Colombia go into Friday’s quarter-final against the United Arab Emirates fully aware of the potential pitfalls confronting them. The hosts may have Matar and the backing of an increasingly animated public but the Cafeteros are confident that their collective ability combined with the rich footballing fortunes of South American youth teams will carry them through to a berth in the final four.
Dressed in all-red tracksuits, Colombia’s squad members stroll leisurely around the lobby of the Dubai hotel where the team is staying. Pleasantly fattened after lunch, some of the young stars take to their rooms to rest, others ask for internet access while still more sniff out potential bargains in the residential store.
But, as they may come to know better one day, hotel shops are rarely cheap and after having bought a large model Ferrari and other such things with their pocket money, there is little on the spanking clean shelves affordable as the competition enters its third week.
“Colgatay” two players mouth to a Kandora-attired LOC helper. “In the shop” replies the man, gesturing to the corner of the hotel. “Very expensive,” they return, blowing out their cheeks, before the helpful helper smiles and promises to get them the toothpaste before bedtime.
Fast cars and holas
Colombia’s top players of tomorrow may have stars and Ferraris in their eyes but at the moment they have not been caught up in football’s money machine and with their smiles, holas and mini-conversations with guests and visitors they are quickly endearing themselves to the locals.
“They are so kind and polite,” praised one receptionist. “Without the airs of the others. I’d be supporting them if they weren’t playing us.”
Back in the canteen, Colombia’s coaches are still finishing off their deserts. There is some uncertainty about their opponents: will they face the team that lost its opening fixture 4-1 or the one that beat the team that beat Brazil?
Whichever, coach Reinaldo Rueda expects a tough match.
“I hope we aren’t overconfident; they (UAE) deserve respect as they have reached the same stage as us,” he says as the name Matar is whispered around the table.
Rueda refuses to be drawn on Ismail Matar, recently voted second-best young Asian player of the year. News of the striker’s match-winning performance versus Australia has rapidly swept the deserts through the seven emirates and beyond, but the Colombia boss prefers to confront the team rather than the individual.
“You cannot read too much into that 4-1 result, it was a huge game played before 50,000 people and they were obviously nervous,” he says. “They are improving fast, are disciplined and have some good players. And they will have the full backing of their fans – make no mistake, it will be tough.”
While Matar was scoring a last-minute winner against Australia, Colombia were conceding a second goal and equaliser to Ireland before they finally came through the tie thanks to an Erwin Carrillo golden goal.
“It meant a lot,” Rueda emphasises by nodding his head. “We have gone into unknown territory and been able to react. Should it happen again, we’ll know what to do.”
A fine 4-1 victory over Japan was sandwiched between two 0-0 draws versus Egypt and England in the group stage, pushing them to second spot in Group D. Despite the two blanks, Rueda is happy with the way Colombia have been playing in the Emirates.
“The tournament has been pretty even up to now and that was reflected in our group. We were a bit nervous in the first game but we have gone on to play some good stuff,” he adds. “There is always room for improvement, though, especially with our shooting – this team is capable of more.”
If the favourites win out in the quarter-finals, it could be a repeat of the final four at the FIFA World U-17 Championship Finland 2003 – Spain and three South American teams Argentina, Brazil and Colombia.
“There are various reasons why South American teams do well at youth level,” he explains. “The work of the federations on a systemised method of developing players and its continuity.
“Another reason perhaps is the fact that the economic crisis has forced clubs to resort to using these players at an earlier age. And by giving them first division experience, they have matured and hardened quicker.”
With Colombia’s senior side already in a delicate position in the 2006 FIFA World Cup Germany™ qualifiers, many of its millions of football fans are tuning in see Rueda’s boys restore national pride.
“Getting through to the semi-finals would give the country a real boost in the difficult times we live,” the coach says, eyes brightening. “We know they are watching and kicking every ball with us. And we will do our best to repay their support.”
Whatever the current predicament of the seniors, with Rueda’s youth side and the junior side before them, the footballing future looks bright for the Cafetero nation.