Carlos Valderrama. Has there ever been a cooler footballer? I mean, just take a look at him for god’s sake:
Twenty years after his heyday and the man was still oozing excellence out of every pore. Now remind yourself of some of his football with an obligatory YouTube clip. He was the very best kind of player. A playmaking midfielder, utterly devoid of pace, a style the word ‘insouciant’ could have been invented for and, of course, a barnet that redefined people’s perceptions of what human hair could be capable of. Some of those passes were so finely weighted that CERN engineers are studying them in the hope of discovering the one responsible for mojo. His hipster credentials are impeccable and the only European club he ever played for was the fashionably unfashionable Montpellier so why is it the chain smoking Socrates who makes it onto all the T-shirts?
Well, there is one crucial difference – Socrates played for Brazil’s ’82 team, the second most fetishised side in world cup history, and the one preferred by self appointed purists everywhere. That side impacted upon the European consciousness, resonating with memories of previous sides to create the collective Brazilian mirage – one that in my view belittles their spectacular footballing achievements considerably.
Of course this process happens to anywhere that isn’t Western Europe or the United States. It is particularly bad in England which politically treats the U.S.A as its neighbour and the rest of the world as practically non-existent, and which in a football sense has only recently developed a sense of object permanence towards Spanish and, to an extent, German football to add to some lingering memories of the Italian game largely fostered by the 1990 World Cup and Football Italia, the James Richardson fronted Channel Four show which proved the vanguard of football fashionista culture.
While Brazil are lumbered with the patronising but, superficially at least, pleasant sunshine and salsa clichés others have attached themselves equally powerfully to the other South American teams. Argentina are the dirty Argies, still remaining a handy outlet for risible nationalistic posturing especially now that Germany, having hosted a phenomenal world cup and boasting an impossible-to-dislike national side and domestic clubs who have won the approval of various football subcultures, have apparently abdicated their role as England’s pantomime villain.
Uruguay, on the other hand, are the scrappy street fighter Rocky Balboas of football. A team English fans love to see beat almost anyone else, despise when they play us and secretly wish we could be. I doubt there has been a footballer in history more emblematic of an imposed cultural stereotype than Luis Suarez, but as far as England is concerned Uruguay is him and he is Uruguay.
And then there is Colombia’s lot. In a discussion of South American football that’s essentially where it, until very recently, stopped. When it comes to football Colombia haven’t even registered enough upon our consciousness to generate any decent stereotypes relating to their style of play, despite the incredibly rich source material.
Colombia, land of Andes, birthplace of Salsa, one of the most rich and fertile and varied countries on the planet. Home to both Pacific and Caribbean coastlines. Colombia, home of the finest emeralds and perhaps the most spectacular tradition of gold working ever seen. Colombia, which has the most floral endemisms on Earth – an estimated 10% of the world’s species. Not only that, but Colombia also created the world’s finest variation of the pasty. If you’ve never tried an empanada then, amigo, you are missing out.
Out of sight, out of mind. The ‘problem’ for Colombia is that their ‘first’ golden generation never really came to much. They infamously crashed out in the second round in 1990 to Cameroon and the 187-year-old Roger Milla, at least in part thanks to Rene Higuita’s outré approach to goalkeeping. In 1994, Pele anointed and cursed them with his customary pre-tournament tip, and he was perhaps not entirely unjustified in doing so. They were typically unheralded in the British media, but they destroyed Argentina 5-0 in qualification and turned up in the States with undeniable caliber. Notoriously, this was to end in not only disappointment but tragedy, as popular defender Andres Escobar, scorer of an own-goal in the group stages, was murdered on his return to his country. Subsequently, they fell back into ontological limbo, leaving behind only the ‘crazy Latino keeper’ meme as a relic of their best ever team.
Barry Davies’ commentary, a classic of inept British match analysis, on the clip of their ill-fated match against Cameroon makes my point better than I ever could, describing Valderrama’s exquisite long pass with the withering ‘he’s so much better employed playing that kind of pass instead of the short angled balls from around the edge of the penalty area’ just as the midfielder produces, you’ve guessed it, a short angled pass from the edge of the penalty area, setting up a superb team goal. Tim Vickery writes a decent summary of that period – though a warning to any Colombian readers, all of the usual stereotypes are touched upon there – and hits upon the very simple and sad reason why that team never got the recognition it deserved. Of that team, only two players were playing in Europe at the time, every single one of the others was domestically based. Out of sight, out of mind.
But maybe things are changing. In Falcao they now have a genuine world icon whose non-presence will loom large over this World Cup. Inevitably, if they don’t win it will be a case of what might have been but, looking forward instead of with hindsight, it may prove to be a blessing in disguise. Yes, in Falcao they have lost a lethal weapon, but they have also, in a stroke, lost the glare of publicity that fell upon them thanks to that Pele prediction. Now they are no-one’s favourites, and with Falcao out they are no-one’s dark horses either, with teams like Belgium as the punter’s chance instead.
This Colombia is a team with goals in it, and in Jackson Martinez they have an able replacement who has a whiff of the Geoff Hursts about him, a striker replacing a legend but who has all the credentials required to, ahem, carpe diem and ‘make a name for himself’. Certainly this is a chance for him to secure his long-touted move to one of the European giants, or at least large ogres. Their first choice defensive pairing only conceded 13 through qualification, but with the veteran Yepes at 38 there may be a weakness there. Still, many a world cup run has been built on the virtues of a solid defence and quick attackers – the patience likely to be required in Brazil perhaps also favouring older and wiser legs – and of course Colombia are used to the playing conditions.
Perhaps the nicest irony is that coach Jose Pekerman is Argentinian. An Argentinean coaching the team responsible for Argentina’s worst defeat in Brazil’s world cup? If narrative logic has any say in the matter then Colombia are surely one of the teams to watch.
Posted by Seb Crankshaw