From Al Jazeera, Belo Horizonte.
Twenty years ago, Colombia’s footballers arrived for the World Cup in the US and the team was hailed as one of the best on the planet.
Pele termed them favourites for the tournament. An unprecedented 5-0 away victory over Argentina had capped off an unbeaten qualifying campaign. Stars like Carlos Valderrama, Faustino Asprilla and Freddy Rincon were given a standing ovation by 60,000 Argentine fans at the Monumental in Buenos Aires.
On the eve of the tournament, defender Andres Escobar spoke of the “huge responsibility” faced by the team in trying to bring home the trophy for the first time. And in improving the image of Colombia, where the conflict between the government and guerrilla groups, as well as drug-related corruption and violence, was at its peak.
But the joy that had erupted on the streets of Medellin, Cali and Bogota during qualifying turned first to disappointment and then to sorrow, as two defeats in the group stage put Colombia on the plane home, where Escobar would be shot dead two weeks after his own-goal against the U.S.
Football had briefly provided national unity, happiness and pride. But the next two decades saw the team appear at just one more World Cup – another disappointing campaign in 1998 – as the sport entered a long period of depression.
The cloud has already lifted, with Colombia qualifying for Brazil 2014 just two points behind Argentina. On Saturday, travelling fans here in Belo Horizonte will wake up to what they hope is a new dawn, and a chance for Colombia to take their place alongside Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay as giants of the game in South America.
“What happened at USA ’94 was a big blow to Colombian football,” Jose Orlando Ascencio, who is covering the World Cup for the El Tiempo newspaper, told Al Jazeera the day before Colombia play Greece in Group C at Belo Horizonte’s Estadio Mineirao.
“First, what happened to Andres Escobar, and second, because there was a complete loss of confidence in this team. They were booed every week and had to work hard to regain the affection. Now we have a group of players that has been together since childhood, and that won the South American under-20 championship in 2005. Most of them have forged their character and their training abroad, and they have a very intelligent coach in Jose Pekerman.
"There is the feeling in Colombia that this can be a golden generation.”
Colombia fan Libardo Cardenas, 46, was at the match in Pasadena in 1994 when Escobar put through his own net in a 2-1 defeat. Now he is in Belo Horizonte with his two sons, and believes the kick-off against Greece could be the start of a new chapter.
"Before that game in the U.S., it was sheer joy. And afterwards just deep sadness but of course we could have no idea what was going to happen to Escobar," Cardenas said.
“Then for all those 16 years we didn't qualify after '98, I watched every match with unconditional love but disappointment each time. The team in Spanish is called the selecion but people called it 'the deception'.
"Now it's just great, great happiness to be here and I'm very positive. We're a big team in South America but we have none of the pressure that Brazil have."
Colombia are hampered by the absence of Radamel Falcao, the striker who moved from Atletico Madrid to Monaco for around $90m last year but whose cruciate ligament injury has kept him off the pitch since January. But Colombia have other threats in their forward line.
Adrian Ramos scored 16 of Hertha Berlin’s 40 goals in the German Bundesliga last season, prompting a $13m move to Borussia Dortmund. He is joined up front by Jackson Martinez, the top-scorer in Portugal last season with 20 goals for Porto, who is reportedly attracting interest from Arsenal and Manchester United.
The new kid
With 22-year-old Monaco midfielder James Rodriguez poised to be a breakout talent at Brazil 2014 – nicknamed ‘El Nuevo Pibe’ or ‘The new kid’ as successor to Valderrama – Colombia have the tools to build a new future, with 38-year-old captain Mario Yepes desperate for national glory before he retires.
For that, they will need to overcome the challenge of Greece, Ivory Coast and Japan. But with Martinez saying last month that the current squad was better than 1994, expectations will be high that one of the easier-looking groups can be successfully navigated.
"Both in 1994 and now in 2014, the technical richness of our squad is the same," says Colombian journalist Mauricio Gomez Buritica. "But it's on a knife edge. I think the team will either be a big success in Brazil, or be a big disappointment."
If the latter turns out to be true, the next chance to write a golden chapter in Colombia’s football history will begin on July 25, with the draw for Russia 2018 in Saint Petersburg heralding the start of another long qualifying campaign.