Colombia striker Teofilo Gutierrez has lost none of his good humour, despite making a challenging career move a few months ago. Back then he left behind the adulation of the fans at Argentinian outfit Racing Club and decamped, via Lanus, to Cruz Azul in Mexico, where he has found it hard to settle.
The reason the talented player is still smiling is because his national side are very much on the up and up. Something of a leader in a team in which he shares the attacking duties with stars of the calibre of Radamel Falcao, Jackson Martinez and James Rodriguez, Teo is eagerly anticipating Colombia’s upcoming 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™ qualifiers, a prospect he discussed in a wide-ranging chat with FIFA.com.
The first topic of conversation was Colombia’s immediate engagements: their next two qualifiers against Bolivia and Venezuela. Third in the South American group, just four points adrift of leaders Argentina, Los Cafeteros will take a huge step towards Brazil 2014 if they can win both games, a challenge Gutierrez is relishing.
“The fact is that we are where we want to be,” he said. “We haven’t achieved anything yet, but we have won three vital games that have put us in among the direct qualification places. The new boss (Jose Pekerman) has motivated us and made us see and feel a lot of positive things. I hope we can keep it going.”
Colombia’s second-highest scorer in the qualifiers, with three goals to Falcao’s five, Gutierrez is delighted that he and his team-mates have captured the imagination of the fans, who have come out in force to support them: “With all the things that are happening in my country, it’s just great for us that they’re there in the stadiums wearing the Colombia shirt. It encourages us to give our all, and that’s what we’re doing.”
The togetherness of the squad is another key factor in Los Cafeteros’ recent success, and Gutierrez is hoping to see more of the same when Bolivia come visiting on Friday and Colombia go to Venezuela next week.
“They’re both going to be very tough opponents but I think we can take all six points,” he said. “We need to respect them both, though, and work hard in each game.”
Discussing Colombia’s team spirit, he said: “We’ve formed a family. No sooner do I say goodbye to my team-mates and coaches than I want to be with them again. I have such a great time with them and I really enjoy the day-to-day routine. The fact is we’re all doing our little bit for the team.”
Gutierrez’s partnership with Falcao is one of the most dangerous in South American football, and with in-form Porto forward Jackson Martinez also offering support, the Colombians are hardly lacking in firepower.
“Falcao is blessed and he’s a wonderful person too,” enthused his strike partner. “He’s the best centre-forward in the world and whenever he gets on the ball, he scores. It’s been an amazing experience having him as a team-mate.
"I’m also delighted for Jackson. Things are going really well for him and there are some big clubs chasing him. That gives all us Colombians a lot of satisfaction.”
With such talents in the team, an expectant nation is hopeful they can reach the standard set by the Generación Dorada of the 1990s, a team that Gutierrez grew up watching and is now ready to emulate:
“I watched them all when I was a boy: [Carlos] Valderrama, [Faustino] Asprilla, Leonel Alvarez, [Rene] Higuita and the like. They were fantastic players and they’re a source of motivation for us even now.
"I was a big fan of Valderrama’s and I loved the way he ran things. I’d watch the moves he made and even though I play in a different position, I learned from him that results come more quickly if you put the team first.”
In contrast to the success he has enjoyed with his national team, Gutierrez has not found things so easy at club level. Following a traumatic departure from Racing Club, which came after a dressing-room row with some of his team-mates, and a brief and luckless spell with Lanus, he has been fighting hard to make an impression with his new employers Cruz Azul.
“It’s all been very difficult,” he explained. “The dressing-room incident at Racing is just one of those things that can happen in football. I can’t deny it was a tough situation, but despite it all I still feel a very strong attachment to the club and its fans. I hope I can go back there one day.”
Turning his thoughts to Cruz Azul, the 28-year-old offered an equally honest appraisal: “I’m very happy to have joined a big club with some good players. It’s taken me a while to get used to the pitches and the altitude, but Mexican football is very competitive, with a lot of quality players around and some very well organised clubs.”
Despite his recent travails, Teo has maintained a cheerful outlook on life, a point he proved by signing off on a typically optimistic note: “The club’s been going through a bit of a tough patch, but there are good times ahead.
"With my people behind me, I know I can win big things with Cruz Azul and the national side and go to Europe. I haven’t lost any of my confidence and I’m working hard to enjoy every single minute out there on the pitch.”