Radamel Falcao’s running out of ways to react. Scoring has become such a frequent occurrence, the Colombia star has had to find new ways to describe his goals.
After a double on Friday, Falcao resorted to comedy.
“[T]he right leg is getting jealous,” he said after scoring twice with his left in Colombia’s 2-0 win over Paraguay.
“Paraguay were a very tough obstacle to break down,” according to Falcao. “We had to really fight hard to get the job done.”
The performance wasn’t as convincing as last break’s blowout of Uruguay. Colombia struggled through the first half against a dogged but unthreatening Paraguay.
Seven minutes into the second, Falcao broke through.
“Thank God my goals (got us the win), but it was the work of the whole team … I’m very happy with the win and the goals.”
Both have been coming in bunches for Falcão. The Atlético Madrid striker has scored eight times in six Liga matches. He’s bagged another five in qualifying. Just as the Atleti sit second in Spain, the Cafeteros are behind only Argentina in South America.
“Our goal is the World Cup and it is a long way there,” Falcao said Friday. “We must continue with the same intensity and mentality (to achieve this goal.)”
At this point, Colombia missing out on Brazil would require a major dip in form, even if they’re only five points up on sixth place Venezuela. Four CONMEBOL teams will earn automatic qualification for the 2014 World Cup, with the fifth place team destined for a playoff against a representative from Asia.
In 2010, Colombia finished seventh in qualifying, scoring only 14 goals in 18 games while coming up one point short of the playoff spot. After qualifying for every World Cup in the 1990s, Colombia has missed out on the last three finals.
With a new decade has come a new regime and new hope. In January, José Pekerman became Colombia’s third coach of the decade. Under the former Argentina boss, the Cafeteros are a changed team, having already matched last cycle’s goal output during a 5-2-1 start.
Along with Falcao’s emergence, Pekerman’s presence is reason to believe this is more than just a hot streak for Colombia. Pekerman’s successes with Argentina’s youth teams (three U-20 World Cups) along with a strong showing with the senior team at the 2006 World Cup make him one of the most respected coaches in South America. His failures in Mexico (with Toluca and Tigres) did little to dampen his reputation, making his capture by Colombia a minor coup.
Pekerman made an immediate impact, leading the team to a 2-0 win over Mexico in his debut, implementing more proactive tactics that took advantage of talents like Falcao, Porto’s James Rodríguez, and Napoli’s Juan Camilo Zuniga. In defense, Colombia has moved even more stingy than the previous cycle, their goals allowed rate dropping from one per match to 0.75.
The Cafeteros‘ improvement makes an already crowded South American scene almost unfair. Even though the number of World Cup spots available to CONMEBOL has increased from 4.5 to 5.5 (with Brazil already awarded one), two good teams from South America are destined to miss out on the finals.
Paraguay, participants in four-straight World Cups, will almost certainly miss 2014. Friday’s match was viewed as make-or-break for a team that had lost its four previous qualifiers. While they were able to take a scoreless tie into halftime, the second half showed a Paraguayan team that has regressed starkly from last cycle. After the loss in Baranquilla, they sit in last place with only four points through eight matches.
Venezuela may be the team most hurt by Colombia’s resurgence. After a strong showing at the 2011 Copa America, the Vinotinto was picked by many to make their first finals in 2014. Halfway through the qualifying tournament, César Farías’s team sits sixth, one point out of a playoff spot. With only seven goals through eight matches, their troubles emulate Colombia’s during the 2010 cycle. Aside from 23-year-old striker Salomón Rondón, no Venezuela player has scored more than one goal in the tournament.
That Ecuador (like Colombia) is also experiencing a surge makes it even less likely Venezuela will break through for 2014. But unlike the Ecuadorians, who could push a team like Chile or Uruguay into the intercontinental playoff, Colombia’s rise looks like more like an awakening than a run. The second-most populated country on the continent, Colombia has always had the resources to challenge the big two. The only thing they lacked were the roots to cultivate those resources.
Thanks to Pekerman and Falcao, Colombia has awaken from a dormant decade. They’ve risen into the top 10 of FIFA’s world rankings, and while that may flatter the still improving team, Colombia may yet develop into the giant many used to see emerging.