The Rio Report

Colombia legends and fans alike on cloud nine as a star is born

The Rio Report

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The 40,000 Colombians arriving in Belo Horizonte for their first World Cup finals match since 1998 were in an optimistic mood. Which fans wouldn't be?

"We've waited since 1998 and the time of Valderama and Asprilla for this," enthused supporter Oscar Canon from Bogota, one of the thousands partying in the Savassi neighbourhood.

"Few Colombians will be able to afford to go to the next World Cup finals in Russia or Qatar, so we had to be here."

"It's the first World Cup in South America since 1970 and we're neighbours, we had to come to Brazil," he said.

"It took six hours to fly to Sao Paulo and another hour to Belo Horizonte. Most of our fans are flying but some are coming on a bus which takes a week through the Amazon."

Colombia were missing their best player Radamel Falcao, he of nine goals in qualifying, but Los Cafeteros still came back with a bang. They started well against Greece and the choreographed celebration for their first goal attracted wider attention.

Their stoic, slim, suited and silver haired Argentine coach Pekerman smiled wryly at the madness unfolding in front of him. He's viewed as a saviour in Colombia, the first foreigner to lead the country to the finals.

Falcao's Monaco team-mate James Rodriguez - or 'Hames' as he's known to Colombians - showed why he was an effective playmaker and their replacement star.

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Rodriguez created 43 chances in qualifying, more than any other player in the tough CONMEBOL group which Colombia finished second. They beat Chile, Peru and Paraguay away in qualifying and held Argentina away too.

They hammered Uruguay 4-0 at home and only lost at altitude to Ecuador and 1-2 at home to Argentina. Colombia's defence is cited as their weak point, but they kept seven clean sheets in qualifying, the most in the group.

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I spoke to Faustino Asprilla after the match. He's following the Colombian national team around working for the media.

As well as stating that he's going to Newcastle for four months to learn English with a Geordie accent in August, he picked out his former team-mate Mario Yepes for particular praise.

"He's 38 but he's a rock in defence," said the former Newcastle star Asprilla. "He was our best player with the goalkeeper Ospina against Greece.

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"James Rodriguez had some good moments too, but he dipped in and out. He needs more presence throughout the game, that's what the best players have.

"All three are important for Colombia who demonstrated that they can win without Falcao.

"The aim for the team is qualify from the group and hopefully match the achievements of Colombia in Italia '90."

Of Pekerman, Asprilla said: "He's recovered our confidence and got us on the right path by making small, intelligent, changes.

"He's improved our concentration and he brought a psychologist in. I'm not sure what one would have made of me!

"The next game against Ivory Coast will be difficult, but we have faith."

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Colombia duly won against Yaya Toure's side, as they did in their third Group C game against Japan, winning the tournament's easiest group in style.

Rodriguez scored in all three games as Colombia provided sparkle to the tournament. Their four front men thrived on running at defenders and exploiting space, though their defence was yet to be tested against a top side.

In Rio's Maracana on Saturday they beat Uruguay in the knock-out round, with Rodriguez again the stand out player. His 27th minute goal was the best of the tournament so far.

With his back to goal from 25 yards, J-Rod chested the ball down and volleyed the ball in off the cross bar. It was a ridiculous strike with wondrous technique.

He's the first player to score in the first four games of a World Cup since Ronaldo and Rivaldo in 2002. He's made four assists too. Rodriguez got another in the 50th minute, a selfless team goal.

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He may have exploded into British consciousness, but he's already well known. J-Rod cost Monaco €45 million last season after three good years at FC Porto.

Several big English clubs watched him closely before passing on a player who would likely be so expensive. Maybe they will be re-evaluating those decisions.

Colombia are not only the Rodriguez show. Porto striker Jackson Martinez has been an able two-footed, fleet-heeled, front man, while Fiorentina winger Juan Cuadrado goes past opponents like they're not there. Pekerman encourages him to roam.

Those attackers have thrilled fans so far and Colombia are now in the last eight, where they'll face Brazil in Fortaleza on Friday night.

The hosts remain the favourites, but Colombia will also be well supported in Brazil's north east.

And, from their showings so far, they'll enjoy plenty of support from neutrals who think they've been the most thrilling team of the tournament so far and deserve to progress.

Andy Mitten is covering the World Cup for Eurosport from Brazil.

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