Sometimes, a football team just happens to embody a country’s story. That is the case in Colombia right now. Off the field, the country is experiencing its happiest moment in perhaps 50 years; on the field, its happiest ever. Football and real life are intersecting in surprising ways.
The Cafeteros, or coffee growers, have four straight wins going into today’s quarter-final in Fortaleza against hosts Brazil. In all their previous World Cups combined, Colombia won three games in total.
Understandably, most attention has gone to James Rodriguez, the clean-cut 22-year-old who is the tournament’s leading scorer with five goals. We knew he was good – Monaco paid Porto €45m for him last year – yet in Brazil he has surprised even Colombians. Previously he was overshadowed by Colombia’s centre-forward Radamel Falcao, but with Falcao missing the tournament through injury, James has stepped up.
He is Colombia’s number 10, just as his estranged father Wilson once was for a national youth team. But in the case of James (“Ha-mes”, Colombians say), the number is deceptive. He is less a traditional playmaker than a goalscorer who usually starts on the flanks and ghosts into the penalty area to score. He has perfect balance, and an overview of the field even while on the ball, which explains his turn-and-volley for the goal of the tournament against Uruguay last Saturday. His agent says Real Madrid and Barcelona are now chasing him.
James’s background is also compelling. He spent his childhood moving from town to town, raised by his mother after Wilson departed. The confusion left him with a stutter, which speech therapists eventually subdued. He emigrated early, and at 17 became the youngest foreign scorer in Argentina’s premier division. All Colombia’s starting 11 against Uruguay play abroad, though none for giant clubs.)
Cafeteros coach José Pékerman, an Argentine who played in Colombia before a stint driving taxis, said before the World Cup, “He will be one of the best players of the championship.”
Now Pékerman says the remarkable thing about James is not his talent; it is his willingness to take responsibility. Yet Colombia is less of a one-man band than Neymar’s Brazil or, the most extreme case, Lionel Messi’s Argentina. Colombia’s fast-passing game involves every outfield player. Juan Cuadrado already has four assists. David Ospina, James’s brother-in-law, is an extraordinary keeper. Even 38-year-old centre-back Mario Yepes is coping. The Cafeteros’ group dance after goals expresses their collectivism.
Meanwhile, back home, Colombia’s 50-year-old drug-fuelled civil war appears closer to resolution than ever before, says Matthew Brown, historian at Bristol university in the UK and author of a new history of Latin America, From Frontiers to Football. On June 15, the day after Colombia won their opening game 3-0 against Greece, Juan Manuel Santos was narrowly re-elected president on a ticket of continuing peace talks with Colombia’s guerrilla groups Farc and the ELN. The 3-0 result possibly helped tip the election Santos’s way, says Brown. If Colombia somehow win the World Cup, he adds, it is feasible that in the euphoria all sides would immediately sign a peace deal.
Already Colombia has become safer, and, says Brown, “The legitimate economy is doing as well as it has since the coffee boom ended in the 1950s, 1960s.” Many members of Colombia’s growing middle class are in Brazil supporting their team and singing the anthem like never before.
Colombia’s calmer political and economic climate probably helps the Cafeteros. For contrast, 20 years ago this Wednesday Colombia’s defender Andrés Escobar was murdered in Medellín, days after scoring an own goal at the 1994 World Cup. It is still unclear whether he was shot because of the goal. Certainly, he was a victim of Colombia’s years of narco-violence.
Colombia must have their best chance yet against a nervous Brazil.
“I hope James plays horribly on Friday,” says Neymar.
But even if the Cafeteros lose, Pékerman may have determined the destiny of this World Cup. Over a decade ago, he noticed a tiny Argentine teenager playing in Barcelona’s youth teams, and told Argentina’s federation to claim Messi fast before Spain nabbed him.
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