Carlos Valderrama had a mass of golden fluffy curly hair, highly noticeable and recognisable upon his head. Beyond that however, his skills on a football pitch were sublime. It made him a Colombian football icon. His nickname was ‘El Pibe‘ – the kid, but it could have very well been ‘El Pibe d’Oro’ – the golden kid.
Alongside him and wearing the Colombian yellow jersey was a host of players whom may very well have constituted Colombia’s golden generation. Valderrama was the star, the main man, the center of attraction surrounded by a support cast of Faustino Asprilla, Freddy Rincon, Adolfo Valencia, Leonel Alvarez and the eccentric goalkeeper, Rene Higuita.
That however was a different age — the current age may yet prove to be better.
For starters, they have already assured qualification to the next stage of the World Cup — a feat only managed once before in 1990. But even then, there is a sense that this current group has unity, maturity and an understanding of the game that no generation prior has ever had.
More importantly, this group has the legitimacy.
Unlike previous years, there is a sense that the serious drug issue that had infiltrated every part of Colombian life is not responsible for bankrolling this side. Valderrama’s Colombia will always carry that burden. Despite how talented they really were, the fact that the drug lords of Medellin and Cali had such influence on a nation’s sport will forever be the monkey on their backs.
Talent was there; imagination and drive too. It ensured Colombia qualified for the 1990, 1994 and 1998 World Cups. And if ever there was a display of flamboyancy and superiority, it came in Buenos Aires in 1993. A World Cup qualifier at the Estadio Monumental saw a monumental match.
Memorably, Colombia would defeat home side Argentina by five goals. So dominant was the performance that the side was considered a favourite for the 1994 World Cup. But then, things went pear shaped. Politicians intent on associating themselves with the national team and corporates willing to make a commercial killing took the opportunity to tamper with pre-World Cup preparations.
Then came the pressure of the drug lords. Infiltrating the squad itself and the coach, they pulled it in different ways. Some bet that Colombia would win their games; others that they would not and each drug lord tried to influence the outcome to suit their own selfish interests. In the process, Andres Escobar became the unfortunate collateral. He scored an accidental own goal, Colombia were knocked out of USA ’94 and he paid for it with his life. He was shot down outside a bar in Medellin by the bodyguard of a powerful drug lord who had made losses in the gamble.
Indeed, even before then, there had been a sense that things needed to change. The debacle of 1994 instigated it. And whereas they still qualified for the 1998 World Cup, they have been missing since from the world stage — appearing only to win the Copa America of 2001 on home soil.
In the interim, the sport was cleaned up and the drug culture that so gripped and defined it was done away with. Thus, the complexity of match-fixing, of giving away games and of death intimidation to referees and players has reduced. In the same light, drug lords have been sought out and prosecuted.
The outcome has also bred a great generation of players.
At Brazil 2014, there have been glimpses of their magic. James Rodriguez — named after James Bond — has been successfully making missions possible. His left foot is of genius intent — its touch of a ball majestic. Together with a midfield comprised of Abel Aguilar, he has commanded Colombia’s games from an attacking point of view. Juan Quintero, another silky skilled left footed playmaker, is also waiting in reserve, ready to be unleashed whenever the situation demands it.
Down the wings, Juan Cuadrado has brought about pace, while the overlapping of wing-backs Camilo Zuniga and Pablo Armero has been a joyous sight to see.
Upfront, Teofilo Gutiérrez has done well to fill in the boots of injured Radamel ‘Falcao’ Garcia. It could be that at the Group Stage, Falcao’s miss is not as telling. But even so, the River Plate striker has been immense, keeping the likes of Jackson Martinez, Carlos Bacca and Adrian Ramos on the bench.
That bench is led from a technical point of view by Jose Pekerman. The Argentine manager is respected in his home country for laying the foundations that developed youth teams consisting of Sergio Aguero and Angel Di Maria. He thus is best suited to lead a young crop of players into a new age.
The only doubts with this team rest in a defence that is not as great in its solidity as the rest of the team is in its attacking fluidity. For that however, the lion-hearted Mario Yepes exists — his full-bloodied performances ensuring that he leads by example. As such, for the national team, he is as much an icon as Valderrama used to be.
Thus, a golden era may be about to begin. This World Cup could be the first signs of it. With attacking intent, it really does not seem to matter that the man nicknamed El Tigre is not there. Falcao or not, Colombia is still a fearsome proposition.