It may seem hard to believe that Colombia used to be football minnows. Nowadays, we are used to seeing Colombians of the stature of James Rodríguez, Falcao, Juan Cuadrado and Duván Zapata starring in the best leagues in the world, and many will remember the emblematic Carlos Valderrama, René Higuita and Faustino Asprilla from the 1990s. However, from their first appearance in the South American Championship in 1945, Colombia were one of the continent’s whipping boys. The national team inspired little national hope or confidence; the old qualifying system for World Cups of groups of three meant that they usually came up against one of the strongest teams of the continent and any hopes of qualification were abruptly ended. The odd victory occasionally raised hopes but the losses soon returned and the football refrain “We played like never before, but we lost like always” became commonplace after each Copa América or World Cup qualifying campaign. Club football was also in the doldrums after the excitement of the El Dorado league (1948-1953).
This footballing inferiority complex and awareness of their lowly position in the continental and global football hierarchy was embedded during the El Dorado period. Colombian footballers were not in the same league as the imported stars, such as Alfredo Di Stéfano, Adolfo Pedernera, Heleno de Freitas et al, and fans were attracted to the stadiums only to watch the very best. When El Dorado ended and the best foreign players left in droves, Colombian national football was in tatters. Many clubs were broke, the fans drifted away, and nothing had been done to strengthen Colombian football or improve Colombian players. The national team were banned from international football by FIFA, and endless squabbles and power struggles between the Colombian football association, Adefútbol, and the organisers of the professional league, Dimayor, meant that football organization was also a mess. There was no sense of an identity; clubs and directors perpetually looked south to Argentina and Uruguay for players and coaches, trying to imitate their style of play to find some much-desired success.
In 1957, Colombia were readmitted into the football fold by FIFA in time for that year’s South American Championships in Peru and for qualifying for the 1958 World Cup. As usual, an argument broke out between Adefútbol and Dimayor about who should represent the nation in Peru; Adefútbol initially refused to select players from the professional Dimayor league, and opted to send the Valle del Cauca amateur team who had won the Colombian departmental championship. This team, trained by Hungarian former player and coach György Orth, had gained acclaim in winning the regional tournament and did contain future Colombian stars Delio ‘Maravilla’ (Marvel) Gamboa and Marino Klinger. However, the team was young, inexperienced, and none of the players had played any professional football. Eventually, after considerable wrangling and pressure from the press, the team was augmented with some of the best players of the Dimayor league, including goalkeeper Efraín ‘El Caimán’ Sánchez (then the only Colombian who had played in a foreign league, for San Lorenzo in Argentina pre El Dorado), and Francisco ‘el Cobo’ Zuluaga who had commanded a place in defence in the legendary ‘Blue Ballet’ Millonarios team that included Di Stéfano, Pedernera and Néstor Rossi.
However, in the first game of the tournament against Argentina, only one of the professionals played and Colombia were battered 8-2. In the next game against the equally fearsome Uruguay, there was a change in policy and eight of the professionals came into the team. Sánchez in goal was inspired, and with a goal from Carlos Arango, Colombia somehow triumphed 1-0. This was the first major victory for Colombia in international football, beating the two-time World Champions, and it was heralded at home as proof that Colombia could cope with the continent’s best teams. This opinion was rather premature, as Colombia failed to win another game, losing 3-2 vs Chile, humiliated 9-0 by a rampant Brazil, followed by successive 4-1 losses against neighbours Peru and Ecuador. The team fared little better in the 1958 World Cup qualifiers; despite employing a German Salesian priest to help with physical preparation, they failed to progress from a tough group against Uruguay and Paraguay, although they did manage a draw against Uruguay.
When the qualifying groups were announced for the 1962 World Cup to be held in Chile, there was no great optimism. Colombia was drawn against Peru and Bolivia, but Bolivia’s withdrawal meant qualification would be decided by a straight two-legged play off. Peru had traditionally had much the better of meetings between the two countries; Chilean World Cup organisers, assuming Peru would win, had put the winners of the tie into Group A of the tournament, with matches played to be played in Arica, a city near the Peruvian border, hoping that Peruvians would find it easier to travel to the matches and boost attendances.
Colombia, however, (and unusually) managed to be more organized and had a full squad to choose from for the playoff. Adolfo Pedernera, star of the El Dorado period, was coaching the side, and had even managed to get ‘Maravilla’ Gamboa back from his club side in Mexico to play. Prior to the first match in Bogotá, Pedernera snuck into the stadium disguised in a poncho, sombrero and dark glasses to watch the Peruvians training. It must have had some effect as a Eusebio Escobar goal secured a 1-0 home leg win for Colombia. Colombia travelled to Lima with a slender lead, but after just two minutes, Peru leveled the tie from the penalty spot. Colombians, listening to the game clustered around radios, feared the worst. They needn’t have worried as Héctor ‘Zipa’ González equalized, and Colombia held on, even with Rolando Serrano missing a penalty. Colombia had qualified for their first-ever World Cup. In one theatre in Bogotá, a play was stopped to declare the news of the national team’s victory, and spontaneously the audience rose as one to sing the national anthem. The Colombian sports magazine Afición declared that “the Colombian sporting nation had finally awoken”.
Worries soon began to arise, though, about the World Cup, as the country’s sporting inferiority complex manifested itself. The players had returned to their clubs, Pedernera’s contract had ended, and there was no sign of preparations for the World Cup beginning. Afición best showed these concerns. The magazine believed that if the country was not to be humiliated in the eyes of the world, then the team needed to start training a whole year in advance. In an editorial in Afición in July 1961, they wrote, “We are not a power. We never have been. Luck played a huge role in our qualification” and wondered whether the directors of Adefútbol, Dimayor, and the government understood just what the World Cup could mean for the country. More gloom and despondency followed as yet more disputes arose between Adefútbol and Dimayor, and Afición even wondered if they should pull out of the World Cup, given the likely thrashings that awaited them in Arica. They wrote pessimistically, “We are the Cinderellas, the poor relations, we have no hope”. Unnamed players in February 1962 were reported to have said, “We will go to Chile, but the thrashing we are going to get will be spectacular.”
At the end of February and beginning of March, the concentración finally began as Dimayor clubs reluctantly released the players, and Afición began to report on a more positive attitude in training, especially as Pedernera had been re-engaged as coach. The training camp was full of patriotic symbols and the magazine urged Colombians to get behind their team, convinced that the players would do their utmost to make the country proud despite being heavy underdogs.
But depression returned as the national team failed to impress in a series of friendly matches. They were hardly up against strong opposition either. They did manage a win against Costa Rican club side Alajuela, but defeats against Alajuela, an amateur team from the Colombian department of Atlántico, a Mexican XI, and Brazilian club Bangu, and draws against another Costa Rican side Herediano, Brazilian club São Cristovão, Mexico, and two more draws against Bangu were not exactly ideal preparation. Pedernera resigned but Adefútbol refused to accept his resignation. They did manage to beat German touring side Karlsrühe 1-0 in two games but there was little evidence to suggest that Colombia could expect to trouble any of the powerful teams in their group.
Colombia had been drawn against fellow South Americans Uruguay, the mighty USSR of Lev Yashin, and Yugoslavia. Spirits were not helped by the Colombian President Lleras Camargo, who came to wish them luck before the team departed for Chile. He showed little knowledge of even what sport the National team was playing, as he hoped that the team ‘would score a lot of baskets’. Outside of Colombia, little was expected of them. The Brazilian World Cup album for 1962 clearly had no knowledge of the Colombian players as the players in the Colombian section seem to have been completely invented, bearing no resemblance to the actual squad.
Colombia played their first game in a World Cup on 30 May 1962 in the Carlos Dittborn stadium in Arica, a stadium named after the Chilean football director who had won the World Cup for the country by saying “Because we have nothing, we want it all” but who had sadly died shortly before the tournament. Colombia jogged out onto the pitch in their dark blue shirts and white shorts to face the mighty Uruguay with some trepidation, but at least with the knowledge that they had had some success against them before. They nearly went a goal down in the first minute, as ‘El Caimán Sánchez’ made a great one-on-one save. Twenty minutes later, though, Colombia won a penalty following a handball, and ‘Cobo’ Zuluaga stepped up and sent the goalkeeper the wrong way with a left foot drive. They managed to hold on to the lead until half time, and even hit the post. After the half-time break, Uruguay came out fighting, literally. ‘Cobo’ Zuluaga had three ribs broken by a Uruguayan punch at a corner and ‘Maravilla’ Gamboa was also badly injured by a hefty challenge. In a period when no substitutions were permitted, neither could be replaced, and in fact, neither played in Colombia’s next two matches. Uruguay scored two goals as Colombia wilted, and won the game 2-1.
Colombia’s next game was against the USSR. The USSR had actually played some warm-up matches in Colombia before the World Cup began, and drew 0-0 against Cali club side América. This game had provoked huge interest given the Cold War political climate, and there were many jokes made about ‘América vs the USSR’ encounter. President Lleras Camargo had made himself one of US President Kennedy’s key allies against communism in South America given fears of similar revolutions to the Cuban Revolution of 1959. The US military were supporting the Colombian armed forces in preparation for a campaign against groups of Communist settlements known as ‘Repúblicas’ that had been set up in the Colombian countryside after the end of La Violencia, a period of hideous partisan conflict when Liberal and Conservative supporters had butchered each other and around 200,000 people had been murdered. The result of the América match gave Colombians more confidence–if the then European champions couldn’t beat a club side, then surely the National team had a chance. But it was revealed that the cautious Soviet coach had changed the numbers on the team’s shirts and told his players not to try too hard so as not to give things away before the World Cup.
The first twelve minutes in Arica were a disaster and confirmed Colombian fans’ worst fears as USSR sped to a 3-0 lead, through two goals from Ivanov and an excellent goal from Chislenko who waltzed past hapless Colombian defenders. Goalkeeper Sánchez looked particularly nervous and two goals came from weaknesses down the Colombian left. A cricket score looked likely. But Colombia managed to pull themselves together. Germán ‘Cuca’ Aceros was played through and he toe-punt chipped past ‘the Black Spider’ Yashin into the top corner to reduce the score to 3-1. It is said that during half time, Pedernera led the team in a hearty rendition of the Colombian national anthem, and the team ran out for the second half with renewed confidence. Despite this, the USSR made it 4-1, but the Colombians still didn’t give up, forging up the field to win a corner.
What followed is still a unique moment in World Cup history. Midfielder Marcos Coll, the son of a former referee, went over to take the corner and tried to curl it in with his right foot. It was a terrible corner, badly struck, and headed with little power towards the near post, guarded by Chokeli. It should have been easy to clear, or for Yashin to catch the ball if he left it. Bafflingly, Chokeli decided to leave the ball rather than kick it to safety, and Yashin allowed it to trickle in without anyone touching it. It is probably one of the greatest clangers in World Cup football history, but is also the only ‘Olympic Goal’ scored direct from a corner in the finals. For Colombia, it is one of the most famous and proudest sporting moments in their history. It is still played and replayed over and over again, particularly when Colombia have qualified for World Cups, and it made Coll a national legend, the only man who has scored such a goal in the World Cup. He died in June 2017 with his record intact.
This further encouraged the Colombians who poured forward, and after 72 minutes, Antonio Rada drove a shot past Yashin after an initial shot was blocked. Could Colombia equalise? They could indeed. A great ball sent Marino Klinger through, Yashin came out to meet him feet first but Klinger burst past his weak challenge and tied the game. Soon after, the referee blew the final whistle, and Colombia had drawn 4-4 in one of the great comebacks in World Cup history.
It was a magnificent achievement for the nation, and Colombians went absolutely wild with joy. Only 8040 people had watched the game in Arica, but all over Colombia people had been listening to Carlos Arturo Rueda’s radio coverage. Celebrations broke out all over the country and the draw took on the image of being a famous win, as well as being a political victory. The recently elected President Guillermo Valencia (Colombian presidential elections always take place at the same time as a World Cup, every four years), declared that it was a victory for democracy over totalitarianism, and hoped that ‘next time freedom would triumph over slavery’. Cartoons poked fun, with little Colombia conquering the mighty Soviet Goliath, and Khruschev’s players being humiliated by Colombians. The CCCP on the Soviets’ football shirts was taken to mean ‘Contra Colombia Casi Perdemos’ (“We nearly lost against Colombia” in Spanish). All the national newspapers proclaimed the draw to be Colombia’s greatest-ever sporting moment and described the ‘collective madness’ of the celebrations in Bogotá as the rain fell down with dancing on the streets and the waving of flags and white handkerchiefs and the national anthem played on radios throughout the city and country. There was only one dissenting voice reported, as an unnamed but famous communist Colombian painter grumbled that “Colombia might have football, but there are no schools, no social services and illiteracy and misery reign.”
After this heroic effort by the Colombians, perhaps it is not surprising that they ran out of steam in their last match. Yugoslavia proved far too strong and ran out easy 5-0 winners, with Galic and Jerkovic both scoring twice. Colombia exited the tournament but could do so with their heads held high. The team was welcomed home by huge crowds on their return to Bogotá – the Colombians felt that they had found their first major national sporting heroes.
Until 1990, the 4-4 result was seen as Colombia’s most important football success, testimony to both the magnitude of the game and the incredible comeback against such global political and sporting heavyweights, but also due to 28 years of almost continual failure.
The 1962 World Cup was supposed to be the sign of a Colombian national team that could grow and begin to compete regularly with the best in the continent and qualify more regularly for World Cups, but yet again these lofty expectations were brought abruptly down to earth. In the 1963 South American Championship in Bolivia, Colombia were rock bottom, only managing one draw in their six matches, and four players, Roland Serrano and Achito Vivas (three years) and Senén Mosquera and Germán Aceros (two years) were suspended from playing for the national team for bad behavior.
Until the 1980s, Colombia failed to register on the football landscape apart from in isolated moments of controversy. On 17 July 1968, the all-conquering Santos team of Pelé were on one of their many tours and arrived in Colombia to great excitement. They were due to play against Colombia and tickets for the game quickly sold out with fans eager to see Pelé and the other stars of the side. However, the unwitting figure of the game became the referee Guillermo ‘el Chato’ (short-sighted) Velásquez. Having allowed a controversial goal for Colombia and denied Santos a penalty, the Santos players became furious and surrounded Velásquez, insulting and even punching up. The existing television footage shows Velásquez with an ugly bruise under his eye, surrounded by police who had entered the pitch to deal with the incident. Velásquez sent off Pelé; although before his death in 2016, Velásquez said that he sent Pelé off for insulting him, not hitting him, and that Pelé was only one of the three of the Santos players and staff who did not hit him in the incident. After half time, Velásquez did not come back onto the pitch and was replaced by linesman Omar Delgado. Pelé, however, did return to play in the second half, as authorities feared a riot from angry fans. Velásquez went to the police station, and after the game, the entire Santos team was arrested. After hasty negotiations they were released at 3.40 the next morning after apologizing to Velásquez.
Another famous footballer fell foul of Colombian police in 1970 before the Mexico World Cup. Bobby Moore, the England captain in the 1966 World Cup win, was arrested, accused of having stolen a bracelet from the Fuego Verde jewelry shop. The England team was in Bogotá to acclimatize before the competition and were staying in the Hotel Tequendama. Moore and Bobby Charlton had gone to the shop to look for a present, but left having not found anything suitable. However, shop assistant Clara Padilla ran out and accused them of stealing a bracelet, but when the players were searched nothing was found. Both players made statements to the police but received an apology and the matter seemed at an end. England left to play a friendly against Ecuador in Quito and then returned to Bogotá before they would fly on to Mexico. A new witness had come forward, who confirmed Padilla’s story, and Moore was arrested by Colombian police and charged with theft. The England side had to leave without him for Mexico, and Moore was confined to house arrest at the home of the head of the Colombian football federation, Alfonso Senior (arguably the greatest administrative figure in Colombian football who had been responsible for buying Pedernera for Millonarios and beginning the El Dorado period, and would be behind the successful bid to host the 1986 World Cup). Moore was allowed to train, though accompanied everywhere by armed guards, but the case around him collapsed as in a re-enactment of the event ordered by the Colombian judge, Padilla claimed that Moore had slipped the bracelet into the left-hand pocket of his blazer, but his blazer had no such pocket. Moore was eventually allowed to fly to Mexico to join the rest of the team, and the event has been shrouded in mystery since. Many see it as a deliberate attempt to undermine a strong team, and indeed, Brazilian manager João Saldanha said a similar stunt had been pulled on his Botafogo team when they had played in Colombia, and they had been blackmailed into paying money to avoid a scandal.
In 1975, Colombia finally managed to get into the eyes of the footballing world for the right reasons again, achieving their best position in the Copa América – runners up to the great Peru side of the 1970s that contained figures such as Teófilo Cubillas and Héctor Chumpitaz.
Their journey to the final was eventful, though. Colombia, playing in an orange shirt that bore no relation to traditional Colombian colours but was hoping to take inspiration from the great Dutch team, had been drawn to play in a group with Ecuador and Paraguay. The team, managed by former goalkeeper ‘El Caimán’ Sánchez, won their first two games against Ecuador and Paraguay before travelling to Asunción to play against Paraguay in the key tie. They took the lead before half time from Ernesto Díaz, but then all hell broke loose. The Paraguayan goalkeeper attacked Díaz, apparently for something he said, and in the subsequent melee, the Paraguayan police ran onto the pitch and began attacking Colombian players and coaching staff. The referee was forced to abandon the game and Colombia was awarded the victory. This was the first of a number of controversial encounters between Colombian and Paraguay over the years, including a fight between two of South America’s most colourful characters, Faustino Asprilla and José Luis Chilavert in 1997.
Colombia progressed to the semi-final and beat Uruguay over two legs, but despite winning the first of the final games at home against Peru, and the best efforts of star forward Willington Ortiz, they lost the away leg and then the decider in Venezuela (there were no away-goals rules in that competition). It would remain Colombia’s best performance in the Copa América until 2001.
Over the next 10 years, Colombia tried various paths to find elusive success and failed in each instance. There were a number of experiments with Yugoslav and Argentinian coaches, as well as nationalizing Argentinian and Uruguayan players in an attempt to strengthen their squad. Colombia could still not find a style and identity of their own, copying both tactics and football style as well as the shirt colour from abroad. They even suffered the embarrassment of having to give up hosting the 1986 World Cup. Alfonso Senior had managed to win this right for the country in 1974, but after celebrating this honour, little had been done to prepare for the tournament in the next eight years. FIFA began to get worried about the lack of facilities and infrastructure, as well as the ongoing conflict between the government and various guerrilla organisations such as the FARC, the M-19 and the ELN. FIFA made a number of demands–railway and motorway links between World Cup venue cities and airports serving each host city–that Colombia simply could not achieve. On the 25th of October 1982, President Belisario Betancur gave up hosting rights, in a short statement, saying that Colombia was not prepared to spend the necessary money to host the tournament given other priorities. It was another humiliation for the country, and Colombia remains the only country that has given up the World Cup.
Results would start to improve in the 1980s, but the country’s first golden generation played against the backdrop of the national notoriety of Pablo Escobar and the brutal violence of the cocaine cartels, and it says much for the dearth of success or achievement from the end of the El Dorado in 1953 until the mid 1980s that the 4-4 in the 1962 World Cup vs the USSR is seen as Colombia’s best result in three decades. That a draw was the nation’s greatest footballing victory.