Colombia remains an underdog

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The Nobel Laureate Gabriel García Márquez was once told that "'In this century, only three important things have happened to Colombia: the political violent outburst of 1948, the publication in 1967 of 100 Years of Solitude, and the 5-0 defeat of Argentina by Colombia's national squad in 1993." Laughing, Márquez replied, "You know what the worst thing about that is? It's true."

The dialogue is reported by the Colombian literary critic Professor Erna Von der Walde of the University of Los Andes, as taking place a few days after the footballer Andres Escobar was murdered. " Political violence, literature and football my appear unconnected, but these three events share underlying commonalities," wrote Von der Walde. "They are all important constituents of Colombia's image abroad."

Many Colombians, sensitive to sensationalist portrayals of their homeland in the international press, object to this reductionist cliché -- but the issue of violence in the country cannot be overlooked. A decade ago, when the country boasted more kidnappings than the rest of the world combined, and the murder rates were among the highest, Colombia hosted the Copa América. Argentina's Football Association (AFA) refused to attend, stating security concerns. This week, Argentinean journalist Pablo Aro Geraldes posted pictures of last week's debacle by rioting River Plate fans on the host nation's turf, wondering what Colombians will make of these images, ironically saying "welcome to Argentina" and pointing out that in 2001 there was not a single incident marring the tournament .

"Argentina feels exactly like Colombia did 15 years ago" a visiting academic decreed during a seminar in Buenos Aires. It stands to reason that these two countries, the two extremes of continental South America, bookend the game in ways which mirror each other.

About a half century ago the professional game in Argentina was in such dire straits that a strike by the players led to the suspension of the league. A mass exodus of talent took to Colombia, lured by good pay. Managers such as Adolfo Pedernera and players such as Alfredo Di Stefano established a new style of skilled ball control which is to this day regarded as having shaped Colombian soccer.

More recently, the migration has gone in the opposite direction. Colombian players have made a significant contribution to Argentina's clubs, with many idolized by local fans over the years. Oscar E. Córdoba, Ivan Córdoba, Chico Serna, Palomo Uzurriaga, Mario Yepes, Faustino Asprilla, Jorge Bermúde to name but a few.

The impact of Colombian talent outside home turf is not confined to the Americas -- of the current squad, Freddy Guarín and Falçao García have enjoyed superlative success in Porto this season, with the latter already linked by the transfer rumour mills to Chelsea and/or real Madrid, while most others are spreading their talent around the globe from Mexico to Russia, with most playing in Italy. In fact, less than a handful currently play in Colombia.

While obviously hoping the squad will do well, critics back home are not entirely optimistic. "Anxiety 1 - Colombia 0" wrote the journalist Leonardo Duque in an article lamenting the lack of goals -- in 13 matches, Bolillo Gomez's team have only scored 11. "We don't need you to play pretty," pleads the author, "just that you score."

Colombia has only won the Copa América once, in 2001, but it won with the best statistics of any other champion. The team won all six of its matches, scoring 11 goals and conceding none. The Colombian player who scored the greatest number of goals in Copa América's history was Arnoldo Iguarán, scoring 10 goals in the 1979, 1983, 1987, 1989, and 1991 editions. And thrice has the top scorer of the tournament been Colombian; Ernesto Díaz, with four goals, in 1975, Arnoldo Iguarán, with four goals in 1987, and Víctor Aristizábal, with six goals, in 2001.

The heyday of the country's international appeal was in the 90s. A generation of players worked their way into the hearts of fans the world. Valderrama wigs were scattered around thestadia of USA 94, and warnings to the TV viewing public not to try goal-keeper Rene Higuita's gymnastics at home were broadcast . But the colorful enthusiasm was not translated into trophies, and the country's fans are eager to collect some silver.

The current squad is once again under the same leadership duo, with Pacho Maturana acting as an overall manager of squads and Bolillo Gomez more directly managing the team. Having both spent stints working at international level in neighboring Ecuador, [Maturana also had a short-lived attempt at club level in Argentina] they have returned to finish what they set out to do almost a quarter of a century ago.

Like most places where the game awakens passion before reason, the entire cultural spectrum of Colombia's intelligentsia has a viewpoint when it comes to the ball's adventures. The physical perfection of the athlete has been celebrated by mezzo-brow gentleman's magazine Soho; in an acclaimed departure from the usual lady models the magazine stunned readers with a front cover and center-fold spread featuring a naked Faustino Asprilla. The eminent world class artist Fernando Botero has also paid homage to the playful essence of the game.

But this game is where art and reality meet. The darker side of soccer has seen club finances linked to the underworld of drugs, and the tragic murder of Andres Escobar -- he was shot in the back just ten days after scoring an own-goal in USA '94 -- is not the only violent death of a player. In 2004 Albeiro "Palomo'" Uzurriaga, an iconic player for Independiente in Argentina, was shot dead in his home town, Cali.

Football exists despite the harsher realities around it, and Colombians will continue to embrace the game. Just days after the Copa América ends the country prepares to host the U-20 World Cup. Regardless of the outcome veterans Maturana and Bolillo return home with, the next generation will be already be lined up for kickoff, rolling the ball into the future.

Colombia Squad

Goalkeepers: David Ospina (Nice), Luis Martinez (Once Caldas), Breiner Castillo (Independiente Medellin).

Defenders: Mario Yepes (Milan), Aquivaldo Mosquera (America), Luis Amaranto Perea (Atletico Madrid), Cristian Zapata (Udinese), Pablo Armero (Udinese), Camilo Zuniga (Napoli), Yulian Anchico (Pachuca), Juan David Valencia (Junior).

Midfielders: Juan Guillermo Cuadrado (Udinese), Elkin Soto (Mainz), Abel Aguilar (Hercules), Fredy Guardin (Porto), Carlos Sanchez (Valenciennes), Gustavo Bolivar (Tolima).

Forwards: Hugo Rodallega (Wigan), Adrian Ramos (Hertha), Teofilo Gutierrez (Racing), Falcao Garcia (Porto), Jackson Martinez (Jaguares), Dayro Moreno (Once Caldas).