As the final whistle sounded at the end of Thursday's semi-final against Switzerland, the faces of the Colombia players said it all. Swept aside 4-0 in Lagos, Los Cafeteros saw their chances of reaching the final for the first time disappear in cruel fashion, leaving coach Ramiro Viafara with the job of restoring the morale of his dejected team ahead of Sunday’s match for third place.
"It’s not all negative," Viafara tells FIFA.com in the aftermath of defeat. "We can't toss away all the good work we've done up to now just because of one bad game." The coach is right to accentuate the positive. After all, his youngsters have excelled on what has been an excellent run in Nigeria, staging dramatic comebacks to knock out teams of the stature of Argentina and Turkey. What is more, they still have the incentive of claiming third place in the tournament for the first time in their history.
"We know it won't be easy to lift the boys after a game like this, not just because of the performance, which wasn't the best, but also because of the result," acknowledges Viafara. "We just weren't expecting it. We went into the game a little tired after going to extra-time against Turkey, but the early penalty and sending-off really limited our options. And against a team as good as the Swiss you pay dearly for that.”
Having experienced their power at first hand, the Cafetero coach is full of praise for their Swiss conquerors. "They are a very serious, hard-working team. They are physically strong, they have a very definite gameplan and they are also comfortable on the ball. Their players have a perfect understanding and if you catch them on a good day like today, then it’s very difficult to beat them. I don't know if they are stronger than Nigeria, but I think they have the edge on Spain."
The stars of tomorrow
The Colombians now know the identity of their opponents in Sunday’s match for third place, when they will have the opportunity to surpass their previous highest finish of fourth at Finland 2003, where they finished behind Brazil, Spain and Argentina. Six years on from that notable achievement, Viafara’s side stand on the brink of a historic moment in Colombian football history.
So how is he planning to get his troops in the right frame of mind for their meeting with the Spanish? "The vital thing will be to talk to them and make them understand that they've had a fantastic campaign up to now," comes the answer. "These kids have shown a lot of respect for themselves and the jersey and a magnificent sense of shame at their defeat. This is an experience that will stand them in great stead for the future. They are still very young, don't forget."
"Nobody saw us as one of the four candidates for the title and yet there we were, fighting for a place in the final," he continues. "We just need to take one last little step now so we can return home with a medal."
Apart from their immediate objectives, Viafara also sees a bright future for his players in the medium term. Colombia is hosting the next FIFA U-20 World Cup in 2011, and as the coach explains, he is expecting his current crop to kick on and play a part in the big event in two years' time. "I really hope they go on and earn a place in that team and I have every confidence that will be the case," he explains. "There's a long way to go yet, though. Right now we need to recover and get out there and fight for that third place, which is very important to us." Let no one be in any doubt, then: Colombia's appetite for success at Nigeria 2009 remains undiminished.