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Rodriguez a ray of light in Colombia's new dawn

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James Rodriguez, a €45m Monaco purchase from Porto last year, has taken star billing in the absence of his injured club colleague Falcao. Photo credit: REUTERS/Eric Gaillard

James Rodriguez, a €45m Monaco purchase from Porto last year, has taken star billing in the absence of his injured club colleague Falcao. Photo credit: REUTERS/Eric Gaillard

James Rodriguez, a €45m Monaco purchase from Porto last year, has taken star billing in the absence of his injured club colleague Falcao. Photo credit: REUTERS/Eric Gaillard

AFTER a week where the latest travails of Luis Suarez have left the entrenched camps in danger of losing all sense of perspective, it's fitting that Colombia come into view.

In the Maracana this evening, Uruguay will encounter a nation which knows what really constitutes a World Cup tragedy.

The new generation of Colombians are marking the anniversary of a nation's darkest hour by standing on the verge of the biggest step in their football history. Never before have they reached the quarter-finals. Italy in 1990 is the only previous occasion where they have emerged from the group stages.

Four years later, with Pele singing their praises, they travelled to America in the expectation they would go much further. The infamous campaign was a disaster and the recriminations cost defender Andres Escobar his life.

James Rodriguez, the star of today's group, was only a toddler when the popular central defender, humiliated by an own goal in a defeat to the USA, was gunned down in the car park of a Medellin nightclub.

The country has changed during the Monaco playmaker's formative years, yet he doesn't have to look far to learn about that grim episode. Third-choice keeper Faryd Mondragon, who became the oldest ever World Cup performer when sprung off the bench in their concluding group success over Japan on Tuesday, was a young member of the USA 94 generation that never fully recovered from their trauma.

The Escobar story has been preserved by popular culture with the ESPN documentary 'The Two Escobars' brilliantly stitching the tale of Andres in with the influence of druglord Pablo who was in his pomp in the 80s and early 90s and indulged himself through football.

DIFFERENT

It's a superb documentary, even if aspects of the permanent association between the pair don't sit right. Visitors to Medellin can go on a well-subscribed bus tour which visits landmarks and details the background of two drastically different characters.

This expedition leaves a sour taste when it concludes with members of Pablo's family hawking merchandise bearing his image and rushing through their remorse for his actions. Remember, this was a disgusting individual who, among other atrocities, brought down a plane of civilians in an attempt to kill a presidential candidate. He's not really an appropriate face for a T-shirt.

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His prominence in society and the desire to fraternise with members of the first Colombian golden generation, especially those like the honourable Andres, who played for the club that he financed, Nacional, made him an uncomfortable presence in their lives. Pablo was killed seven months before the '94 World Cup, but it was the fractured society he harnessed that created the environment which led to his namesake meeting a bloody end just before he was set to secure a dream switch to AC Milan.

The climate for today's Colombian group is a world apart, although it would be a stretch to say the country is fully healed. In the euphoria around their opening win, nine people were shot dead in alcohol-fuelled celebrations in Bogota, which led to the introduction of a booze ban on match nights. Certain idiosyncraises remain, but the footballers can live a more stable existence.

A significant difference is the fact that the majority are based overseas. Only four members of the '94 squad earned their corn abroad, with the drug cartels who used the local league for bragging rights and status, splashing the cash to keep as many players at home as possible.

Just three of the current Los Cafeteros are domestically located with the rest spread across Argentina and Europe's top leagues. It has allowed them to develop into rounded players, and they have arrived at this tournament unburdened by the pressures that weighed down their predecessors. The internal rivalries from back home spilled over in the '94 environment when coach Francisco Maturana received death threats warning him against picking Barrabas Gomez, who duly left the group.

Jose Pekerman, an Argentinian who brought his native country as far as the last eight in 2006, has control over this dressing-room and the manner in which they stormed through the group stages with a 100pc record has won the approval of the old guard.

Carlos Valderrama believes that 22-year-old Rodriguez, a scorer in all three group matches from his attacking midfielder berth, can go all the way.

"He has the potential to be the greatest Colombian player ever, and possibly one of the best to ever play the game," said Valderrama before adding, modestly, "For a long time in Colombia they have been looking for the next Carlos Valderrama and they've now finally found who that player is."

Rodriguez, a €45m Monaco purchase from Porto last year, has taken star billing in the absence of his injured club colleague Falcao, a seismic loss from their plans. Faustino Asprilla, who is also here on punditry duty, would approve of the manner in which Arsenal target Jackson Martinez of Porto stepped into the striking breach with a double against Japan.

Juan Cuadrado, a speedy Fiorentina winger, has really turned heads as the main accomplice to Rodriguez in a fluid attacking shape. Defensively, the bedrock is the 38-year-old veteran Mario Yepes, a member of the 2001 Copa America-winning squad which contained the last remaining elements of the Class of '94. He's risen again as a guiding force to a group that screams potential.

They're making friends everywhere they go. From the very start of this tournament, the whole Colombia package has brought a real positive energy, with the elaborate celebratory dances on the pitch a snapshot of what's going on in the stands and around the grounds.

They may hail from a land that has known great sadness but, truthfully, it is also a place with a unique spirit and joy which Pekerman's charges have represented with their expressive performances.

"We have to show our ambition, our new values, our new values," said the coach last night.

With the rancour of Suarez's bite looming over this tie, the crowd favourites are motivated by a different ghost. In this World Cup, Colombia can finally become the good news story.


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