Stopped short of the ultimate game

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The closing minutes of the World Cup qualification campaign is a time of great joy for those who have booked their places, and a time of sadness for those who have missed out.

With its collection of great players from all over the planet, Europe's Champions League is the place to be week in, week out. But the World Cup has its special magic precisely because it comes around once every four years. Throw in the strength of representation of international soccer -- which still has the power to reach further than the club game -- and it's clear why many players look on a World Cup appearance as the summit of their careers.

Being eliminated from the Champions League is one thing -- there's always next season. Failing to get to the World Cup is quite another -- the chance may not come around again.

There's lots of publicity for the high-profile World Cup absentees -- as there surely will be for Argentina if Diego Maradona, Lionel Messi & Co. can't make it over the line. But there are plenty of players around who, for as much as they deserve a World Cup appearance, reach a point when they realize it's not going to happen. This column is for them, and for one in particular: Colombia center back Mario Yepes.

Tall and elegant, Yepes made his name in the Deportivo Cali side that reached the final of the Copa Libertadores in 1999, only to lose on penalties to Palmeiras of Brazil. His quality stood out by a mile -- he may go to ground more than the coaching manual would advise, but he's one of the best I have ever seen at doing it and managing to maintain excellent timing in the tackle. Soon after the Libertadores campaign, he was snapped up by Buenos Aires giants River Plate, where he enjoyed three successful years, before heading off to France, where he played for Nantes and Paris Saint-Germain before joining Chievo Verona in Italy.

For a decade, Yepes has been a stalwart of the Colombian national side. There have been good times -- he was superb in the '01 Copa América when, on home ground, Colombia won the title without conceding a single goal. But where it really matters, the World Cup, Yepes has accumulated a series of frustrations.

He played throughout the qualifiers for the '02 World Cup, where Colombia missed out on the playoff spot by the narrowest of margins. It finished level on points with Uruguay, but its goal difference was one goal inferior.

Lightning struck twice four years later. Again Colombia was denied a place in the playoff by Uruguay. This time, the team's goal difference was far superior, but Uruguay finished in front by a single point. Of the 18 games in the campaign, the only one Yepes had missed, through suspension, was the crunch trip to Uruguay in the 16th round. Colombia's defense had an off day, and Uruguay won 3-2. His presence on the field might have made all the difference.

Colombia went into the 2010 qualifiers with a coach, Jorge Luis Pinto, who thought he could do without the services of Yepes. After eight unsuccessful rounds, Pinto was sacked, Eduardo Lara appointed and Yepes was not only recalled to the side, he was given the captain's armband. This was surely the center back's last chance at a World Cup. Yepes is now 33. He will be 38 by the time Brazil 2014 comes around, and unlikely to be playing top-class soccer.

So it was now or never. Last Saturday in Medellín, with Colombia needing to beat Chile's attractive and attacking side to keep alive its hopes of making it to South Africa. Chile gifted Colombia the lead -- but then soon after the half hour came a moment that Yepes may well find himself dwelling on with an air of bitterness in his retirement.

He executed one of his trademark well-timed tackles near the left edge of Colombia's penalty area. The referee inexplicably blew for a foul, and Chile had a free kick in a dangerous zone. JorgeValdivia whipped the ball in, WaldoPonce headed home and the Chileans were level. A minute later, they were ahead. With Colombia still wandering round in a daze, Valdivia and FabiánOrellana combined to set up a goal for Humberto Suazo. It then became a different game, one which Colombia had to chase -- one in which Chile, with its quick wingers and attacking intentions, is so dangerous.

The rest of the match didn't show Yepes at his best. He's happier defending deep, with the play in front of him, so he can read the game and make his tackles. This is the main reason he has never shone so much in Europe, where defensive lines often play higher up the field. Especially now at 33, he can struggle for pace if drawn higher.

But the Colombians had no choice now, and pushed up, to little avail. Chile picked them off on the way to a 4-2 win, and Yepes picked up a yellow card which may well end his international career -- he's suspended for Wednesday's now meaningless trip to Paraguay.

Yepes is a player who has featured in 42 World Cup qualifying matches, in many of them displaying a level of outstanding quality. But despite all that swimming, he isn't going to make it to shore. He won't appear at a World Cup. He deserves to, though -- and deserves to be remembered.