It is midnight at El Campin in Bogota, and for once the Colombia dressing room is silent. Instead of the usual salsa strains, tonight it is Mexican music that is echoing down the stadium's corridors.
Trying to lift the mood in the wake of the hosts' elimination from the FIFA U-20 World Cup, the country’s president Juan Manuel Santos pays a visit to Eduardo Lara’s crestfallen squad, though the look on his face as he emerges from the changing room reflects the air of dejection. And as FIFA.com found out for itself, it will be some time before the Cafetero players are smiling again after Saturday’s 3-1 quarter-final loss to Mexico.
“We’re sad because we expected more,” said Colombia’s downcast goalkeeper Cristian Bonilla, his voice barely audible. “We made mistakes and we paid dearly for them. Life goes on, of course, and we’ll carry on playing for Colombia, but this hurts and it hurts a lot.”
Midfielder Michael Ortega, who plays for Mexican club Atlas, was next to offer his thoughts to the FIFA.com microphone. On the verge of tears and clutching a packet of sweets in his hand, he stared blankly at the ground as he summed up the mood in the Colombia camp: “There’s a lot of sadness, as you’d expect. We fought hard and we gave our all, but it wasn’t enough. The Colombian people are sad but we’re even more disappointed. Only God knows how he goes about his work.”
Ortega can be proud of his efforts in the competition. The brains of the Colombia team, the midfielder served up four assists, not to mention countless examples of his skill, smoothing his side’s path to the last eight.
“You always try to do your very best and more for this jersey,” he continued. “All we can do is apologise to the fans for failing to fulfil their dreams, but we’ll keep on fighting and try to make everyone happy.”
Coupled with the senior team’s encouraging showing at the recent Copa America, the performance of the U-20 side, many of whom formed part of the team that finished fourth at the FIFA U-17 World Cup Nigeria 2009, has given Colombia fans every reason to be optimistic about the future. What is more, several members of Eduardo Lara’s side look ready to make the step up to the full national team.
Captain and defensive bulwark Pedro Franco is one of them. “We wanted to bring joy to the fans and we put absolutely everything we had into it,” he said. “We really are sorry, but we have to look to the future. We have a long way to go and I’m sure we’ll be able to draw on this experience for our careers.”
Franco and his team-mates are nearing the end of their apprenticeships, and their graduation to full international honours cannot be far away. The tireless Jose Valencia never stopped working and was a major threat up front, James Rodriguez oozed class throughout the tournament, and the imposing Luis Muriel showed that he will soon be pushing Radamel Falcao and Teofilo Gutierrez for a place in the Colombia attack.
Their displays were deserving of the ovation that the massed ranks of Cafetero fans gave them following their elimination in front of a packed El Campin. Fabian Castillo, one of the survivors of Nigeria 2009 and an outstanding performer on the left flank, voiced the squad’s gratitude for the support they received.
“We’d like to thank everyone,” he said. “The fans have shown how passionate Colombia is, not just tonight but in every game. They applauded us, which we all appreciate a lot, and I hope they carry on watching the World Cup in spite of this.”
One thing they will be watching for sure is the progress of the young men who have enraptured the country in the last few weeks.