Colombian football is very much en vogue these days. While Falcao, Freddy Guarin, James Rodriguez et al are on the brink of qualifying for the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™, the nation's U-20 side is just about to set foot on the global stage in Turkey, with the whole country willing coach Carlos Restrepo and his charges to glory.
Expectations are very high, not least because the Colombians go into the competition as reigning South American champions, an achievement they backed up finishing runners-up at the prestigious Toulon Tournament earlier this month. Has the time come, then, for Los Cafeteros to land their first world title at youth level? It is a question that FIFA.com put to Restrepo.
“It puts a lot of responsibility on you when people say you’re favourites, but it’s out on the pitch where you have to show if it’s justified or not,” he replied.
The Colombians will be making their eighth FIFA U-20 World Cup appearance at Turkey 2013. Their best performance to date was third at UAE 2003, though they did reach the last eight on home soil two years ago.
Players like Falcao and Guarin have recorded messages that we’ve been showing the players at key times to motivate them.
A man who chooses his words carefully, Restrepo is aware of the mounting expectation his side has generated in recent months. In response, he has been working hard in conjunction with his coaching team and a sports psychologist to make sure his players channel that expectation in the right way.
“We have a responsibility to the people of Colombia, and we look on that as something positive,” he explained. “We believe it’s going to motivate us for the matches that lie ahead.”
Restrepo’s youngsters have their support of their high-flying elders, who have been doing their bit to urge them on, as the coach explained: “Players like Falcao and Guarin have recorded messages that we’ve been showing the players at key times to motivate them. That’s their heroes and role models talking to them, and they’re always good examples to have."
Very much aware that he has Colombia’s next generation of talents in his hands, Restrepo added: “We’re working with a group of players who have just started to make their way in the professional game and who are going to make the move into international football, if they haven’t already. This tournament marks the end of an important development process and we hope that some of them will move on to the full national team.”
That said, development is not the only goal Restrepo and his support staff are hoping to achieve in Turkey: “We want to win and keep the Colombian flag flying high by putting in a good performance.”
Assessing the opposition
The first step in that process is to negotiate a first phase in which they have been drawn with Australia, El Salvador and the tournament hosts in Group C.
“It’s going to be a difficult group and very keenly contested too,” said Restrepo, assessing their upcoming assignment. “Even so, I think we’ve got the resources to fight for a place in the next round.
“Turkey are the favourites to my mind. I’ve seen them play and they’re a very well organised side. And they’ll have their fans behind them too.”
Restrepo is also wary of the two other sides in the pool: “The Australians are more physical and play a game that’s based on their strength as a unit, while El Salvador are the Uruguay of the CONCACAF region. They always fight till the 90th minute and they’ve got a number of key players.”
Referring to the philosophy Colombia will use to combat their opponents, Restrepo said: “We’ll be drawing on the style our football is known for, which involves getting on the ball and keeping possession, as well as being determined and committed.”
Team spirit is another Cafetero asset, though that does not mean to say Colombia are without individual qualities, especially with the likes of goalkeeper Cristian Bonilla, forward Jhon Cordoba and centre-half Jherson Vergara in the side, not to mention their star player, Pescara midfielder Juan Quintero.
As far as Restrepo is concerned, the experience possessed by the young Colombians and the fact most of them play abroad will only stand them in good stead in Turkey: “Footballers are like pilots: they both need their flying hours and the ones who get the most experience under their belts have that extra edge. This team has a good mix of players who’ve already been around a bit and others who haven’t had that much exposure yet.”
Only five days remain before their debut outing against Australia, and the time has come for the ambitious Colombians to finalise their preparations for a tournament in which Restrepo is expecting big things. But just how big? “I’ll be happy if the team plays well and we go a long way,” came the answer.