Radamel Falcao, James Rodríguez, Fredy Guarín, Jackson Martínez… Colombia have their best chance of making an impact at a World Cup since 1994, and Napoli’s left-back-cum-left-winger, one-time Player of the Year Pablo Armero typifies the new-style Los Cafeteros: he’s got graft, as well as guile….
By James Horncastle
Photography by Neil Bedford
This article first appeared in Issue Seven of The Green Soccer Journal, Summer 2014
It was a shot heard around the world. A speed gun clocked it at 115 kilometres per hour. The ball had arrived at Pablo Armero’s feet nearly 40 yards from goal. But when you can generate that kind of power, distance doesn’t matter. Vladimir Avramov, the stand-in Fiorentina goalkeeper, had no chance; the heat-seeker would have burnt his hands. Armero’s pile driver was the catalyst that galvanised Udinese in a game which they came from behind to win. It was also a springboard to wider personal recognition – people began to stand up and take notice of the little Colombian with the big left boot.
The 2010-11 season was Armero’s first in Europe, and coincided with Udinese’s most successful Serie A campaign ever. The Bianconeri finished fourth, in doing so securing a coveted Champions League spot for the following year. Success was in the air, with Armero’s peers voting him into the Italian premier division’s Team of the Year – some achievement for a man who had arrived for just 1.2 million euros the previous summer. Signed from Palmeiras – a São Paulo club whose fan base has historically been dominated by the descendants of Italian immigrants – he represented another victory for Udinese’s highly-regarded scouting department, well on its way to becoming one of the most effective in world football.
In recent years, the club’s reconnaissance missions have also unearthed the likes of Samir Handanovic, Cristián Zapata, Mehdi Benatia, Gökhan Inler, Mauricio Isla, Kwadwo Asamoah and Alexis Sánchez. Bought low and sold high, they would go on to fetch the club a combined total of 92.9 million euros in transfer fees. Good business indeed. And one of the places Udinese most liked doing it was in Colombia. Alongside former European champions Porto, Udinese sifted through countless reports on young Colombian players and decided that this South American country was to form the focal point of their recruitment strategy. Why? Because they had uncovered a golden generation.
The circumstances behind the emergence of this current crop of exciting young hopefuls mirror, to some degree, those in Belgium – another team which has set hipster tongues wagging. Several players took the decision early in their careers to ply their trade abroad; among those who would later decamp to Porto, Radamel Falcao, James Rodríguez and Fredy Guarín had previously played in Argentina, Jackson Martínez in Mexico and Juan Quintero in Italy. Armero was a product of the Brasileirão. Crucially, all had seen their development accelerated by a prolonged exposure to competitive football in their respective leagues, which they might otherwise have been denied in Colombia.
Encouraged by the wealth of talent the country was producing and exporting, Udinese made a beeline straight for the source. Zapata and, later, the much-hyped Luis Muriel were plucked from Deportivo Calí, while Juan Cuadrado was spotted at Independiente Medellín.
All of these players are now preparing to take their first steps on the world’s biggest stage – with, perhaps, the exception of Falcao. At the time of writing, the talismanic goalscorer has been named in coach Jose Pékerman’s provisional 30-man squad; however, a serious knee injury suffered while playing for Monaco against Chasselay Monts d’Or Azergues in the Coupe de France could yet still rule him out of the tournament. Falcao’s absence would be a huge blow for Colombia; many had them earmarked as genuine dark horses for the competition before he was sidelined at the beginning of the new year. But the options available to Pékerman are so vast that they will, without doubt, still pose a legitimate threat to their Group C opponents. Jackson, Muriel and Hertha Berlin’s Adrián Ramos are more than capable of standing in and of forming the kind of partnerships that can compensate for the anticipated loss of the Monaco frontman. That kind of strength in depth provides yet another indication of just how successful Colombia has been at raising and nurturing its young footballers.
So, what is their secret? As is often the way with these questions, there is no one answer. In Armero’s case, it may have been the invigorating, rejuvenating sea air of the Pacific coastline where he spent his childhood. “I’m from Tumaco Nariño,” he tells us, “and first started playing football down on the beach when I was a kid.” You can imagine him pounding the sand, it flying everywhere, a smile on his face. In hindsight it must have equipped him with the strength and endurance levels needed for running up and down his flank. His captain at international level, Mario Yepes, once remarked: “I would be curious to know how many kilometres he gets through in a game.”
Of course, at the time, Armero was doing it for fun. What happened thereafter was an evolution of the passion he harboured for those moments when the ball was at his feet. “I’ve always loved the game, and was lucky enough to play for Boca Juniors de Calí where I learned and developed before moving on to Club América de Calí.” From here, it was not long before Armero attracted the attention of the national team’s selectors and was integrated into the youth setup. “The first time I played for Colombia was at the Under-17 World Cup in Finland [in 2003],” he explains. Now 27, and in possession of that potent, sought-after blend of youth and experience, he confesses that the last golden age of Colombian football somewhat passed him by. He claims to have been too young to appreciate the excitement that surrounded the team ahead of the 1994 World Cup, a tournament that Francisco Maturana’s side were tipped to win by none other than ‘O Rei’ himself – Pelé. The Brazilian legend doesn’t exactly have form, however; his predictions have been so misplaced over the years that many have come to perceive them as a curse. Mindful of this, Colombians have pleaded with him not to back them this time around.
In fairness to Pelé, no one at the time would have blamed him for making the choice he did. Colombia boasted several figures whose seamless marriage of talent and flamboyance has since seen them go on to achieve cult status; René Higuita, the scorpion-kicking goalkeeper; Carlos Valderrama, the blonde afro’ed midfielder; and Tino Asprilla, the somersaulting striker. In qualifying, they had ended Argentina’s 33-match unbeaten run with a 2-1 win in Barranquilla before going on to beat them 5-0 in Buenos Aires – arguably the most famous night in the history of Colombian football. It was understandably a huge disappointment, therefore, when they failed to progress beyond the group stages at USA ‘94.
The story behind that anti-climactic campaign is explored further in the excellent ESPN 30 for 30 documentary, The Two Escobars. Armero, however, recalls the following World Cup as the first he watched with interest. “Of course, I remember France ‘98 when Colombia qualified for the finals,” he says, though many of the details of the tournament escape him. Perhaps that’s for the best – again, Los Cafeteros (the Coffee Growers, as Colombia are known) fell at the first hurdle, going down against Romania and England. Victory over Tunisia wasn’t enough to see them advance to the knock-out stages. It’s something they haven’t achieved since 1990. Armero is optimistic, however, that the class of 2014 can buck the trend. “Football [in Colombia] has come a long way,” he insists, “and this generation is certainly very different, but we have the same mentality [as in ‘94 and ‘98]. We played some great football during the qualifying stages and showed a desire to keep improving from game to game.”
“Football [in Colombia] has come a long way, and this generation is certainly very different, but we have the same mentality [as in ‘94 and ‘98].”
Colombia finished as runners-up in the Conmebol qualifying tournament, just two points behind an Argentinian side with seemingly limitless attacking potential in the shape of Lionel Messi, Sergio Agüero and Gonzalo Higuaín. Armero was part of the back four that blunted the Argentinian triumvirate during a stalemate played out at Buenos Aires’ Estadio Monumental. Results like that don’t come easy, and he knows it: “The current team has a fantastic work ethic,” he insists, “and we know that if we play to the best of our abilities then we can go far in this competition but we just have to take each game as it comes.”
Refreshingly, throughout the conversation, Armero cuts the figure of a man who is genuinely excited at the prospect of representing his country in Brazil – a sentiment apparently shared by the entire squad. He talks fondly of international get-togethers, describing them as “like meeting up with brothers you haven’t seen in a long time. We’re all there to support each other and there’s always a lot of laughing and joking in the group.”
A quick search on YouTube reveals exactly that. In a show of brotherly love before Colombia’s friendlies with Belgium and the Netherlands last winter, James Rodríguez, Muriel and Cuadrado filmed themselves pranking Armero. The video shows the three players taking up positions behind a curtain in the left-back’s hotel room, and leaping out as he walks in. A petrified Armero collapses in fear to a chorus of hysterical laughter, with which he soon joins in. It’s hoped they’ll prove just as frightening to their opponents in Group C.
Expectations are certainly high. “Over the past few years, the Colombian fans have been very excited, because they know that this is a team that can go places,” Armero says. He seems assured, relaxed, at ease – you wouldn’t know that he is only a couple of months away from taking on the world’s best, and if he is feeling the pressure, he doesn’t show it. “The group certainly isn’t easy; Greece, Japan and Ivory Coast are all teams with experience at World Cup finals and we know that we can’t take anything for granted. But equally, we know that we’ll give 100 per cent to try and make it out of the group and into the last 16.”
Should Colombia top their group, they will set up a tie in Rio with the runner-up of Group D, and a potential clash against Italy, England or Uruguay. They could even end up facing Costa Rica, a team coached by Jorge Luis Pinto, former technical director of the Colombian national team and a man of whom Armero has fond memories. “It was ‘Profesor Pinto’ who contacted me the first time I was selected to play for the senior team,” he recalls. “I was over the moon.”
Should Armero face Italy or England, where he is currently on loan at West Ham from parent club Napoli, he will be prepared. Stints in Serie A and the Premier League have equipped him with an understanding of what lies in wait for Colombia should they win their group. He is forthcoming about the stylistic differences between the two nations: “I’d say that Italian football is much more tactical – the emphasis is firmly on waiting for the right time to strike,” he suggests. And in England? “It’s more about attacking. In any case, Italy and England are teams with vast World Cup experience, and you have to respect that and go out there and work hard.”
I can’t help but feel that his insistence on the idea of ‘experience’ is significant. Does he believe that this is something his side lack? It would certainly be understandable if he did. This is their first World Cup in 16 years. No one in the current squad has played on this stage before. No one can predict how they will handle the pressure. But Armero goes there with a smile on his face, and with every intention of enjoying it. “I always used to watch the tournaments and now, as a player, it’s without doubt one of the most exciting and beautiful competitions you can be involved in.”
For the boy from the beaches of Tumaco Nariño, the Copacabana now awaits.
This article first appeared in Issue Seven of The Green Soccer Journal, Summer 2014