As a teenager in the mid 1940s the writer Gabriel Garcia Marquez tried his luck as a goalkeeper in his native Colombia, although it would be early 1950 before his passion of the game really took root. An aspiring journalist at the time, the future Nobel Prize for Literature winner moved to the city of Barranquilla to work at the El Heraldo newspaper. After falling in love with Atletico Junior, he wrote a series of columns about the team’s leading figure, the Brazilian Heleno de Freitas.
“Dr. De Freitas” as Gabito called him was one of the first big-name foreigners to arrive during the Colombian El Dorado period, a Brazilian star with a hard-earned reputation as a lady’s man who fans flocked to see. Freitas was 30 years old and past his best, but upon watching his mesmerising performances at the Romelio Martinez Municipal stadium, the journalist waxed lyrical in long articles about him, such as those written between April and July 1950, in which he showered the player with praise.
His dribbles, stunning technique and fascinating personality made Heleno a dream subject for the journalists of the time, and the first great source of inspiration for Garcia Marquez, who would evolve from the pages of El Heraldo to a world renowned author of classics such as One Hundred Years of Solitude, Love in the Time of Cholera, and many others. Moreover, after seeing players of the calibre of “Dr. De Freitas”, Garrincha, Dida and Quarentinha first hand, and having idolised from afar and faced the likes of Pele, Zico and Ronaldo, Colombian football would draw inspiration from its Brazilian counterpart to form its a style of play, with conspicuous success in the following decades.
The high point came in the 1990s when the generation of Carlos Valderrama, a classic No10 who glided across the pitch delivering majestic passes, Freddy Rincon and Faustino Asprilla dared to shatter the status quo of South American football. Colombia crushed Argentina in Buenos Aires in 1993 and arrived at the FIFA World Cup™ the following year as one of the favourites to win the trophy, as none other than Pele proclaimed.
Indeed, the man who had inspired so many Colombian kids, like Valderrama and Rincon, had been seduced by their football. “I remember it well," recalled Rincon, in conversation with FIFA.com. "Pele had watched several of our games and we met him regularly. He knew what our game was all about and didn’t praise us lightly. But of course, when he said we were favourites it put a lot of responsibility on our shoulders.”
The huge expectations were not fulfilled in a disappointing World Cup, but the mutual admiration between Brazil and Colombia would gain new episodes. Rincon, for example, switched to Sao Paulo in 1994 to play for Palmeiras and would later become captain of Corinthians, lifting the first FIFA Club World Cup in 2000. Asprilla, and shortly afterwards Victor Aristizabal and Dario Munoz would also impress Brazilian fans, as Colombia’s history of importers of talent from Brazil was reversed.
The success enjoyed by players who switched between the two countries, no matter which direction, is down to the similar character traits of Brazilians and Colombians, according to Rincon. “Our people have a lot in common. We are optimists and enjoy life” said the former midfielder. “We always watched a lot of Brazilian football, like the Flamengo-Fluminense derbies and A Seleção games. The attractive football, full of dribbling, clever flicks and with the ball on the ground had a big influence on Colombian football. We tried to imitate it.”
The 47-year-old Rincon obviously never saw Heleno play, and probably has no recollection of when another Brazilian genius wrote a curious chapter in his majestic career, also playing for Barranquilla. In August 1968, Garrincha made a single appearance for the club, which certainly meant more for the history of Colombian football than for the player himself, but which also served to strengthen the ties between the countries.
Nearing 34 years of age and with his career in decline after leaving Botafogo, Garrincha was recruited for a huge fee by Barranquilla. The commotion the transfer caused in the city appeared to confirm it would prove good business. But the winger was not the same player who had won two World Cups in 1958 and 1962. Physically debilitated, he went to Colombia more because his love, Elza Soares, had promised she would join him there.
Only six days after arriving in Barranquilla, the superstar took to the Romelio Martinez pitch, thrilled the crowd with some runs down the right flank and received a standing ovation even though his display had not been the best, and the team had lost 3-2 to Independiente Santa Fe. Shortly afterwards the desperate yearning to be besides Elza made him check out of the Hotel Majestic, despite saying he felt at home in Colombia, and travel back to Brazil to never again return.
The short story did not have a happy ending, but was a symbolic moment for Colombian football. The great Garrincha had played in the country, as would so many Brazilians such as Dida, Quarentinha, Paulo Cesar Caju, Tim, Teixeira Lima, Mengalvio and Othon da Cunha, among others, each one leaving their indelible mark during the golden years for Colombian football.
The Colombian journalist and poet Hugo Illera recalls one episode in particular. “When I was a kid I carried Dida’s bags into the stadium. I will never forget it,” he told FIFA.com, struggling to keep his emotions in check. “One day, after a match, I invited him to my house. It was the talk of the neighbourhood and a carnival in my house! Dida arrived with Quarentinha, Roberto do Amaral and Paulo Cesar Lima. Dida, who was Brazil’s No10 until Pele appeared, was especially good with
The era when the Brazilian superstars, not to mention others from the whole of South America and even Poland, graced the pitches of the nation was inspirational and essential for the evolution of Colombian football. And the history of Colombia-Brazil matches proves that it was beneficial for the national team.
In bygone times Colombia were little more than cannon fodder for Brazil, as shown by the 5-0 (1949), 9-0 (1957) and 6-0 (1977) thrashings and the fact A Seleção won eight of the first ten duels until their first defeat, in 1985. Since then it has been a different story, with the last four games ending in draws, showing that as well as admiring the Brazilians, the Colombians have learned from them.
And it is no coincidence that this improvement came at a time when Colombians started playing for Brazilian teams. Rincon, Asprilla (who enjoyed success at Palmeiras), Aristizabal (a Sao Paulo and Cruzeiro hero) and Munoz marked an epoch between 1990 and the turn of the millennium. Recently others such as Fabian Vargas, Pablo Armero, Edwin Valencia, Wason Renteria, Edixon Perea and Dorlan Pabon have made the same journey.
As with former generations, today’s players – and probably future generations – also grew up admiring Brazilian stars, as explained by Colombia striker Jackson Martinez.
“I’ve always loved Brazilian football and Ronaldo was my favourite player as a kid," explained the Porto striker to FIFA.com. "When Aristizabal and Munoz were there I also watched a lot of Santos and Sao Paulo games and Brazilian teams in the Copa Libertadores. The talent level is incredible. I’d say it’s unique in world football. There is no doubt Brazil’s success influenced the growth of Colombian football.”
At the end of the season Jackson will be playing again on South American soil, at Brazil 2014. The Colombians travel to their neighbours flying high again as the top seeds in Group C, and have legitimate aspirations to better their performances at the three World Cups in the 1990s.
“It’s a huge motivation playing in Brazil,” Rincon said. “This affinity can be a big help. The Colombians know the country well; it’s not so different from ours. I’m sure Colombia will be made welcome and will feel at home.” Brazil is home to over 10,000 Colombian immigrants, and the two countries will be gunning to show that their shared passion for playing beautiful football can take them far.