BELO HORIZONTE, Brazil -- “No medicine cures what happiness cannot,” wrote Colombia’s most famous son, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and so it proved for his countrymen this Saturday afternoon at a sun-kissed Estadio Mineirao.
Roared on by over 40,000 fanatical fans, Jose Pekerman’s side overcame the loss of injured idol Radamel Falcao Garcia to comfortably beat a stubborn but limited Greece side 3-0. Following Sr. Marquez’s message to the letter, Colombia’s play at times bordered on joyful.
Before the game the Colombian hordes – there were almost as many yellow shirts on display here as at host nation Brazil’s opening game on Thursday – were handed something of a surprise when it was announced that coach Jose Pekerman had elected to go for the pace-filled Victor Ibarbo to fill Falcao’s big boots instead of Sevilla’s Carlos Bacca or Porto’s Jackson Martinez.
But in the end it was an inspired choice, as Ibarbo, sometimes cutting in from left midfield, sometimes roving across the line, gave Colombia the energy to keep a hard-working but ponderous Greek side pinned back. The real creative force behind Colombia’s win, however, was exciting young Monaco attacking midfielder James Rodriguez, whose sleight of foot kept Greece off-balance all afternoon.
Waspish, tricky, and, when he plays well, almost impossible to separate from the ball, Rodriguez is the classic diminutive South American No. 10.
“Greece is a defensive team, but we were patient and we were able to find a way through. Once you score, it gets easier, and it helped that our goal came early,” Rodriguez said after picking up man-of-the-match honors.
Inevitably, Rodriguez was involved in Colombia’s opening goal. After Fiorentina’s marauding fullback Juan Cuadrado twisted and turned his way into space on the right and rolled the ball across the penalty area, the youngster’s step over wrong-footed the Greek defenders, allowing fullback Pablo Armero to finish.
After that the first half settled into a pleasing if unthrilling rhythm. Greece held the ball for long periods, but failed to make Colombian goalkeeper Ospina break into much of a sweat, only coming close when right back Vasileios Torosidis headed a free kick past the post and lively midfielder Panagiotis Kone had a rising drive saved just before the break. Ultimately, however, it was a toothless performance from the Greeks.
“We didn’t concentrate well enough,” said coach Fernando Santos. “In the second half the game become very difficult. We couldn’t get control.”
True enough, as Colombia dominated the second period, grabbing a second goal when Toulouse midfielder Abel Aguilar flicked on a low Rodriguez corner and striker Teofilo Gutierrez finished from close range. Rodriguez himself got on the scoresheet in injury time, carrying the ball forward as the cries of “Olé, olé!” rang around the ground and slipping a low shot past goalkeeper Orestis Karnezis.
All the euphoria will be welcome for Colombia, for this is a team with World Cup scars to heal.
This was Colombia’s first match at World Cup since a group-stage defeat against England in France 16 years ago, which represented the twilight of a golden generation of players such as Carlos Valderrama, Freddy Rincon and Faustino Asprilla.
At the height of its powers, that Colombia team had destroyed Argentina 5-0 in Buenos Aires in the qualifying stages for the 1994 World Cup, leading none other than Pelé to tip the side to go on and win the tournament. Yet as has often been the case, Colombia’s dreams would soon be shattered.
In a horrific reflection of the violence that has troubled the nation’s society for so long, defender Andres Escobar, who scored an own goal in the team’s calamitous defeat to the USA that helped bring about World Cup elimination, was later murdered by a drug trafficker who had bet on Colombia to lift the trophy.
The country has not experienced much World Cup joy since then. But that may change this year.
Group C has been described as this World Cup’s most balanced group, but after this handsome win, Colombia can look forward to its remaining fixtures – against Ivory Coast in Brasilia and Japan in Cuiaba – with confidence. Pekerman’s side has surely emerged as the early group favorite.
“I’m delighted,” the coach said after the game. “It’s the first World Cup match we’ve played in a long time, and we were up against a strong team. It’s an important result for us.”
Important enough to forget Falcao, who was watching from the stands?
“I’ll repeat what I’ve said before,” Pekerman replied solemnly. “It’s a shame that Falcao isn’t here. We really miss him.”
A few more performances like this, however, and this exciting Colombian team may help their fans forget not just their fallen hero, but also the ghosts of the past.