Out of the Colombia team for two years, Mario Yepes was lured back to the Cafetero fold by Hernan Dario Gomez, whose plans for the future persuaded the veteran central defender to bring his experience to bear once more.
Now in his mid-30s, Yepes is approaching the final stage of a career that has taken him from his homeland to Italy, via Argentina and France. After more than a decade in the elite, the vastly experienced centre-half now takes things one step at a time, and his next challenge is to help AC Milan win their first Serie A crown since 2004.
“It’s not easy to stay in first place for 30 matches and I think we’ve been at the top for 18 games now,” he tells FIFA.com in reference to I Rossoneri’s championship aspirations. “It’s no secret that we’re going for the title with all we’ve got. We have six tough matches remaining and I hope we can do it. That said, Inter are playing really well and Napoli are looking very strong going into the last few games. The Italian league is very good. There’s no doubt about that.”
The Colombian, who was with Serie A side Chievo before joining Milan, is adamant his team have put their UEFA Champions League defeat to Tottenham Hotspur in the last 16 firmly behind them, even if the manner of it still rankles. “I don’t think we deserved to go out,” he says. “But that’s football and sometimes the better team doesn’t go through. What we need to do is prepare hard for next year.”
Just as soon as the European season comes to its conclusion, Yepes will then come under the orders of his Colombia boss in preparation for the 2011 Copa America, which takes place in Argentina from 3 to 24 July. The big event will be something of a homecoming for the ex-River Plate man.
“I’m very happy that the Copa America is in Argentina because I’m expecting a lot of Colombian people to be there to support us,” he says. “The last time we played there we had many, many fans in the stands and I’m hoping for the same this time, for a lot of people to come to see us. I’m pretty sure we’ll be well supported, and it’s always nice to go back to a country that’s given me so much.”
The grateful Yepes moved to Argentina in 1999, joining Los Millonarios three years later and going on to win an Apertura and a Clausura league title with them. From there he crossed the Atlantic to try his luck in the French league, spending two seasons with Nantes and then four with Paris Saint-Germain.
Nearly ten years after leaving Argentina, Yepes will be back in the yellow jersey of Colombia, attempting to help them negotiate a group that contains the host nation, Bolivia and Japan, who announced on Thursday they would be taking part in the competition after all.
“It’s a tough section,” he says. “I don’t think you can get any easy groups in this competition because even though there aren’t that many sides in the region, they’re all very good.”
So are Colombia ready to face the task in front of them? “Let’s hope so,” answers Yepes. “We’re really looking forward to it and we want to do well. We still need to play some friendlies and complete our preparations, but hopefully we’ll be in good shape when we get there.”
The team got together in Europe in March for an intense few days of work, playing friendlies against Ecuador in Madrid and against Chile in The Hague. After winning the first game 2-0 and losing the second by the same scoreline, the Colombians still have some fine-tuning to do, as the battle-hardened Yepes acknowledges: “There’s a lot of work to be done yet. There were some positive things to come out of the last few games but we have to improve. That will come with time and more matches, though, and I’m sure that when we get to Argentina we’ll be raring to go.”