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Quarterfinals Day 1: Favorites win through

Five Aside Jul 4, 2014
Read
 Posted by Tim Vickery
Sep 5, 2014

Pressure's on Colombia to continue their progress

The ESPN FC crew argue over Dunga's decision to name Neymar as captain for Brazil's upcoming friendly with Colombia.

When Brazil meet Colombia in Miami on Friday night, almost all the focus will be on the Brazilians. How will the five-time world champions react after their World Cup humiliation? Is Dunga the right coach to lead them back to greatness? Are there any promising new players coming through to capture global attention?

Given the above, it is easy to overlook the team defending the other goal. But the truth is that this match kick starts a key era in Colombian football -- and it has nothing to do with the search for revenge after Brazil's 2-1 win in the World Cup quarterfinal. This is a moment for looking forward.

In the build-up to Brazil 2014, Colombia coach Jose Pekerman said that it would be the tournament where his side claimed a definitive place at football's top table. Part one of that mission is complete: they reached the last eight for the first time and played some highly impressive football on the way.

Stage two now comes into effect: making sure Brazil 2014 is a starting point for consistent performance. Three South American nations have won the World Cup -- the traditional trio from the south cone, Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay. Colombia are the best bets to become number four.

Colombia meet Brazil again barely two months after their World Cup quarterfinal, with abundant storylines.

After Brazil it has the biggest population in the continent, it has plenty of urban centres and is football crazy. The game caught on in the north of the continent later than it did elsewhere, and for a while Colombia were playing catch up. The first time a Colombian club won the Copa Libertadores, South America's Champions League, was in 1989, around the same time the national team came through strongly, qualifying for three consecutive World Cups -- even (very prematurely) being placed among the pre-tournament favourites for USA '94.

Early elimination that year lead to the assassination of centre-back Andres Escobar, who had scored an own goal against the hosts. Working through the trauma was not an easy process but 20 years on Colombia is a different place, and after a difficult period the national football team appears to have rediscovered its identity.

The masterstroke was the appointment of the Argentine Jose Pekerman, the first foreigner in decades to take charge of the team. It is important to remember that Colombian football developed with a massive Argentine influence. The launching of the country's professional league in the late 1940s coincided with a players' strike in Argentina. The outcome? Truly great Argentines such as Alfredo Di Stefano and his mentor Adolfo Pedernera were lured north to Colombia, where they left their glorious mark.

Jose Pekerman's Colombia meet Brazil in the World Cup quarterfinals.
Pekerman is the right man to continue Colombia's progress and to ensure that James Rodriguez fulfills his potential.

This is the tradition in which Pekerman is steeped. As a midfielder, he played in Colombia. As a coach, he was Argentina's youth specialist and then, between 2004-06, the boss of the senior side. In both roles he was an advocate of old style passing football, working wonderfully well with playmaker Juan Roman Riquelme. In short, Pekerman ticked all the boxes that Colombia needed when their 2014 qualification campaign got off to a rocky start and now he needs to tick the boxes necessary to ensure that Brazil 2014 was more than a one-off moment.

In truth, Friday's match against Brazil has come too soon for the kind of detailed planning that will be needed to bring about sustained success. Negotiations about Pekerman's new contract dragged on for so long that there was barely time to call up the squad and as a result, this is in effect the same group that went to the World Cup. Two veterans have now been left out -- back-up goalkeeper Faryd Mondragon and the team's captain and centre-back, Mario Yepes -- while those who missed the World Cup have come back: midfielder Aldo Leao Ramirez and, of course, star centre-forward Radamel Falcao.

The World Cup has made clear, though, that the most important player in the team is attacking midfielder James Rodriguez. Indeed, before his emergence in the second half of 2011, Falcao's international record was distinctly mediocre; once James started unlocking defences then the chances suddenly started falling at his feet.

At the age of 23, James should have his best years ahead of him and it will be fascinating to see if over the next few years he can strike up a midfield partnership with the immensely talented and similarly left-footed Juan Fernando Quintero, just 21.

Also, will the long-term replacement for Yepes be Eder Alvarez Balanta? The young, left-footed centre-back has plenty of imposing potential. Perhaps the Miami meeting with Brazil will come up with a few hints as to whether or not these players are up to the task of consolidating Colombia as a true power of the global game.

Tim Vickery

Tim Vickery is an English journalist who has been based in Brazil for the past 20 years. He is the South American football correspondent for the BBC Sport.

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