Absent from the FIFA World Cup™ finals since France 1998, the football-crazy nation of Colombia has had precious little to cheer about for the last few years. But if Ruben Bustos has anything to do with it, all that could be about to change. It was back in '98 that the free-scoring defender made his Colombian first division debut. And in the decade since then 'the Free Kick Man', as he is now known, has become one of the mainstays of the national team, forming part of a nucleus of players that could well take Los Cafeteros back to the biggest stage of all.
The right-back came to international prominence at the end of 2007 when a brace of sublime free kicks against Venezuela and Argentina helped Colombia pick up six points in their bid to qualify for South Africa 2010. But when it comes to explaining his dead-ball gifts, Bustos reveals a self-effacing side. "It's something given to you by God but there's no real mystery to it. I just keep practising every day, hoping to get it right out on the pitch. That's all there is to it really."
Whatever the secret of his success, the fact is Bustos is building up quite a reputation for himself. In February, when FIFA.com asked its Spanish-speaking users to name the best set-piece specialists in the game at the moment, the Colombian received more than his fair share of adulation, with one contributor paying him the following compliment: "I've never seen a Colombian player strike the ball as well as he does."
A nose for goal and a level head
The 26-year-old was born in La Parada, a quarter-of-an-hour's drive from the city of Cucuta. At the age of nine he started training at the Quinta Oriental football academy, quickly catching the eye with his shooting skills and temperament. "He was the captain and he took all the free kicks," recalled Elkin Omar Uribe, the man who discovered him.
His next port of call were the youth teams at America de Cali, where he blossomed under the tutelage of coach Jaime de la Pava, so much so that he made his maiden appearance in the Colombian top flight at the age of 17. What Bustos lacked in experience he made up for with an iron will, a characteristic that helped him shrug off the criticism of those who praised his right foot but questioned his abilities as a defender. Even so, with a number of experienced free-kick takers ahead of him in the pecking order, the youngster had to bide his time.
Under De la Pava the silverware started to flow, Bustos and Co winning the Colombian title three years in a row between 2000 and 2002. And while he went goalless in 2003, he did help Los Rojos to the semi-finals of the Copa Libertadores, where they were knocked out by Boca Juniors.
After a brief sojourn with Atletico Nacional in 2004, he returned to America for a two-year stint before finally fulfilling his childhood dream of running out in the colours of Cucuta Deportivo.
A knack for scoring crucial goals
The switch to Los Motilones proved to be just the beginning for the flying full-back. As part of an amazingly successful 2007, Bustos made a significant contribution to Cucuta's stunning run to the Libertadores semi-finals, chipping in with three vital goals, all of them free kicks. After showing off his dead-ball talents against Gremio in the group phase, the right-footed magician found the back of the net against Nacional in the quarter-final second leg and against Boca Juniors in the first leg of the semis. Once again, though, Los Xeneizes blocked his path to the final.
Suitably impressed by his performances, the then Gremio boss Mano Menezes lured the Colombian to Brazil, a home from home for goalscoring full-backs. Although Bustos missed out on a place in the Colombia squads for the 2007 Copa America and the first two qualifiers for South Africa 2010, his fine performances for the Porto Alegre outfit soon had Cafetero coach Jorge Luis Pinto picking up the phone.
Restored to the national set-up for the qualifying double-header with Venezuela and Argentina, Bustos repaid Pinto's faith by scoring two of Colombia's three goals in those games, helping them climb into fourth place in the process. "It doesn't matter who scores," he commented at the time. "The aim is to reach the World Cup and we're well on the way. Everything else is by the by."
An ardent admirer of Faustino Asprilla and Cafu, the nerveless Bustos had no qualms about leaving Gremio for fierce city rivals Internacional at the start of the year, a move that brought plenty of criticism his way.
The dead-eyed Colombian is not letting the flak distract him from his objectives, however. "I need to sharpen up my shooting and work harder on the attacking and defensive aspects of my game, because the modern game is very demanding," he vows, displaying all the steely resolve he normally shows when standing over a free kick. "I'm also determined to fulfil my commitments for club and country."