Monday August 15th, 2011

PEREIRA, Colombia -- Along the road to the stadium, the hawkers still sell their Colombia shirts, but the yellow seems a little less vibrant now. Round Plaza de Bolivar, the yellow of the national team remains the most common item of clothing, but the television adverts imploring fans to "have pride in the shirt" feel have taken on an air of poignancy. A man sitting near me in the pasta restaurant where I have lunch takes off his baseball cap and lays it on the table, looking forlornly at the Colombia national team badge on the front.

When I got into a taxi at the bus station on Sunday morning, the first question the driver asked was, "What did you think of the game?" Every subsequent taxi journey has begun with the same question. Fortunately, having spent the Copa America in Argentina, my limited Spanish now extends to sympathetic platitudes. "A big disappointment," I said, and the driver laughed heartily. I was reminded of the section in Stephen Smith's Cocaine Train in which he watches the England-Colombia match in the 1998 World Cup in a bar in Medellin, panicking all the while that if Colombia loses local fans will take out their frustration on him. As England took a 2-0 lead, he gripped a miniature statue of Carlos Valderrama for luck, and found those around him laughing.

It would be wrong to say soccer isn't taken seriously here, but certainly it isn't watched -- at least by the general population -- with the anxious intensity of, say, Argentina. People want to talk about Colombia's 3-1 quarterfinal defeat to Mexico not because they're seeking a scapegoat, but because pretty much everybody watched it. (And, perhaps, because it's soccer-related news that's unrelated to the ongoing scandal over the senior national coach, Gernan Dario Gomez, who resigned and then was persuaded to carry on after last week hitting a woman who'd insulted him in a bar in Bogota.)

The report in El Tiempo glumly noted the general truth that "the difference between the Mexicans and the Colombians ... was that they took advantage of their chances." The coach, Eduardo Lara, insisted the blame was his alone but actually, if there was one individual at fault, it was the goalkeeper Cristian Bonilla. As the Mexico substitute Edson Rivera met a corner with a powerful header, Bonilla's footwork was poor, and the result was that he couldn't get sufficient purchase on his attempted tip-over, pushing the ball into the roof of the net. That made it 2-1, and it was Rivera who added the third. His shot served awkwardly, but Bonilla still should have done better than allowing it to deflect into the top corner off his elbow.

Before Bonilla's errors, though -- and in fairness, neither were howlers -- there was a collective failing. Colombia had been warned in the last 16, when it dominated against Costa Rica, conceded twice in quick succession, and was bailed out by Pedro Franco's header from a corner and a generous late header. Here again, Luis Muriel, Michael Ortega and James Rodriguez were exceptional, playing with a pace and a cohesion that no other side in the tournament has come close to matching. Chances, though, did not lead to goals, and a flimsy back line looked flustered as soon as pressure was applied. Costa Rica didn't have the wherewithal to hold the lead; Mexico, with its captain, the head-shaven Jorge Enriquez destroying in front of the back four, did.

Mexico will face Brazil in Wednesday's semifinal after it won the best game of the tournament so far, beating Spain on penalties after a 2-2 draw. It wasn't quite a smash-and-grab raid, but Spain had the better of the game and could legitimately claim that Brazil's opening goal, poked in by Willian after Henrique had hit the bar, was offside.

Part of the problem is that any side that doesn't play the 4-3-3 of Barcelona and Spain these days seems to be playing an inferior, outmoded form of soccer. Although the two shuttling midfielders, Caesmiro and Oscar, and particularly the center forward Henrique, who laid on the second Brazil goal for Dudu, had excellent games, Brazil, with its midfield diamond, just seems to be playing a more primitive form of the game than Spain. It seems a version more based on individual talent than the synthesis of individual talent into a coherent unit that Spain have achieved. On this occasion, it was good enough, thanks to a combination of the excellence of Gabriel in the Brazil goal and Spain's lack of potency, but it is not a promising sign for the future (then again, given Brazil's future involves hosting the Confederations Cup, the World Cup and the Copa America within the next four years, it may be some time before the repercussions of any tactical shortcomings are felt, and by then they may have been solved).

The other semifinal, to be played in Medellin, sees Portugal face France. The great Portugal side that won this competition in 1989 and 1991 (Manuel Rui Costa, Luis Figo, Joao Pinto...) had a tendency to overplay, controlling possession and perhaps not quite making the chances they should have done (particularly when those players graduated to the senior side), and this side is similar in that it doesn't score many goals, but there the similarities end. This Portugal is attritional, grinding results out as is suggested by the fact that its most influential player so far has been the holding midfielder Danilo. It edged through the group with two 1-0 wins and a goalless draw, scarped a 1-0 win over a weak Guatemala in the last 16, then saw off Argentina on penalties in the quarterfinal, following a 0-0 draw.

France, though, represents a more cohesive team than anything Portugal has faced so far. After being hammered 4-1 by Colombia in its opening game, it recovered to beat South Korea and Mali before overcoming Ecuador in the last 16. Its quarterfinal against Nigeria, won 3-2 after extra time, was a minor classic, Nigeria having more of the ball, but being picked off on the counter attack. The speedy forward Alexandre Lacazette scored twice, with the second goal a quite brilliant lob from Gueida Fofana. France looked vulnerable to Nigeria's pace, as it had to Colombia but it will find Portugal very different opponents.

Jonathan Wilson is the author of Inverting the Pyramid; Behind the Curtain; Sunderland: A Club Transformed; and The Anatomy of England. Editor of The Blizzard.

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