“This is Colombia’s destiny. We know the time has come for us to reach the World Cup finals again.” The man behind those words is defensive stalwart Luis Amaranto Perea, who is convinced Los Cafeteros can negotiate their way through the South American qualifying competition and take their place at the FIFA World Cup Brazil 2014™.
The Colombians began their campaign in the best possible fashion, earning their first ever win in Bolivia with a 2-1 victory in La Paz, a match that ended with an emotional Perea, standing in as skipper for the absent Mario Alberto Yepes, bursting into tears.
“People will say that anyone can beat Bolivia but that’s not the case,” said the centre-half, speaking exclusively to FIFA.com. “My emotions got the better of me at the end of the game because my team-mates were absolutely shattered. They’d given everything they had. That match was just about my first as captain, and having sat out the first round of games it was pretty much essential that we won it. A lot of things came together and that’s why that win meant so much to us.”
No less important is the home double-header coming up in Barranquilla, where the Colombians will host neighbours Venezuela on Friday and then Argentina next Tuesday. Victories in those games will put Perea and his fellow Cafeteros well on course to return to the FIFA World Cup finals for the first time since 1998, an objective that clearly excites the central defender.
Riding the Atletico rollercoaster
Whatever travails lie ahead on the road to Brazil 2014, the battle-hardened Perea is well equipped to deal with them, the central defender having experienced his fair share of highs and lows during his eight-year association with Atletico Madrid.
In that time he has made 292 appearances for the club, more than any other foreign player. And while the ever-demanding Rojiblanco fans have proved harsh critics at times, the Colombian cornerstone has learned to take the rough with the smooth: “Nothing hurts more than hearing your own fans boo you, but Atleti have given me everything and it’s where I’ve enjoyed my greatest triumphs as player.”
Those triumphs include the UEFA Europa League and UEFA Super Cup wins of 2010, and though Diego Forlan and Sergio Aguero, two of the main architects of those notable achievements, have since departed, Perea’s international team-mate Radamel Falcao has been doing everything he can to fill the void since arriving from Porto.
Having taken El Tigre under his wing, the 32-year-old Perea is confident the striker can cope with the greater scrutiny he is now being exposed to in Spain. “The Spanish league has a higher profile than the Portuguese, and even if he does less in La Liga than he did with Porto, it’s still going to have a bigger impact.”
We’ve got a great chance and we laid down a marker against Bolivia. If we can now kick on and get to nine points, then I can’t see anyone stopping us.
Whether it is showing compatriots the ropes in Madrid, captaining his club or temporarily pulling on the captain’s armband for his country, the vastly experienced Perea is ready to fulfil whatever responsibilities come his way. Those duties also include preparing the younger members of the Colombia squad for the rigours of a FIFA World Cup qualifying campaign.
“Getting to the World Cup is much tougher than the World Cup itself,” explained Perea, a veteran of the sides that came up short in the Korea/Japan 2002 and Germany 2006 qualification competitions. “You’ve got three games at the World Cup and if you do well you’re into the knockout rounds, which more or less means you’ve had a good tournament. It’s getting there that’s the hard bit, though. There’s not much between the teams and coaches have very little time to prepare games.”
Yet, as Perea knows, Colombia have a better chance than ever of returning to the big stage for the first time in 16 years. While Brazil’s automatic qualification as hosts means there is one team fewer gunning for the four direct finals slots, Los Cafeteros also have a talented crop of players to call on, chief among them Falcao, fellow forward Teofilo Gutierrez and rising young star James Rodriguez.
“For the first time most of the squad are playing in Europe, in the elite,” said Perea. “We’ve got a great chance and we laid down a marker against Bolivia. If we can now kick on and get to nine points, then I can’t see anyone stopping us.”
A warm Barranquilla welcome
Though upcoming rivals Venezuela and Argentina will no doubt have something to say about that, taking on Colombia in their Barranquilla backyard will prove a tough proposition. The hot conditions and fervent local support ought to work in the home side's favour, as Perea explained: “The fans are very excited and we’ve picked up on that positive energy. The games are sell-outs apparently, and now it’s up to us to go out there and get the points, with the fans’ support obviously.”
Situated on the country’s Caribbean coast, Barranquilla is a happy hunting ground for the Colombians. “Every time Colombia has qualified for the World Cup, they’ve done it by winning there,” said Perea, who identified Friday’s meeting with La Vinotinto as the more important of the two games: “The key is to beat Venezuela and move on to six points. That’ll give us confidence, and with the fans right behind us we can really hurt Argentina.”
Though aware his age might see him excluded from the final 23-man squad should Colombia make it to Brazil 2014, Perea is focusing on just one thing for now: getting there. “The most important thing is to qualify,” he said, summing up the hopes of a nation. “Even though it’ll hurt if I don’t make the finals, I’ll still get a kick out of it, just like a kid would. I hope my dream comes true.”