Colombia: Deserved World Cup Darlings

After a painful 16-year absence, Los Cafeteros return with another “golden generation.

For Colombia, Brazil 2014 represents much more than just an opportunity for sporting success on the world’s biggest stage. It represents a chance for a nation to heal some very deep wounds.

The story of their elimination from the 1994 World Cup is well-known (and superbly told in arguably ESPN’s finest “30 For 30” work, “The Two Escobars”) - an unfortunate own goal meant the end of Colombia’s tournament, and for the man culpable of the error, Andres Escobar, the end of his young life. It was an unspeakable tragedy for a fragile nation struggling with its image and identity. In soccer terms, the country has yet to fully recover, having failed to qualify for the World Cup ever since.

After a 16-year absence, it’s a new day for Los Cafeteros, as they enter this summer’s tournament as nearly everyone’s dark horse pick to make an extended run at the Jules Rimet trophy.

Colombia breezed through World Cup qualification under manager Jose Pekerman, an Argentine known for tactical flexibility and the occasional controversial lineup choice. Pekerman has won the U-20 World Cup three times with Argentina and rejuvenated the Colombian team upon his 2012 appointment, leading the team to a second place finish in the very difficult CONMEBOL federation.

Pekerman’s flexibility will be useful as the team copes with an injury to their star striker, Falcao, who tore his ACL in January and did not make the final roster. Ligament tears are career-threatening and the £50M pound Monaco front man could not risk the long-term impact of testing a knee that wasn’t 100%.

Even without Falcao, Colombia has one of the tournament’s most scintillating attacks. While they’re not yet household names, Carlos Bacca and Adrian Ramos are two very capable strikers. Ramos is set for a summer move to Borussia Dortmund after notching 16 goals for Hertha Berlin this season. Porto’s Jackson Martinez not only has one of the best names you’ll hear this summer, but is also a prolific number nine, knocking in goals wherever he’s played his football.

Perhaps the best attacker of the bunch is James Rodriguez, a 22-year-old attacking midfielder who was the subject of a staggering €45 transfer to Monaco last summer. If you’re looking to plunk down some cash on who will win the Young Player of the Tournament, Rodriguez is as good a bet as anyone.

In the center of the park, Colombia possesses another veritable embarrassment of riches, anchored by two underrated players - Inter Milan’s Fredy Guarin and Toulouse’s Abel Aguilar. The former is versatile, able to play deep in midfield or closer to the attack as a playmaker, while the latter is a tenacious ball-winner who will shield the central defense. Though his work doesn’t generally show up in the box score, Aguilar could well prove to be Colombia’s most important player. Juan Cuadrado is a tricky winger who had a phenomenal season for Fiorentina, and could emerge from the tournament as one of the hottest properties in Europe.

In defense, Colombia has size and experience in the middle. While they lack name recognition and depth, they are a classic case of the whole being greater than the sum of its parts, having conceded a paltry 13 goals during qualification. Cristian Zapata and Mario Yepes are both well-traveled central defenders, while Napoli teammates Juan Zuniga and Pablo Amero provide counterattacking and width at the fullback position. Keeper David Ospina is an excellent shot stopper with lightning quick reflexes capable of keeping Colombia in any game.

The analytics back up the hype surrounding Colombia’s chances. With an eye-popping nERD of 3.09, they trail only behind Brazil, Argentina, and Spain in terms of overall team efficiency, ranking ahead of the machine-like Germans. Their 0.87 Total suggests they will be a tough nut to crack in defense, due in large part to a strong possession game and stout midfield.

Various sportsbooks have Los Cafeteros at slightly less than even odds to win their group, and considering their favorable draw, playing Greece, Ivory Coast, and Japan, it might be the easiest money at the tournament. With better than a 10% chance of winning the whole shebang, Colombia makes for an intriguing long shot, with oddsmakers setting their chances anywhere from 20:1 to as high as 39:1.

The Colombians should find the back of the net with regularity and a steely midfield and excellent keeper will make them tough to score on. Add in a well-traveling group of supporters, playing close to home in a familiar climate, a manager with great tactical nous and the tidal wave of emotion, and you have a formula for a team that should do very well. A trip to the quarters is almost a no-brainer and with some luck, they could make it even further.