By Mike Woitalla
Colombian and Uruguayan fans arrived at Maracana in decidedly different moods.
The Uruguayans pessimistic about their chances without suspended Luis Suarez. Most agreed a suspension for the bite was deserved, but that it was too severe and FIFA was intent in punishing a “little country.”
The Colombians, many of whom had flown in after Colombia clinched its second-round passage, buoyant and optimistic about Los Cafeteros, who won all three of their group games in entertaining and convincing fashion. Rafael Rincon and Abraham Romano bought scalped tickets for $800 a pop.
“The team has united the Colombia,” says 28-year-old Rincon. “We were divided because of the presidential election.”
On June 15, a day after Colombia started its World Cup campaign with a 3-0 win over Greece, incumbent Juan Manuel Santos narrowly defeated Oscar Ivan Zuluaga.
“It was an ugly, long campaign,” says Colombian Luis Badel of Yahoo! Latin America. “When it was done, everybody could relax and enjoy the World Cup. It’s true. This team has brought us together.”
On Saturday at Maracana, Colombia had a chance to reach the quarterfinals for the first time ever. This after a 16-year absence from the World Cup. Not all the fans who flew in at the last minute got inside the stadium.
“One thousand dollars is too much, but we’re happy to be here,” says Carlos Victoria, a 58-year-old naval engineer, who with friends flew from Cali with layovers in Bogota, Lima and Porto Alegre to watch the game in a Rio bar. “It’s wonderful to be here.”
Colombian fans vastly outnumbered Uruguayan fans inside the stadium and taunted them with chants of “Eliminado!” after Los Cafeteros took the 2-0 lead that would stand, both goals coming from the brilliant 22-year-old James Rodriguez, who with five goals and two assists is the leading candidate for the Golden Ball.
This Colombian squad is already seen by fans and Colombian media as better than the 1990s' Carlos Valderrama-led teams that included such spectacular attackers such as Faustino Asprilla, Freddy Rincon and Adolfo Valencia. That era’s team famously beat Argentina, 5-0, in Buenos Aires in qualifying to take favorite status at the 1994 World Cup the USA. But they fell in the first round, and Andres Escobar, who scored an own goal in the 2-1 loss to the USA, was murdered when he returned to Medellin.
“It was very, very sad,” says Romano.
“This is cathartic,” says Rincon, who remembers watching the 1994 World Cup as an 8-year-old and Colombia’s first-round exit in France '98, Los Cafeteros' last World Cup appearance.
Now about that presidential election -- did it come out well?
“Yes!” says Rincon. “No!” says Romano. And they proceed to argue about the virtues of President Santos. But no doubt they’ll soon be united again as Colombia heads into its quarterfinal with Brazil.