sloppy and stunning and classically Colombian. There is almost no reaction from the patrons in the bar. Even the announcer seems shocked, sitting silently for a moment before his voice explodes through fuzzed-out speakers: “¡COLOMBIA, COLOMBIA, COLOMBIA!”

SANTA MARTA—Until recently, tourist guidebooks specifically warned against traveling to the country's oldest city. Under the heading stay safe, Wikitravel says succinctly: “Santa Marta is a dangerous place so you should be very cautious here especially at night.”

Today, however, change is coming rapidly to the increasingly tourist-focused destination. Hordes of families pack the picturesque beach of Santa Marta Bay while oil tankers—reminders of the region's other industry—dominate the horizon. The nights are more relaxed, especially in La Guia Centro Historico, a 13-by-8-block area sandwiched between la playa and La Avenida del Ferrocarrill. Restaurants offering gastronomia artistica are scattered along La Guia’s blocks. Tourists and locals wander around at night, unconcerned, alighting here for a bite, then out for a drink or two at one of the dozen inviting bars in and around Plaza San Francisco. It’s not the West Village, but life is good and occasionally great.

The square buzzes hours before Colombia plays the host Argentines. The win against Costa Rica—and Argentina’s difficult win over Bolivia—has created a belief that Falcao and company can contain the diminutive Lionel Messi and his minions. This hope looks to be rewarded, as Los Cafeteros outplay La Albiceleste in the early stages of the match. Fredy Guarín, the lesser-known Porto man on Colombia’s roster, is a revelation. Only the exploits of goalie Sergio Romero keep the ball out of the Argentine net. Colombia is rolling, the micheladas made with Aguila Light (3.39 percent ABV) refreshing on the humid night, and the plaza is transfixed.

On the game telecast, ads continually pop up in a split-screen with the action. One, for the telecommunications network Gloria, seems particularly poignant. Nos gusta creer, the tagline repeats relentlessly. We want to believe.

Two hours later, the game ends in a scoreless draw, a fair result—although 1–1 or 2–2 would have made more sense given the number of opportunities. In Santa Fe, Argentina’s fans boo their team off the field. More than 3,100 miles away, Colombians in Santa Marta breathe a sigh of relief as their squad finds itself nearly through to the quarterfinals. Si se puede, probablemente.

POSTSCRIPT—Colombia finishes on top of their group courtesy of a 2–0 victory over Bolivia. As the suddenly confident nation watched, they met surprise quarterfinalist Peru in the first elimination round.

Then, predictably, disaster. Falcao misses the net on a penalty kick just after the hour mark, and despite Colombia's domination in most every major statistical category (and many irrelevant ones), the match winds its way into extra time. In the 101st minute, goalie Neco Martinez—unscored-upon and almost flawless during the tournament’s three group stage fixtures—charges out for a free kick, runs into a teammate, and fails to hold the looping ball. It falls to Peru’s Juan Vargas, who doesn’t miss. Neither does Carlos Lobaton 10 minutes later, when another unforced Martinez error gifts Peru the insurance they need.

The run is over. Colombia disappears from Copa America with the kind of inexplicable loss their fans find themselves explaining away all too frequently.

***

Fast-forward five months. Colombia, along with eight other CONMEBOL teams, is attempting to qualify for the 2014 World Cup. (It's nice how soccer just keeps coming, no?) Four of the nine will reach soccer's biggest tournament, played three summers from now in Brazil.

Colombia's qualifying campaign starts well enough. After a bye on Matchday 1, Falcao's goal in the third minute of second-half stoppage time gives his country a dramatic 2-1 victory at 12,000 feet in La Paz. It is the type of triumph that sends expectations soaring.

Then, predictably, collapse. First, Colombia allows Venezuela’s Frank Feltscher to score with 12 minutes remaining in Barranquilla’s Estadio Metropolitano Roberto Meléndez, and three points became one. Less than a week later, Lionel Messi then Sergio Aguero score after the break, turning a 0–1 halftime deficit into a 2–1 victory for Argentina. (Messi, normally exceptionally modest, on the match: “It was hard. We did not deserve to go one goal behind to the opponents, as they were not better than us.”) After four of 18 matchdays, Colombia is sixth of nine, outside looking in on the world’s biggest tournament.

For all that, the Gold, Blue, and Red’s campaign for the 2014 World Cup is far from over. Almost two years of CONMEBOL qualification and 13 games remain. Los Cafeteros don't play again until a June date with traditional South American punching bag Peru. (Punching bag except, you know, for that Copa result.) The quest for Brazil 2014 is in its early days. But the people of Colombia can’t be optimistic after watching the late match disasters on November 11 and 15. They have seen this story unfold too many times before.

The country's soccer federation agrees. They fire coach Leonel Alvarez in the middle of December and are planning to hire Argentine José Pékerman. (Alvarez lasted just four months. He replaced Darío Gómez, who resigned in August after hitting a woman in a Bogota bar.) Pékerman previously led his native country during the 2006 World Cup. They lost in the quarterfinals when they conceded an equalizer to Germany's Miroslav Klose in the 80th minute and fell 4-2 on penalties. The coach resigned after the match. But everyone deserves a second chance. Countries, too.


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