Colombia reaping the rewards
© AFP

For everyone involved in the Colombian game, the joyous events of 11 October 2013 are still very fresh in the memory. It was on that day that coach Jose Pekerman’s charges drew 3-3 with Chile to clinch their ticket for the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™, a feat that will end a 16-year absence from football’s top table.

Yet the buzz surrounding the beautiful game in Cafetero country is not just down to having reached their objective, it is also the manner in which it was achieved. A generation led by stars of the calibre of Radamel Falcao and James Rodriguez has driven Colombia to fourth spot in the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking – something unimaginable not that long ago – and with it comes being seeded at a World Cup for the very first time.

Indeed, it was less than three years ago that Colombia ended 2010 way down in 48th place in the Ranking, on 558 points, with the World Cup in South Africa the third consecutive finals they had been forced to watch from afar. However, a national side that has always endeavoured to play short-passing, possession football went on to rediscover how to combine style with results – much like Carlos Valderrama, Faustino Asprilla and Freddy Rincon did in their heyday with the team. And though 2011 ended with Los Cafeteros still down in 36th place, from early 2012 and the arrival of Argentinian strategist Pekerman, Colombia have shot up the standings thanks to 491 points picked up in 23 months.

“Pekerman is a football man, who can play the game and who, in his own way, has given Colombian football its identity back,” said El Pibe Valderrama, in an exclusive interview with FIFA.com. “The players have adapted to him and are getting the results that Colombia and the world want to see. And they’ve not just won games; they’ve done it by playing good football,” added a mainstay of the Colombia side throughout the 1990s.

Stats do the talking
Pekerman, who thrice led Argentina to victory at the FIFA U-20 World Cup and guided the senior Albiceleste to the last eight at Germany 2006, stepped into the Colombia hotseat in January 2012 as the replacement for Leonel Alvarez, with the country fourth in South American Zone qualifying. The first non-Colombian to coach the nation’s senior team since 1981, he has won 13 of his first 20 games in charge – results that have been reflected in the Ranking.

In said standings, points are accrued not just for winning games but also depending on the opposition, which confederation they are from, the circumstances of the game and how recent the achievement was: the impact of positive results being gradually reduced until faded out altogether after four years.

Pekerman is a football man, who can play the game and who, in his own way, has given Colombian football its identity back.
Carlos Valderrama

As such, Colombia hit the dizzy heights of third place in July this year, thanks to results including a 4-0 win over Uruguay, a 3-1 success in Chile and a 0-0 draw with Argentina in Buenos Aires. All of these were Brazil 2014 qualifying encounters, against opponents ranked higher than Colombia at the time of each match and who were fellow members of CONMEBOL, considered the strongest confederation alongside UEFA.   

In addition to their World Cup qualifying campaign, in which they grabbed 30 points to finish second only to Argentina, Pekerman’s troops also performed stoutly in friendly action. In the Argentinian’s first game in charge in February 2012 Mexico were beaten 2-0, Brazil were later held 1-1 in November 2012 and, in November this year, Colombia saw off Belgium 2-0 in Brussels and claimed a goalless draw with the Netherlands in Amsterdam.

The fruits of hard work
Pekerman’s part in the current boom is beyond dispute, thanks to his marked ability to get the best out of the players at his disposal. And the fact that he has been able to work with such a talented pool of performers can be traced back to progress made in scouting and developing young Colombian players.   

In the late 90s, under the guidance of current Ecuador coach Reinaldo Rueda, the Colombian FA began to hold national competitions at U-14 level and to significantly increase the depth of their talent scouting. A combination of Rueda’s footballing nous and the investment made in organisational matters helped unearth and mould the likes of Falcao, Rodriguez, Freddy Guarin, Macnelly Torres and Abel Aguilar, with a squad featuring the latter trio clinching a historic third place at the U-20 World Cup UAE 2003.

A decade further on from that Emirates’ exploit, the investment made looks even more astute, with Colombia having more players than ever plying their trade in the world’s biggest leagues. “I think this generation has the edge on ours because this whole group of guys play outside Colombia” was Valderrama’s view. “I only left Colombia not long before the ’90 World Cup and Lionel [Alvarez], [Rene] Higuita and the rest all went later. These current players have been abroad a long time and that gives them a bit more international experience, a different culture and way of life.”

The international experience already gained by a golden generation at the peak of its powers and an assiduously handled long-term project have brought Colombia where they are today. It will be Brazil 2014, however, that will decide just how much more history this crop of Cafeteros are capable of making.