Entering the 88th minute of their Round-of-16 tie with Argentina, Colombia had one foot and four toes on a flight back to Bogota. Fast forward to the final minute of their quarter-final meeting with Turkey and once again delegation members were mentally preparing their exit, but despite those scrapes Los Cafeteros are through to the last four at the FIFA U-17 World Cup Nigeria 2009. A pair of last-gasp equalisers, both scored by substitutes, have kept Colombia in contention, prompting praise for their adventurous coach and the depth of their squad. FIFA.com decided to look a little closer at the talent coming off the Colombian bench.
"Don't think I ask my players to wait until they're losing before they react," joked coach Ramiro Viafara after the breath-taking penalty shoot-out win over Turkey. "However, the first thing I was taught in football is that anything can happen until the referee blows the final whistle." The second was quite possibly that success depends not only a starting 11 but a full squad of players, and those twin principles have served Colombia well at Nigeria 2009.
Up against their South American neighbours in the last 16, Los Cafeteros drew level through Jean Blanco in the 88th minute, the goalscorer having entered the fray just two minutes previously. "I saw there were chances to score and I wanted to come on to help my team," the youngster told FIFA.com a few hours after his arrival in Lagos for the semi-finals. "Of course, there's nothing better than being a starter, but it makes me happy to know I can come off the bench and make the difference. When a chance comes along, you need to be able to seize it."
When two come along, the same rules apply, as Hector Quinones proved three minutes after his team-mate's leveller. Having also come off the bench, the Deportivo Cali defender added the finishing touch to a move in stoppage time to send his side through to the quarter-finals. "The coach prepares us for that," said Quinones, preferring to pass the praise on to Viafara rather than bask in it himself. "He explains that he has absolute confidence in all of us, but that he can only field 11 players. So it doesn't matter whether we start or not: we're all ready to try to sort out any problems as soon as we're asked."
Anyone thinking Colombia's win over Argentina owed more to luck than preparation did not have to wait long for another insight into Viafara's motivational qualities and tactical flexibility. Against Turkey, El Profesor, as he is called by his players, once again made telling substitutions in response to an opponent's strengths and weaknesses. This time, the late call went out to Jorge Luis Ramos - one of the tallest players in the Colombian squad - and the newcomer quickly made his physical presence felt to restore parity with a last-minute header. Hard to believe that was just another coincidence.
Grabbing headlines with last-gasp goals is no guarantee of a starting berth next time out, however, and Colombia's 'supersubs' have learnt to take that reality in their stride. "We tease each other about it a lot," said Ramos, who went on to convert his penalty after nodding in the equaliser against Turkey. "Blanco and I couldn't stop ourselves telling the players who went off that it was us who'd scored and made the difference."
The laughter that greeted that anecdote only confirmed the point, and underlined Ramos's next statement once the three late scorers had settled down. "Our strength is our sense of sacrifice and our love of the shirt," he said. "It's thanks to those qualities that we've reached this far."
An impressive Switzerland side now lie in wait for Colombia in the semi-finals, but Los Cafeteros are already looking beyond their next outing. "We came here to play seven matches," explained Blanco. "With the final, there are two left. My team-mates and I all came here with the same objective: to be champions."
The Swiss would do well to heed that last sentence - he said "all" his team-mates, not just the 11 players who line up for the national anthems.