BOGOTA (Reuters) - Colombia are going to their first World Cup since the golden generation of the 1990s reached three consecutive tournaments, although those achievements will always be overshadowed by the murder of defender Andres Escobar in 1994.
After appearing in Italy in 1990, the United States in 1994 and France in 1998, Colombia failed to make the grade until they finished second in the South American qualifiers for this tournament.
Coach Jose Pekerman’s team, though, have a major worry in the build-up to Brazil after talismanic striker Radamel Falcao suffered a knee injury playing for Monaco in January. He may or may not recover from ligament surgery in time to play in Brazil.
Colombia’s chances hang on Falcao’s recovery, said veteran Faryd Mondragon, now his country’s second-choice goalkeeper.
“Falcao is very important for us... He’s like Lionel Messi is for Argentina,” said Mondragon, heading for his third World Cup after 1994 and 1998.
“We are hopeful he will recover. I think if anyone has the courage and pride to come through this injury it’s Falcao, and he’s important for us on and off the pitch.”
In 1990, Colombia’s commitment to attack came unstuck with a typical sortie into midfield by flamboyant goalkeeper Rene Higuita, which was punished by Roger Milla in an extra-time defeat by Cameroon in the second round.
Four years later, Colombia traveled to the United States on the back of a fine qualifying campaign that included a 5-0 win over Argentina in Buenos Aires - Argentina’s worst home defeat.
An own goal by Escobar in a 2-1 loss against the United States contributed to Colombia’s exit at the group stage. The defender was later shot dead in a bar in Medellin.
In 1998, mercurial winger Faustino Asprilla upset the squad’s harmony and was sent home early by coach Hernan “Bolillo” Gomez after complaining about a substitution.
Pekerman’s team may not have the flamboyance of Francisco Maturana’s side of the early 90s when Carlos Valderrama of the blond dreadlocks pulled the strings.
But they have great attacking power with Falcao up front and his Monaco team mate James Rodriguez prompting from midfield, plus a sturdy defense built round veteran center-backs Luis Amaranto Perea and captain Mario Yepes.
Colombia finished the 16-match South American qualifying group with the best defensive record, conceding only 13 goals.
The team combine the traditional possession game of Colombian football with a new tactical strength.
Rodriguez has proved a key component in Colombia’s gameplan with tactical acumen to go with his creative skills.
Colombia, grouped with Greece, Ivory Coast and Asian champions Japan, will attempt to get past the last 16, their best performance at a World Cup achieved in 1990.
First, though, they will be trying to achieve something they failed to do the last time they took part in a World Cup in South America. In those 1962 finals in Chile they were eliminated in the group stage without winning a game.
If Falcao is fit they will have a better than average chance of bettering that.
Writing by Rex Gowar in Buenos Aires; Editing by Robert Woodward