In the history of the FIFA U-20 World Cup, Portugal and Argentina are the only two nations to date to have won the title as host nation. Yet with those triumphs coming in 1991 and 2001 respectively, could Colombia be destined to follow in their footsteps in 2011?
Though their fans will hang on to every good omen they can find, Los Cafeteros’ experienced coach Eduardo Lara is not leaving anything to quirks of fate, instead preferring to rely on the hard work he has been putting in with Colombia’s national youth set-up. The 51-year-old has spent nearly a decade in the employ of the Colombian Football Association (FCF) and taken charge of sides at the FIFA U-17 World Cup Finland 2003 and the FIFA U-20 World Cup Netherlands 2005, to name just two.
“In life, I’ve learned the value of experience, trying my hand at different things and keeping my composure,” said Lara, who also had a spell in the hotseat of Colombia’s senior side during qualifying for the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa, when speaking to FIFA.com. “I’m more mature now and, of course, I have more credibility with the players.”
What is more, though many coaches would be plagued with nerves ahead of tackling a tournament of this stature at the helm of the host nation, Lara is not afraid to aim high. “Though we respect all the other teams, we’re hoping to reach the final,” said the respected youth strategist. “But I think all the coaches here in Colombia [for the tournament] are dreaming of the same thing, so we’ll have to take things calmly and one step at a time.”
‘We need everyone pulling together’
Lara’s charges face a tough opening task in Group A in the shape of 2009/10 European U-19 champions France, who, having pipped Spain to continental glory, will feel confident of going far at Colombia 2011. “It’s very important to have home advantage,” said Lara, when quizzed on how influential a packed stadium in Bogota on 30 July might be against Les Bleuets. “We shouldn’t get carried away, though. The hosts don’t get a free ride to the title.
“We’ll have to have the right attitude and show heart and desire if we want to go far,” continued the supremo, whose side banished memories of tepid displays at this year’s South American U-20 Championship by winning June’s Toulon Tournament on French soil. “We need everyone pulling together: support from the media, the Football Association and the fans. If you add all that together, it’ll help push us towards our goal.”
Much of the transformation in Los Cafeteros' fortunes since January/February’s Sudamericano in Peru is down to the incorporation of seasoned performers such as captain James Rodriguez, of UEFA Europa League holders FC Porto. “James is an important player for us, and he’s learned a lot from his time in Argentina [with Banfield] and Portugal,” said Lara of his skipper.
“He’s someone I’ve known since he was a boy, and he’s both skilful and a winner. I’m well aware of what he can do, but he’s not the only one with something to offer,” added the strategist, who can also count on key men such as Luis Muriel and Jeison Morilla, plus several veterans from the country’s FIFA U-17 World Cup Nigeria 2009 campaign.
This level of quality and big-game experience will be vital for Colombia, if they are to successfully bear the burden of expectation of the demanding home faithful. “I’d just ask the fans to believe in us and send positive vibes our way,” said Lara, as the conversation came to a close. “They’ve no need to worry: this team will give everything it’s got to get where we’re all looking to go. We must all stick together.”