The whole world seems to have fallen for Colombia at this World Cup. Read through the British press this morning, and you will notice that most of the bilious England coverage has been replaced with odes to James Rodriguez, Juan Cuadrado and Los Cafeteros.
England’s early dismissal from the tournament left us empty-hearted and without an object for our affection, and so part of the Colombia-love is a response to that. For those around or beyond their thirtieth birthday, though, the fondness for this young team has its roots in something deeper.
It’s a well-known story and it’s repeated so often now that it’s almost cliched: the Colombian’s 1994 World Cup was one of the game’s darkest hours. Through that memory – and via ESPN’s genre-defining ‘The Two Escobars’ documentary – most of us can understand the trauma that that sequence of events created even if we can’t relate to it.
Players receiving death-threats on their hotel televisions before games, Francisco Maturana’s team selections being leaned on by cartel bosses, players wandering where the sniper’s shots might be coming from during the national anthem? That’s a context in which football should never be played, and Andres Escobar’s murder is a stain the Colombian Football Federation will wear forever.
Compare that to what we now see before us.
Whereas the 1994 squad became quickly and tragically inhibited by expectation and fear, there’s a free-spirited joviality to the contemporary side and that’s a wonderful, cathartic contrast.
Something is happening here. It feels like we’re watching an exorcism; the attack-minded, fearless football. The joy in the stands and on the sidelines. The dancing players. Even the unrestrained joy in the Colombian match commentary: Gol de Colombia! Gol de Colombia! Gol de Colombia! It feels almost like the response to an answered prayer. Whatever it is, it’s deeply affecting.
There are all sorts of stories in this World Cup and there are myriad reasons why you should form an emotional attachment to certain teams. Colombia, though, are the Cinderella, and they are the fairytale-in-waiting. Twenty years on from all that darkness, imagine if they were to survive the knockout stages and somehow take the trophy home? How could you not want to see that? It would be one of the most beautifully cyclical sports stories of all time and you would really have to be a hard-hearted person not to feel the chime of its emotional resonance.
And you know, it could happen. Colombia are not a favourite and they perhaps lack the defensive rigidity to resist a Germany or a Brazil, but they are a team without fear and one which is very obviously riding a wave of momentum. This tournament is so entertaining for many different reasons, but one of them is that it still has no clear favourite. Even the strong teams have frailties and look beatable, and that makes a fearless Colombia a very dangerous opponent. The big names left in the competition will feast on those sides who are in awe of their reputations and who are essentially beaten in the dressing-room – Colombia won’t be that team, they will keep coming and keep coming until they are eventually taken out on their shields. That’s the nature of a set of players who evidently believe they have nothing to lose – and who wants to step onto the pitch with someone like that?
Dance, Colombia, dance. Maybe this is how it’s supposed to be? Nothing will ever bring Andres Escobar back and no sporting victory can ever erase the memory of such a fractious period in a country’s history, but maybe this country is owed some sporting romanticism and maybe this is their time to step back into the sunlight.
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