French football fans have enjoyed a front-row seat to observe some of Colombia's finest talents of late. Prolific forward Falcao has naturally grabbed much of the attention, but Monaco team-mate James Rodriguez has also impressed since both moved to France's Ligue 1 last summer, his exquisite passes catching the eye along with the exploits of David Ospina, Nice goalkeeper since 2008. The 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™ outsiders clearly have genuine quality at their disposal, and their list of France-based stalwarts does not end there either, with Abel Aguilar encapsulating all Los Cafeteros' combativeness and commitment.
The midfielder touched down at Toulouse last year without the fanfare that accompanied his compatriots' moves, but he quickly began forging a reputation. Taking on Paris Saint-Germain in just his second outing, Aguilar promptly announced his arrival by making sure that the hosts' star man Zlatan Ibrahimovic knew he had been involved in a tussle. "I only care about the game, not the name, career or the medals of my opponent," Aguilar explained to FIFA.com, having also had two heated run-ins with Lionel Messi – with Colombia in 2011 and while at Deportivo La Coruna last term. "I always play with the same desire, whether I'm up against Messi, Ibrahimovic or someone else. I have to show that I'm here and that I'll give everything to win every ball and help my team."
It would be easy to read that pugnaciousness as the key to Aguilar's personality, but that would be unfair on the 29-year-old. For all his aggression and dedication on the pitch, the Cali native is a very likeable character off it. "That's my style of play and if I've had clashes with those players, it's because it was the thing to do during the game," he said. "Those are situations that happen during a match, but they stay on the pitch and afterwards I don't feel any bitterness. It's already forgotten."
Serving the team
It should be stressed as well that Aguilar's fierce hunger for victory is far from being his only quality as a player. Contributing to Colombia's eye-catching fluidity from his position in front of defence, his technique and vision often sparked attacks as Los Cafeteros stood out as one of the most spectacular sides in South American qualifying for Brazil 2014. All the same, he is comfortable knowing that much of his toil goes unnoticed. "Team work is important, and it's gratifying to know that my efforts serve the team," he said. "I know that players in my position get less exposure, but you have to accept that. It's a position that comes with responsibility, and it's important to the balance of the team. If I do my job well, I help my side. If I don't, that puts my team-mates in trouble. In this position, you can't think in individual terms."
True enough, but it would hardly be selfish if Aguilar did begin to think more about himself, having spent the large part of his career striving to overcome challenges. Indeed, since winning the Colombian title with his home-town club Deportivo Cali in 2005, and clinching the South American U-20 Championship the same year, he has mostly been a stranger to success. "Winning trophies is something I miss," he said, his time in Europe having included five loan spells after he began an unfulfilling stint at Udinese in 2005. "I hope I'll have the chance to compete for trophies soon, because I've mostly been fighting to stave off relegation over the last few years."
He has known more lows than highs representing Colombia as well, with frustrating World Cup campaigns in 2006 and 2010 following on the back of a testing introduction to the international game. First called up at the age of 19 in 2004, Aguilar had to endure a number of critics who felt he was not yet ready to slip on the famous yellow shirt. "That's normal," he explained, having held firm to rack up 41 caps so far. "When you start out for the national team, it's always a tricky situation because people are watching you more closely. But the hunger and commitment that I bring to each game and every training session changed their opinions. After all that effort, I've earned my place in the team now, and my position in the squad is more secure."
Hard work and humility
Los Cafeteros will certainly need all their senior figures if they have to make do without Falcao in Brazil, their talismanic marksman still a doubt as he recovers from injury. Should El Tigre fail to win his fitness race in time, however, Aguilar will not be unduly concerned. "Falcao is an icon, an excellent player and very important for the team, but our work and our progress owe everything to our collective efforts, which have served us well so far," he said. We all hope he'll be there, but it would be a mistake to think that we'll be weaker without him. We need to convince ourselves, and our opponents, that everything we're capable of we do as a team."
Colombia's initial opponents will be Côte d'Ivoire, Greece and Japan in Group C, where the South American contenders will kick off as top seeds and favourites. Not that they will be taking anything for granted, especially given the example of their predecessors in 1994, a superbly gifted generation featuring Carlos Valderrama, Adolfo Valencia and Faustino Asprilla – who fell at the first hurdle to the dismay of Aguilar and an entire nation.
"Those experiences in the past must help us, whether it be that World Cup or France 1998," said Aguilar, who grew up idolising Josep Guardiola and is a fervent admirer of Xabi Alonso. "Everyone thought Colombia would go very far with that exceptional generation. Maybe the players believed it themselves. But despite talent, without hard work and humility you can end up being disappointed. I think we're safe from a repeat of that as we have a humble squad that's worked very hard."
I know that players in my position get less exposure, but you have to accept that. It's a position that comes with responsibility, and it's important to the balance of the team.
Having put the work in, Aguilar and Colombia are now awaiting their just reward.