FIFA U-17 World Cup 2017: Colombia, with flair for the dramatic, could be tournament's dark horses
At the U-17 World Cup, when all the attention will be focused on the Brazils and the Spains of the world, teams should also be wary of a team like Colombia. After all as history reminds us, they do have a penchant for the dramatic.
The element of drama is inextricable from Colombian football. Think Rene Higuita and that outrageous scorpion kick on the goalline against England. Think James Rodriguez and the goal against Uruguay in the 2014 World Cup. Or how about the tragic murder of Andrés Escobar in the aftermath of an own-goal that saw Colombia eliminated from the 1994 World Cup?
It should come as no surprise then that Colombia sealed their entry into the U-17 World Cup in dramatic style — with a last-gasp 2-1 win over Paraguay in the last group match of the South American U-17 Championship (Campeonato Sudamericano Sub-17).
Going into the match, the odds were against the Colombians. The Paraguayans had already shown they were one of the best teams in the competition, having sealed third spot and qualification for the prestigious tournament. To compound matters, Paraguay took the lead in the ninth minute.
For Colombia, where football is akin to a religion, defeat was not an option. Defeat would mean failure to make it to the U-17 World Cup for the fourth successive time since their exploits in 2003 in Nigeria, where they had surprised everyone by finishing third.
Somehow, through sheer force of will, the match ended 2-1 in favour of the Colombians and another chapter of drama was scripted in the history of Colombian football.
Having previously made it to the FIFA U-17 World Cup on five occasions, their best finish came in Finland 2003 and Nigeria 2009, when they finished third. The Los Cafeteros could only manage a Round of 16 appearance in South Korea (2007) besides group stage exits in the 1989 and 1993 editions.
They finished fourth at this year’s South American U-17 Championship with two victories, a draw and a defeat seeing them go into the hexagonal final phase as the second-placed team from Group A. There, they beat Ecuador 2-1 and held Venezuela. However, a 0-1 defeat to Chile and a 0-3 blanking at the hands of Brazil left them needing a win over Paraguay in their last group match.
Having made it to the World Cup, the team management has left no stone unturned in preparation for the glamourous tournament.
"The U-17 World Cup is a huge opportunity for us to keep growing up in football terms. It is a privilege to compete at the World Cup. Our goal is to do a wonderful World Cup and show the progress Colombia has in the under 17 category. That's why we are are working hard right now and being prepared to give the best of us in October at India," the coach of the U-17 team, Orlando Restrepo, told Firstpost in an exclusive interview.
"People can expect a magnificent team, we'll give our best performance so that the Colombians can celebrate with us," Restrepo said. "We like to play with possession of the ball, that why we try not to lose the ball quickly. Colombian football has been characterised by quick moves and that’s how we play as well. We try to be focus on scoring goals and normally we are attacking the whole time."
On being asked what was more important, the team grinding out a win or following his philosophy of attacking and beautiful football, the 60-year-old said: "Both things are important. We like to win, but we try to respect the footballing philosophy."
The U-17 team have already undergone three training camps ever since sealing qualification, with one of them happening in the seaside city of Barranquilla, where temperatures are closest to what the team will experience in India.
In July, they are slated to play in a quadrangular tournament in Mexico, where India and Chile are also expected to participate.
Restrepo also revealed that closer to the World Cup, the team will be playing matches near India to combat things like jet lag and temperatures. "We are planning to do some friendly games close to India. The idea is to be in India at least eight days before the beginning of the tournament in the country. But we will be in a country close to India at least 15 days before the World Cup in order to avoid jet lag."
"All the players in the team were selected after the staff watched a lot of games of under 15 and under 17 tournaments in Colombia. There is a very close group they are all friends with each other and are focus in the World Cup," Restrepo added.
Colombia lays particular emphasis on developing football on the grassroots level. The piece de resistance of this strategy is the Super Copa Juvenil FCF, or the Super Cup, which is an U-19 tournament for clubs in the country. Currently in its 9th year, this year's edition of the Super Cup, which began in March, will see as many as 120 clubs participating from all corners of the country.
The three-stage tournament has rules in place to foster the growth of even those in lower age groups, such as the rule making it mandatory to have 10 players who are below 18 and one goalkeeper below 17 years of age.
Proof of how much the country invests in its youth side is the presence of Rafael Zabaraín, a dedicated psychologist only for the youth teams.
"We have an amazing professional in Zabaraín. He give the youth teams speeches, is always attentive to them and helps them wherever they need," Restrepo said.
In October, when all the attention will be focused on the so-called big boys of world football, teams should also be wary of a team like Colombia.
After all, as history reminds us, they do have a penchant for the dramatic.
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