- Capital: Bogotá
- Official Languages: Spanish
- Recognised Regional Languages: 68 Languages
- Nicknames: Los Cafeteros/Las Cafeteras (The Coffee Growers); La Tricolor (The Tricolors); Las Chicas Superpoderosas (The Powerpuff Girls) – [Women’s team]
- Association: Federación Colombiana de Fútbol (FCF)
- FIFA Code: COL
- Best World Cup Result (Men): Quarter Finals (2014)
- Best World Cup Result (Women): Round of 16 (2015)
- Best Copa América Result (Men): WINNERS (2001)
- Best Copa América Result (Women): Runners-Up (2010 & 2014)
- Best Gold Cup Result (Men): Finalists (2000)
- Highest FIFA Ranking (Men): 3rd (Various)
- Highest FIFA Ranking (Women): 22nd (December 2016 – June 2017)
- Lowest FIFA Ranking (Men): 54th (June 2011)
- Lowest FIFA Ranking (Women): 118th (June 2008)
- Most Capped Player: Carlos Valderrama – 111 caps
- Top Scorers: Radamel Falcao – 35 goals [as of June 2021]
The Republic of Colombia (República de Colombia) is a large country situated in the northwestern corner of the South American continent. It is the only country on the continent to have both Atlantic Ocean / Caribbean Sea (to the north) and Pacific Ocean coastlines (to the west), and the country shares land borders with Venezuela to the east, Brazil to the southeast, Peru to the south, Ecuador to the southwest, and the CONCACAF nation of Panama to the northwest. The country declared its independence from Spain in 1810, with the Colombian FA being founded in 1924 and playing its first international game two years later when the national team beat Central American side Costa Rica 4-0 in Barranquilla. Colombia would subsequently join FIFA and CONMEBOL as a full member in 1936.
Post-WW2, the Colombian football league was briefly the most influential league in international football after it had broken away from FIFA. Because it was not tied to FIFA’s rules, it meant the clubs in the league could bring in the best players from around the world without paying transfer fees and provide higher wages to the players. The ‘El Dorado‘ period only lasted for five years as Colombia was readmitted back into FIFA, but that period had a lasting legacy as it was in conjunction with the Colombian football league turning professional which started to improve the national team’s fortunes. Colombia eventually qualified for their very first World Cup in 1962, being held in Chile, but were unable to progress out of their tough group which contained the Soviet Union, Yugoslavia, and Uruguay. The highlight of the campaign being a 4-4 draw with the Soviets, after finding themselves 4-1 down at one point in the second half.
Los Cafeteros reached their first Copa América final in 1975 but lost to Peru over three games, but their first golden period came in the late 1980s and throughout the 1990s, ironically during a hugely problematic time for the country. Whilst the central government were fighting communist guerilla groups or the powerful drug cartels, the Colombian national team were sparkling on the international scene. Inspired by such iconic players like Carlos Valderrama, René Higuita, and Freddy Rincón, they managed to qualify for their second World Cup in 1990. Colombia managed to beat the UAE 4-0, lost 1-0 to Yugoslavia, and drew with the eventual champions West Germany 1-1 to progress to the knockout stage for the first time in their history. They were hugely unlucky not to progress to the quarter-finals, losing 2-1 in extra time to the iconic Cameroon side that had lit up the tournament – the game made iconic for Roger Milla’s tackle on Higuita as the cavalier keeper lost ball possession in the middle of his half, which allowed Milla to score into an empty net and enact his famous corner flag dance celebration.
Nonetheless, the Colombians were increasing their reputation in world football, and qualified for the following World Cup in 1994 in style, staying undefeated during their qualification, and historically hammering Argentina 5-0 in Buenos Aires. With such momentum behind them, and with their star players in seemingly sparkling form, they were naturally regarded as one of the favourites to potentially win the whole tournament. Alas the hype and pressure was too much for the national team as they suffered a 3-1 defeat to Romania in their first group game, and then lost 2-1 to the hosts USA in the second (the game made infamous for the own goal by the late Andrés Escobar). They did manage to beat Switzerland 2-0 in their final group game, but the damage had already been done and as they exited the competition shockingly early. They did qualify for their third consecutive World Cup for France ‘98, finishing as the third best team in the South American qualifying, and had hopes of rectifying the wrongs of four years previous. Unfortunately, once again they were unable to progress beyond the group stage, losing to Romania (again) 1-0, and England 2-0, but managing to beat Tunisia 1-0.
The last hurrah of the first golden era came in the 2001 Copa América, the first and only major senior tournament the country has solely hosted (they were originally scheduled to be the hosts for the 1986 World Cup but had to withdraw due to economic reasons resulting in Mexico hosting the competition for the second time). Coming during a time when the country was rebuilding itself after the devastation of the 1990s, the national team won all three of its group games, before beating Peru and Honduras in the knockout rounds, and then defeating Mexico 1-0 in the final held at Bogotá. An incredible tournament for the hosts who won all of their games in the tournament without conceding a single goal to clinch their first (and to date only) Copa América title. Sadly the remainder of the decade would be a tough one for Colombia as they were unable to match the feats of the legends from the 1990s by failing to qualify for the next three World Cups in 2002, 2006, and 2010.
Thankfully Colombian football seems to be experiencing its second golden era, as the fortunes of the national side has improved throughout the 2010s and into the 2020s. They managed to qualify for the 2014 World Cup held in Brazil, and inspired by their superstar player James Rodríguez (who finished as the tournament’s top goalscorer with 6 goals), topped their group with three wins out of three – the first time they had progressed beyond the group stage since 1990! They then managed to defeat the fancied Uruguay side 2-0 in the Round of 16 to progress to the quarter-finals for the first time in the country’s history! In their historic quarter-final against the hosts Brazil, they were incredibly unfortunate not to progress to the semi-finals. Despite looking like the better team throughout the game, they sadly suffered 2-1 defeat to the Seleção to end their memorable campaign. The Colombians qualified for their second World Cup in a row in 2018, and progressed beyond the group stage once more as group winners, ahead of Japan, Senegal, and Poland. It looked as if they could progress deep into the tournament but sadly they were unfortunate not to match their heroics of four years previous. Coming up against England in the Round of 16, they scored an injury time equaliser to set up extra time and eventual penalties, and despite taking a 3-2 lead in the shootout, the Colombians missed their final two spot-kicks to exit the competition. Yet another excellent opportunity went begging for La Tricolor.
Nonetheless, Colombia is continuously producing excellent talent, many of whom are playing in the top leagues in Europe. Combined with many of the players from 2014 and 2018 still in the national team, there are hopes that the successes of 2014 and 2018 will continue onwards such is the strength in depth of the national team. Despite having started slowly in the South American qualifiers for the 2022 World Cup, there are hopes that Los Cafeteros will improve their position in qualifying to reach their seventh World Cup. In addition, they will certainly be one of the contenders for the title for the upcoming Copa América and perhaps equal the heroics of 2001 to claim their second continental title. It’s certainly long overdue…
To talk about a side who are currently experiencing their second golden era and reached the quarter-finals of the 2014 World Cup, but have still only won just one Copa América in their history back in 2001, we interviewed the excellent Colombian football expert, Simon Edwards. He is a Colombian-based journalist who writes about South American football and has produced articles for World Football Index, and the official CONMEBOL Libertadores website. To find his social media accounts, follow the links below:
- Twitter: @SimonEdwardsSAF
Q. Who would you say is your country’s best player and coach/manager of all time, and the reasoning behind the choices?
In Colombia the big debate on the country’s greatest player is usually between James Rodríguez and Carlos “El Pibe” Valderrama. James was the top scorer and the best player, even if he didn’t officially receive the title, at a World Cup and has consistently played at the very top of European football for a decade. In terms of numbers and accolades I can completely understand the case for James but I am personally going to opt for Valderrama.
Valderrama helped form the identity of Colombian football and was the heart of the 1990 team which helped announce Colombian on the world stage. Colombia at the 1990 World Cup absolutely destroyed West Germany with a mesmeric, short passing game that was decades ahead of the way much of Europe played the game at the time. Colombia seemingly forgot to put the ball in the net that game but as soon as they conceded it was Valderrama who opened up the German defense with a moment of magic to send Colombia through. Valderrama was so important and influential for Colombia that every team for the next decade was searching to find and build their side around a talented playmaker. It is no surprise that Colombian football suddenly found itself with an abundance of brilliant 10s and shortages elsewhere in the subsequent decade. You can see James Rodríguez and the beloved Juan Fernando Quintero as the product of that obsession and beneficiaries of the tactica switch to creative, passing football.
There are also obviously strong cases for Radamel Falcao who was once the best number 9 in Europe and Juan Cuadrado, a consistent elite level wide player who has been key at the very top. I would also make a case for Iván Córdoba who never went to a World Cup with Colombia but did win a Copa América and was a remarkably quick, tenacious, tidy defender for Inter.
Francisco “Pacho” Maturana has to be Colombia’s most important manager.
Again, as with James, José Pékerman deserves huge credit for getting Colombia back to the World Cup after 16 years and keeping them there for two tournaments. The 2014 team in particular was a joy to watch and played some great stuff. Maturana however won Atlético Nacional their first Copa Libertadores with all Colombian players and used that core to make a big impact on the 1990 World Cup and then qualify for 1994 in style. 1994 subsequently ended sporting and broader society in tragedy but that can be put down to the chaotic, terrifying moment the country was experiencing at the time. Maturana even came back in 2001 to win the Copa América, Colombia’s only international trophy.
Q. Who could be regarded as a ‘cult hero’ in terms of the national team both in the past and present?
It would be difficult to describe a low key, efficient midfielder as a cult hero but Carlos Sánchez is undoubtedly admired and celebrated in a way which may surprise some European fans. He has been a reliable performer in Europe but was truly transformative and indispensable for Colombia with his incredible defensive work, consistent passing and reliability.
A lot of the big characters of Colombian football emerged in the 1990s and that side was full of top and fairly eccentric players. René Higuita scored 44 goals across his career, did a scorpion kick at Wembley, dribbled out into midfield (he once got so far he won a penalty in the opposition box), and was a top keeper despite being tiny by modern standards.
The 1994 squad included rotund striker Iván Valenciano known as “The Golden Fatty” and tricky 5ft 3 winger Antony “The Smurf” de Ávila. Valenciano inexplicably lost all the weight once he stopped playing football while América de Cali legend de Ávila came out of retirement at 46 in 2009 to score against city rivals Deportivo Cali. How is that for eccentric?
Q. Of the current team, who would you say is the best player from Colombia currently?
James is Colombia’s most talented footballer and perhaps best ever. I would put Quintero in the conversation in terms of pure technical ability, the quality those two have in their left feet is preposterous. That said, for me Colombia’s most important player right now is Wílmar Barrios [27-year-old defensive midfielder currently with Russian club Zenit St. Petersburg]. Barrios holds everything together at the base of the midfield; he never loses it, he has the best ball recovery numbers, he covers a huge amount of ground and enables everyone else to play. Colombia without James lose their spark but Colombia without Barrios lose their foundation and security. Absolutely ridiculous that top English Premier League clubs are not all scrapping for his signature, he would be one of the best in the league.
Q. How would you describe the current state/performance of the national team?
Colombia has never had anywhere near as much strength in depth as they do right now. There are players who can’t even make the squad who would have been key 10-15 years ago. Former national team head coach, Carlos Quieroz, tried to implement a more direct, aggressive pressing system focused on energy and transitions. That would have worked perfectly for the likes of Juan Cuadrado [33-year-old winger curently playing for Juventus], Luis Muriel [30-year-old forward with Atalanta], Luis Díaz [24-year-old winger currently at Porto], and Duván Zapata [30-year-old striker also with Atalanta] but was always going to be a tricky implementation for the likes of James and Quintero.
With current head coach Reinaldo Rueda I expect the plan will be to accommodate the star men and return to a similar system as Pékerman, at least until they are ready for a major overhaul. Colombia uncountably has the quality but they need a clear system and concerns remain about game management, discipline and focus in key moments.
Q. Are there any Colombian players who you think we should be focusing on for the future – who would you say is the most exciting up & coming talent from the country?
Luis Díaz at Porto has had a great season and is probably ready for a big move soon. The rapid winger has great balance, dribbling ability, vision and is excellent at shooting from range. Young wingers Emerson Rodríguez [playing for Millonarios], and Santiago Moreno [21-year-old currently playing for América de Cali] are attracting a lot of attention in Europe and should make a big move this summer. Jaminton Campaz [21-year-old at Deportes Tolima] is a wonderful box to box midfielder with great dribbling, pace, work rate and shooting from range.
Carlos Cuesta and Jhon Lucumí [both 22-year-old centre-backs] have been consistently very good at Genk and are probably ready for a step up in quality while Yerson Mosquera [20-year-old playing for Atlético Nacional] and Pablo Ortíz [20-year-old playing for América de Cali] are two extremely interesting, strong central defenders on their way to Europe.
Q. Looking at Colombia’s international history, what would you say has been the best game, result, or performance for the national team in your opinion?
Despite immediately preceding the tragic, disastrous 1994 World Cup, Colombia’s 5-0 away win against Argentina will always be special. Maradona had dismissed Colombia as inferior in the build up but on the day they were head and shoulders above. Valderrama running the show, Faustino Asprilla in ridiculous form and Freddy Rincón everywhere. This is a game that Colombians will always go back to and it gave the country a massive lift at a difficult time.
Q. Likewise, is there a performance or result which is regarded as the team’s lowest point?
I arrived in Colombia in 2008 and while there have been disappointments along the way, I consider myself to be very lucky to have experienced the country’s footballing revival and a second golden age.
The 1994 World Cup 2-1 defeat to the US has to be the lowest point. That Colombia side represented great hope for the country, they were going to show the world this country was about more than the violence and drugs presented on the news. They had destroyed Argentina previously, and Pelé was sure they would light up the World Cup. But it didn’t happen.
The pressure was too much, the madness of the country at the time caught up with the team and they didn’t perform. They were eliminated early and then Andrés Escobar was murdered. A player known as ‘the gentleman‘ who represented so much of the positivity and the hope the country had was another victim of the chaos. This experience hit Colombia hard; the World Cup wasn’t some sort of salvation, it was the prelude for more tragedy and negative global stories.
Q. What are the best and worst things about being a fan of the Colombian national team?
When Colombia plays, seemingly everyone in the country has a yellow shirt and is watching the game. You can hear screams and cheers from parks, houses, bars across the city when a goal is scored or a chance is missed. The national team makes even those with minimal interest in the national team become crazed fans and that is amazing. During the World Cup the park was filled with thousands in yellow shirts spraying form, drinking with fireworks going off.
Perhaps the worst thing is the switch from overconfidence to deep desperation and hopelessness when things don’t work out. That said, I think following such a long absence from international tournaments the country is still a long way off complacency and still enthusiastically enjoying each success.
Q. Have the fans adopted some kind of unofficial anthem to sing along to before/during/after matches?
Music has been a huge part of the Colombian national team in the last 20 years. It has even featured 2 professional recording artists! Jackson Martínez put out some fairly decent if quite dull spiritual rap music while Juan Fernando Quintero has appeared on a couple of less lyrically reflective but moderately catchy reggaeton hooks.
In 2014 the team was constantly dancing to ‘ras tas tas‘ by Cali Flow Latino, a ‘salsa choke‘ (salsa ‘crash’) song which included a sample from ‘Move Bitch‘ by Ludacris. This contemporary, hip hop influenced version of salsa became very popular. Music from the Colombian Caribbean and Pacific coasts continues to play an important part of team bonding, and hopefully we get some new celebrations at the Copa América.
Q. Do you have a favourite or iconic shirt from the whole time of the national team?
I bought the modern re-releases of the yellow and red 1990 shirts in the last few years and they are really nice. The 2014 World Cup shirt will also go down as a classic in the years to come. 2018 seemed like a nice concept but it was quite bland in it’s execution while the 2019 Copa América was terrible. Adidas seem to have played it simple with an inoffensive but unmemorable design for this year.
Q. Finally, what are your hopes for the future of the Colombian national team?
Colombia is a huge country with incredible diversity, passion for football, and top athletes. For decades this part of the world hugely underachieved in terms of the national team and player development. Given the youth infrastructure in the country and everything working that is in place, it is hard to imagine Colombia losing it’s position amongst the top nations in South America.
My hope is that Colombian domestic football can improve tactically and in terms of organization so the country is able to make the most of the talent it is likely to continue to produce. That is probably the area which needs the most work and moves to introduce additional leagues to the Colombian professional structure should help more players realize their potential.
There will be ups and downs but Colombia should be able to retain its place at the top of South American football and perhaps one day soon light up another World Cup.
A massive muchas gracias to Simon for answering our questions on Los Cafeteros. Remember you can find their social media accounts in the links at the top of the blogpage.
If you have any comments, suggestions, reactions, or even your own answers to the above questions, please write them in the comments box below. Likewise, you can either email us at firstname.lastname@example.org or send a message at @The94thMin on Twitter.