Colombia is no different to any other country in South America. It’s people are unbelievably passionate about football. You know it’s match day in the country because right from the start of the day everyone is wearing their golden-yellow Selección Colombia shirts.
After a rest in round 1 of Las Eliminatorias al Mundial Brasil 2014, Colombia travelled to Bolivia for round 2. All of the pre match talk was about how the altitude of La Paz, the Bolivian capital, 3,650 metres above sea level, would take its toll on the players. Colombia came away victorious with a famous 2-1 win, courtesy of a 92nd minute winner by Falcao, a player who hails from Santa Marta, but now plays for Athletico Madrid after a spell with Porto. In round 3, Colombia drew 1-1 with neighbours and arch rivals, Venezuela, a game which they dominated in the torrential rain but failed to take their chances. Ahead of round 4 and a meeting with Argentina, optimism was mixed. My taxi driver to Santa Marta’s out of town bus terminal said “Argentina!” when I asked him who would win today’s game? And the score? “5-0!” he replied.
I arrived at the Estadio Metropolitano Roberto Melendez, Colombia’s national stadium, located in the coastal city of Barranquilla, 1 and 1/2 hours south of Santa Marta, 4 hours before kick off. Even at this time people were queuing to get in. Street vendors were flogging replica shirts of varying eras, designs and quality. All sorts of wacky hats were on sale too, likewise scarfs. But who on earth would want to wear a scarf in a city as hot and humid as Barranquilla?! I popped into the nearby Exito supermarket where all of the cashiers were wearing the Colombian strip and listened to a local band play. One poor girl was given the job of painting Colombian tricolors on the faces of fans, her queue ever growing. The atmosphere around the ground was one of happiness, joy and expectancy, with people enjoying a meal and a couple of Aguilas, the national beer, in the numerous cafes / restaurants which surround the ground. There were hundreds of policeman on duty but not a single one that I saw was dressed in riot gear. This wasn’t Millwall vs West Ham after all.
2 hours before kick off I entered the ground and found my seat – silla 251, fila I – 9 rows up from the front of the tribunal oriental baja and bang in line with the edge of the penalty area. A band played music, the supporters already in the ground dancing and singing along. Four stunning Aguila models wandered around the disused athletics track which surrounds the pitch, occasionally stopping and posing for a photo. A Mexican wave gathered momentum and large inflatable footballs were punched into the air by eager fans. I noticed a tiny pocket of Argentine fans – 5 in total – sitting behind the goal nearest to me, a light blue and white flag of theirs draped over the front railings of the stand, LA FIEL written upon it in big black letters. Strangely only the goalkeepers from both sides came out to practice on the pitch beforehand.
Just before 4pm, the players and officials walked out to an immense roar and blowing of vuvuzelas – to fit in I decided to buy one! The national anthems for both countries were played – the home supporters showing very little respect for their visitor’s one – and the players shook hands and exchanged embraces with one another.
Minutes before half time, “Gooooooooooooollllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllll!” The Estadio Metropolitano Roberto Melendez erupted as Dorlan Pabon’s free kick bent around the wall and sneaked into the bottom right hand corner of the goal, past the outstretched hand of Sergio Romero, the Argentine goalkeeper. Half time came and went and as the light started to fade around the Estadio Metropolitano Roberto Melendez so did Colombia’s play and attacking flare which I had seen glimpses of in the first half. What had the coach, Leonel Alverez, said to his players during the interval? Perhaps it was the immense heat? But Colombia’s tempo dropped and before they knew it Argentina had equalised through a goal from their capitan, Leonel Messi. The Colombian supporters were not happy. Soon, shouts of “cambio” came from the stands as they urged their team forward, as did the more offensive chant of “Messi hijo puta“, (The Colombian way of saying it for those Spanish language boffins out there….) directed towards Messi, the ball a constant magnet to his left foot. But with 5 minutes or so left on the clock, a shot from Gonzalo Higuaín was parried by the Colombian goalkeeper David Ospina and Sergio Aguero, on as a second half substitute, slotted home the rebound. 2-1 Argentina. Many Colombians got up and left in a state of anger and disbelief. Others, like me, remained seated, clinging to the hope that Colombia might find an equalizer in the dying minutes. Nothing materialised. The final whistle blew and many Colombians left the ground wondering why their team had let slip a one goal advantage twice in the space of four days, firstly to Venezuela and now to Argentina. As Hoy Diaro de Magdalena, Santa Marta’s newspaper, put it the following day ” ¡Que verguenza! De 6 puntos perdimos 5!”
Colombia’s World Cup history has definitely experienced more highs than lows. The country was all set to host the World Cup in 1986 but pulled out a few years before due to economic and safety reasons. Mexico stepped in and hosted the tournament which Argentina eventually won. Then in the 1994 World Cup, held in The USA, Andres Escobar, who was no relation to Pablo, scored an own goal against The USA. Back home in Colombia, Escobar was shot dead by one very angry fan! Colombia last reached the World Cup in 1998, but failed to advance past the group stages after losing 2-0 to England. There is a lot of pressure on the current, talented generation of Colombian players to end over 10 years of waiting. With 9 countries, however, in South America competing for just 4 places, competition to reach the 2014 FIFA World Cup in Brazil is fierce. In June 2012, Colombia will travel to Peru for round 5, perhaps with a new manager in charge, to try to get their qualification bid back on track.