When opportunity comes your way, it is always better if you are ready for it. Just ask Eduardo Lara who, in September 2008, was approached by the Colombian FA with a view to becoming national team coach on an interim basis. The optimism generated by the team's impressive start in the qualifying campaign for the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™ had by then evaporated, and back-to-back defeats had cost the previous incumbent, Jorge Luis Pinto, his job. Nonetheless, El Profesor Lara accepted the challenge and, just one month and two games later, was officially named Cafetero coach.
His modest experience in club football, limited to steering Deportes Quindio into the country's top flight, is in stark contrast to his success with Colombia's youth teams. During a six-year spell at the helm, Lara led his sides to three FIFA World Cups, one at U-20 level (Netherlands 2005) and two at U-17 (Finland 2003 and Korea 2007). "Why did I accept the challenge in the first place? Very simply because I felt ready for it. And knowing that, I was unable to say no to my country," he tells FIFA.com. proudly.
I'd like to qualify directly, but you have to be realistic. That would entail no more slip-ups, and that's very hard to do in a region as tough as South America.
On assuming control of the senior team, Lara inherited a squad with morale at rock bottom following a home reverse to Uruguay (1-0) and a crushing defeat in Chile (4-0). The team also had problems up front, having gone 270 minutes without a goal. However, there was to be no respite on his debut, a battling 1-0 defeat against group leaders Paraguay in Bogota, but then came a priceless draw with Brazil at the intimidating Maracana (0-0). "That was a tough assignment, especially given the team we were facing and the fact we'd lost at home earlier that week through a mistake of our own. All that only raised more doubts. However, once we ran out against Brazil we realised we were capable of getting a result. We had our chances and, although we couldn't convert them, on the whole I was satisfied with the performance and sufficiently encouraged to want to take the job on a permanent basis," he explains.
Goals in short supply
Colombia currently lie seventh in the ten-team group on 11 points, five adrift of Chile, who are occupying the fourth and final direct qualifying berth, but only two behind Uruguay, who hold down the fifth-place play-off spot. "Of course, I'd rather we were in the top four, but our reality is different. You always hope for better things from your national team. We all know we have quality players, but that in itself is not enough. We need to demonstrate that quality [on the pitch]," says the 49-year old native of Pradera.
With just eight goals conceded, Colombia have one of the best defensive records in the qualifiers, yet not even that can mask their attacking deficiencies. Though they have scored in their last two friendly outings (a 1-0 win against Nigeria and a 2-0 triumph against Haiti), they have now gone a worrying 532 minutes without a goal in the qualifying tournament. For Lara it is clear that the situation needs to be remedied, and fast: "When you don't score you make it very hard to pick up points, and we need to start accumulating them three at a time. People ask why the players can score for their clubs but not for their country, and it got me thinking. If a forward has three one-on-one situations and fails to take any of them, then there's a question mark over that individual. However, if we're not creating chances, then we cannot really judge these forwards. Right now we're working hard to ensure we do provide openings for the front men."
Mission South Africa
When asked to assess his next opponents, the Cafetero boss is generous in his praise. "Bolivia are on the up and also got a good result in Brazil. However with home advantage, we need to dictate proceedings. Venezuela, in contrast, is like a derby for us. I know [their coach] Cesar [Farias] well; he's an intelligent man when it comes to preparing his side for each game, and his boys are in just as much need of points as we are. If we could win there we'd be able to face our remaining away games with a newfound confidence."
Confidence will certainly be needed if they are to achieve their goal, with away fixtures still to be negotiated in Argentina, Uruguay and Paraguay. Asked about this directly, Lara says: "I'd like to qualify directly, but you have to be realistic. That would entail no more slip-ups, and that's very hard to do in a region as tough as South America. That said, we'll do our utmost to achieve that. In football, nothing is written in stone, although we shouldn't tell our fans that it will be easy and we'll definitely do it. No, we need to keep the talk to a minimum, work hard and then see what happens. The goal is to reach the World Cup finals and, like all of Colombia, I'm still dreaming of South Africa."