World Cup dark horses: how Colombia can win in Brazil
They come from South America and they play in yellow shirts... could Colombia steal the hosts' thunder this summer?
Along with Belgium, Colombia have established themselves as one of the most talked about dark horses for the World Cup, although their chances have been dealt a significant blow by the absence of goalscoring figurehead Radamel Falcao.
Colombia may not have appeared at a World Cup since 1998, but Jose Pekerman's side made no mistake this time round and booked their place in Brazil in style. They finished second in the South American qualifying competition, just two points behind Argentina and with the best defensive record in the competition.
Solid as they were in qualifying, it was Colombia's menace up front that had the experts excited. However, Falcao's late withdrawal from the squad, on 2 June, after he lost his battle to recover from a cruciate injury sustained in January, leaves them shorn of their main weapon.
But even without Falcao, Colombia still have plenty of ammunition. They also have a relatively easy group, which they share with fellow dark horses Ivory Coast, plus they will benefit from playing in familiar conditions.
There is another reason for Colombia to give it their all. Their World Cup history is marred by tragedy. In 1994 a similarly hyped team underachieved badly in the US and defender Andres Escobar, who scored an own goal against the hosts, was shot dead on his return home. Los Cafeteros have the opportunity to write a more positive chapter in their sporting history in Brazil.
Players to watch:
Colombia do not boast a star-studded squad but you may be surprised by how many of their players you have heard of. In the absence of Radamel Falcao highly-rated Porto striker Jackson Martinez will be the one to watch, taking his place alongside Teofilo Gutierrez in attack. Fredy Guarin and Juan Cuadrado are well established midfielders in Italy, but Falcao's Monaco team-mate James Rodriguez is the man who makes Colombia tick. AC Milan centre back Cristian Zapata is likely to be the bedrock of defence while you may even remember 42-year-old keeper Faryd Mondragon from the 1998 tournament. He will become the oldest player in World Cup history if he is handed the number one shirt.
Why they could win the World Cup:
They might not have been in a World Cup for 16 years but they are currently ranked fifth in the world, and celebrated qualification last year by beating Belgium and then drawing with Holland in Europe.
Like their Group C opponents Ivory Coast, Colombia have plenty of firepower up front (the clash between the two teams in the group stages should not be missed). Pekerman has such riches at his disposal that the likes of Martinez and Guarin are not even guaranteed a place in the starting XI.
Colombia will also be one of the few teams to enjoy playing in Brazil, as they are familiar with the conditions. "They played qualifiers in the sweltering Caribbean port of Barranquilla, opting for mid-afternoon kick-offs in the belief rivals would wilt in the heat," notes the BBC.
But while the players are used to South American heat, they are also versed in European tactics. "The technical and tactical approach of Italian and Spanish football will serve the Colombian players in good stead. It's no coincidence that [an increase in] Uruguayan and Columbian players playing in Serie A [has] coincided with the emergence of those two national teams on the world stage," says website Give Me Sport.
They also have a decent coach in Argentine Pekerman, who steered his home country to the quarter finals in 2006.
Why they probably won't:
Falcao almost made a remarkable recovery from a terrible knee injury (similar to the one that sidelined Theo Walcott), but he fell at the final hurdle and his absence will be keenly felt. The 28-year-old scored nine goals in qualifying and Colombia have drawn the two friendlies they have played without him.
Even if he hadn’t been fit enough to start, being able to bring a player like Falcao on for the closing stages would have given Colombia an extra something. And his absence could also have a psychological impact on the team.
How far can they go?
Win the group and they could face England in the last 16, before colliding with Brazil. Finish second and a match against Italy looks likely, probably followed by Spain. Either way a tough quarter-final beckons. If the conditions really do work against the European teams, they might be better off coming second in their group. But they will be scared of no-one – not even Brazil.
What the bookies think:
Odds of 33/1 reflect the bookies' belief that Colombia lack the vital ingredient to be World Cup winners. However, they are a rather less generous 9/2 to make the semi finals. ·