Many things have contributed to Colombia’s sensational record-breaking run to the semi-finals of UAE 2003. There is their steely defence, speedy attackers and their happy, go-lucky bunch of drum-beating fans, who have helped to make the Cafeteros feel more at home in alien surroundings. Now, the team will be looking towards Colombia’s 12th man to continue their wave of support when they come up against Spain for a place in the Final.
There may be less than a couple of hundred of them but with their colour, volume and beauty, Colombia’s supporters have already caused quite a stir at the world youth finals with many photographers guilty of turning their cameras towards the terraces instead of the pitch.
When Victor Montano scored the only goal of the game in the quarter-final against UAE, there was only one direction he was going in to celebrate.
“We thought it would be an intimidating occasion playing in front of the locals but our fans really helped us and that gave us confidence,” said the appreciative striker. “After the goal all we could hear was ‘Colombia, Colombia’.”
Before bowing their thanks to the section, Montano, who followed up his strike against Ireland with his second of the finals, had first gone over to the corner flag to wipe his forehead. A gesture of exertion or relief?
“I saw a Spanish player from the World Cup do it on the screen while kicking the ball around before the game and when I scored it was the first thought that came into my head,” he said grinning. “It wasn’t meant to be offensive, just spontaneous.”
Montano and the rest of Reinaldo Rueda’s boys now face the same team that had prompted that celebration.
“It will be very difficult,” he says earnestly. “They play the ball well and also stop you playing.”
“Spain are well-balanced, good in attack and strong in defence,” adds coach Rueda. “We will study how they play on video, and adapt ourselves accordingly.”
So impressive have Colombia been it seems surprising that this is their first appearance at the world youth finals in a decade with their previous best only eighth at China 85 and Saudi Arabia 89. And their record against European teams makes even less impressive reading with the golden-goal victory versus Ireland their only success in nine previous meetings.
But things are slowly beginning to change in Colombian football and their recent success at youth level – they finished fourth at the FIFA World U-17 Championship Finland 2003 – is the fruit of a new development policy.
“Since we went to the Toulon tournament in 2000, we’ve been work working on a continuous and systemised method of developing young players,” explains Rueda. “Our recent achievements are the product of this.”
And the product is making for essential TV back home. Along with the support of the fans in the stadium, viewing figures have hit the roof in Colombia with the country on the edge of their seats to see if the team can reach the final and achieve unprecedented success.
Despite Brazil’s five against Japan, Rueda sees Argentina as the most dangerous potential Final opponent.
“Argentina have Cavenaghi, a player who at any moment can make the difference, as well as a coach who has been around the team for four or five years,” he says. “They played together at the U-17 championship in Trinidad & Tobago and they know how to come up big at big moments. For me, Argentina are the favourites.”