Ever since the glory days of the 1990s, Colombia have been threatening to reassert themselves as regional heavyweights. However, the exquisite ball control and technical ability of their sides has not always translated into goals and good results, as evidenced by their absence from the last two FIFA World Cup™ finals.
That could be all about to change, though, thanks to the steady hand of current coach Jorge Luis Pinto and his new generation of footballers, who have made an impressive start to the current campaign. The Cafeteros are presently unbeaten and fourth in the ten-team group and can also boast the tightest defence on the continent.
Unlike many Colombia sides in the past, the team assembled by Pinto's has been impressively solid in defence. Between the posts, Agustin Julio has been an assured presence, conceding just once to lay the foundations for the team's unbeaten start. Revealingly, at the same stage of the previous South American qualifiers, Colombia had just one point. Today, by contrast, after a testing opening that included home ties against Brazil and Argentina plus a trip to face Bolivia in La Paz, they occupy fourth place with eight points.
The flip side has been the dearth of goals at the other end. Despite counting on players that have impressed in recent youth tournaments like Radamel Falcao Garcia, Wason Rentaria and Hugo Rodallega, the country has yet to produce a striker capable of emulating the feats of Cafetero goalscoring legends such as Ivan Valenciano, Faustino Asprilla, Víctor Hugo Aristizabal or Juan Pablo Angel. In total, the team have scored just three goals thus far, a strike rate that will need to improve markedly if they are to fully capitalise on their rock-solid defending in the games ahead .
On matchday 4, Bogota was the setting for the visit of an Argentina side containing Juan Riquelme and Lionel Messi which, like Colombia, had yet to taste defeat in the campaign. In a packed El Campín, where Brazil had been held to a 0-0 draw the previous month, Argentina surged ahead thanks to a bit of magic from Barcelona starlet Messi. However, a superbly executed free kick from Bustos and a swift counter-attack finished off by Moreno put Pinto's men in the ascendancy. With the Albicelestes down to ten men following the expulsion of Carlos Tevez, the Cafeteros consigned the visitors to a 2-1 defeat that saw them relinquish their place at the head of the table. The win also moved the home side up to fourth in the standings, which would be good enough for a place at South Africa 2010 at the end of the campaign.
The key men
In a young and battle-hardened side, the roles of three players have been instrumental to the team's promising start to the qualifiers: the experienced Agustin Julio between the posts, Aquivaldo Mosquera at the back and Ruben Bustos in front of goal. The right-back Bustos, who after a spell with Gremio now defends the colours of Internacional de Porto Alegre, strikes a dead ball as good as any Brazilian and has netted two of his side's three goals thus far.
The numbers game
14: The number of years Argentina had been unbeaten by Colombia in the FIFA World Cup qualifiers before their defeat last November. The Cafeteros previously tasted victory back in September 1993 with a famous 5-0 win in Buenos Aires. In the intervening period, Argentina won four and drew two of the six qualifying fixtures between the sides.
"We've begun this campaign on the right foot and hope to continue that way. World Cup qualification is everyone's dream, but we have to remember we've won nothing yet. That said, we're all clear about where we want to go, and this [start] makes that more attainable." Agustin Julio, Colombia goalkeeper.