‘Cafeteros’ happy to be back after long World Cup absence


Colombian soccer hit its peak in the 1990s before a 16-year World Cup drought. The team makes its return in Brazil — with or without Falcao.

With or without injured forward Radamel Falcao, the World Cup will be just a little more colorful in Brazil next month because Colombia’s yellow-shirted Cafeteros are back after a 16-year hiatus.

Colombia is playing in its first World Cup since the Golden Generation of the 1990s, during which the entertaining team was led by moptopped former Miami Fusion midfielder Carlos “El Pibe” Valderrama and made international headlines when defender Andres Escobar was murdered after scoring an own-goal in the 1994 World Cup.

Colombian soccer reached its peak during that era, appearing in the 1990, 1994 and 1998 World Cups. Valderrama was known the world over for his trademark curly locks (a hairstyle he still wears, by the way, at age 52). But once the veterans retired from that squad, the team took a major dive and did not qualify for the next three World Cups.

“The entire nation suffered the past 16 years watching the World Cup go on without us,” said Wilmer Cabrera, coach of Chivas USA, who played for Colombia from 1989 to ’98. “It was very, very painful as a Colombian former player to know that we built something fantastic and it fell apart. And all of us players felt partly responsible and accountable because we should have done more to help the next generation go through the transition.”

The mood of the team, and its results, improved with the hiring of coach Jose Pekerman in January 2012 and the emergence of Falcao, who scored a record 52 goals in 68 games for Atletico Madrid before signing this season with Monaco in the French league.

Falcao had scored nine goals in 17 games for Monaco this season and was expected to be one of the breakout stars of this World Cup. But he tore the ACL in his left knee in January, had surgery and might not be back in time to play. He has been training extremely hard, continues to hold out hope, and Pekerman is waiting until the last minute to name his 23-man roster.

Dr. José Carlos Noronha, who performed the surgery on Falcao, told reporters he has a “55 percent” chance of being on the field when Los Cafeteros open Group C play against Greece on June 14 in Belo Horizonte, Brazil.

It usually takes six to nine months to recover from ACL surgery, but Falcao said last week his training is ahead of schedule.

“I’m happy because I’m recovering well from my knee injury — everything is developing favorably,” he told a TV station in Monaco. “That’s allowing me to work well so that I might be able to keep my physical level. I hope it will continue like that.”

Falcao is not only one of the world’s best forwards, but he also is revered in Colombia after leading the team to a second-place finish behind Argentina in World Cup qualifying.

“For us, he’s like [Lionel] Messi to Argentina, and [Cristiano] Ronaldo to Portugal,” Cabrera said. “His incredible success in Europe was an inspiration and motivation for the other guys. They all started to believe they could make it on the international stage.”

Of the 23 players expected to be named to the Colombian World Cup roster, 17 make a living in Europe.

“Falcao definitely lifted Colombian soccer with his success, and he is a very important player for us, the symbol of our national team,” said Oscar Pareja, coach of Dallas FC, who played for Colombia from 1991 to ’96. “But he is not alone out there. We have a great generation of players right now who can step up and fill in for him.”

Valderrama agrees.

“Falcao is a bona-fide international star, a very serious player who has won everything on his own merit, and he’ll have to decide on his own if he’s ready or not ready,” Valderrrama told last week. “I hope he’ll be recovered, because he deserves to be there. But if he can’t, [Carlos] Bacca has had a fabulous season, is playing very well, and he could replace Falcao.”

Colombia has plenty of attackers if Falcao isn’t available, starting with Bacca, who plays in Spain with Sevilla, and last week scored two goals against Real Madrid. Jackson Martinez has been playing well for Porto in Portugal, and Teofilo “Teo” Gutierrez is a standout with River Plate in Argentina.

Others who can be a scoring threat include Adrian Ramos (Hertha Berlin), Luis Fernandez Muriel (Udinese), Carlos Darwin Quintero (Santos Laguna) and Dayro Moreno (Millonarios).

The midfield relies on James Rodriguez, who is Falcao’s Monaco teammate, and Macnelly Torres, who plays in Saudi Arabia with Al-Shabab.

Colombia’s defense is often overshadowed by its scoring threats, but the defense led South America during qualifying with just 13 goals allowed in 16 games. The veteran back line centers around Mario Yepes, 38, and Luis Amaranto Perea, 35.

“I don’t think there is that much of a drop-off when Falcao is in or out,” Pareja said. “We have the talent to do well, and our team is finally very unified, so everyone in Colombia is excited.”

On paper, Colombia’s group looks like a breeze — Greece, Ivory Coast and Japan.

“We should be able to get through the group, but we can’t take anybody lightly,” Cabrera said.

Added Pareja: “If you just look at the names of the teams, Colombia should get through that group, but soccer is strange. Every team prepares equally hard for the World Cup, so you never know if one goal changes everything and the underdog wins. We have to be ready for every match.”

Cabrera said the 16-year hiatus from the World Cup taught Colombian players, coaches, fans and media a valuable lesson.

“That pain and suffering taught us that you can’t just pull on your national team jersey and expect to win,” Cabrera said. “It requires a lot of hard work to keep the team strong from generation to generation. We didn’t do a good job helping with that transition. The older players didn’t get involved enough with the younger ones. Now, that’s changing.

“It’s not important how we fall, but how we recover. Right now, Colombia is recovered, and our goal is to sustain this status for many years to come.”

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