Last month, Colombia missed an opportunity to seal their return to a FIFA World Cup for the first time since 1998 when they lost to Uruguay in Montevideo. However, Los Cafeteros will get a second bite of the cherry this Friday 11 October, when they host a strong Chilean side in Barranquilla.
A win or a draw will be enough to see Jose Pekerman’s side qualify for Brazil 2014, and even a loss could edge them through if there is a winner in the Ecuador-Uruguay clash the same night. Needless to say, excitement is at fever pitch in a country where football, and passion for the national team, is a huge part of life.
“We can tell that the fans are anxious. They see us as favourites and there is an element of triumphalism,” Carlos Sanchez, a regular in Pekerman’s starting line-up, told FIFA.com in an exclusive interview. “But we’ve already faced some difficult times and we can’t let ourselves get carried away. We know it’s an important match, but the apprehension will ease with the first kick of the ball,” added the 27-year-old Elche CF midfielder.
With the same composure that he shows on the pitch, where he brings balance to an attacking side, Sanchez dismissed the suggestion that missing their first opportunity might have created doubts in the Colombia camp. “Definitely not! We know there are areas we need to improve. In past games we’ve lost concentration and had a few lapses. But we’ve never doubted that we’ve a strong team. We’re very close-knit and know how we play. We’re ready to face Chile.”
Uruguay, France and Pekerman
Having graduated from the famous Alexis Garcia football academy in Medellin, Sanchez hoped to make his debut in the Colombian top flight with his beloved Club Atletico Nacional. When he realised that that would not happen, the towering midfielder showed both ambition and nerve by emigrating to Uruguay at just 17 to start his career at Danubio.
“I accepted the offer because I knew that with the right mind-set I could grow as a player and then break into European football. And I don’t regret it. I‘m really grateful to Uruguayan football,” he said. And with good reason too. Following two seasons with Danubio, where he won a league title, and another two with River Plate of Montevideo, Sanchez was France-bound, signing for Valenciennes in mid-2007, shortly after making his debut with Colombia under Jorge Luis Pinto.
“In Uruguay I was tasked more with getting stuck in and winning back possession, as well as passing it out wide or backwards. In France I added more intelligence to my game, making forward passes and making better use of my first pass,” explained Sanchez, who had the opportunity to face his idol, Claude Makelele, while in France. “I felt like a boy again on the day we swapped shirts!” he admitted with a smile.
It is an image that is in stark contrast to his nickname, La Roca (the Rock), gained early in his career for being solid the tackle and difficult to get past. These qualities saw him play ten games in the qualifying stages for South Africa 2010 and the Copa America 2011. However, now he feels a more complete player, thanks in no small part to Jose Pekerman.
“I’ve learned a lot from him. All his advice has really helped me, but his suggestion that I let my natural game flow and not do things systematically has changed me and helped me grow. This is true for me and the rest of the group. He’s done it without impacting our passing game, while always encouraging us to get it forward, to go in search of goals,” explained Sanchez, who is yet to open his international account in 39 appearances.
Chasing a dream
Sanchez already knows that he will have his work cut out against Chile. “We’re two teams with great players and are both creative going forward. There is no clear favourite, so I think it’ll be a very attractive game, both to play in and to watch from the stands. Maintaining a balance and keeping concentration will be key.”
But his main focus is, of course, realising his childhood dream. “I’ve seen hundreds of players sing their national anthems at World Cups, and it is something I desperately want to do. For a player, there’s obviously nothing more important than competing in a World Cup – I get goose bumps thinking about it!”
When asked what he imagines himself doing following Friday’s match, he replied: “Celebrating qualification. I always picture myself winning, so we need to book our place as soon as we can. But as I said at the start, it’s about controlling our nerves and not getting carried away. We believe in ourselves and we’ve already shown that we can beat anyone."