Colombia shoved aside a brawling Uruguay 2-0 behind two goals from James Rodriguez to make the World Cup quarterfinals for the first time in their history on Saturday
Colombia will now play Brazil on July 4 in Fortaleza, and on the evidence, the hosts should be very wary indeed.
Colombia simply ripped apart an Uruguyan side missing their best player, and reeling from an incident that has made international headlines. But it should not be ignored that Colombia were without arguably their best player as well — the injured Radamel Falcao — and have nonetheless chewed up and spit out their opponents.
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This was a hotly anticipated match between South American rivals that had a grim pre-game cast. It is nearly twenty years to the day when the late Colombian defender Andres Escobar was murdered after scoring an own goal against the United States in the 1994 World Cup to give the Americans a win — and ultimately, eliminate his side. Colombia’s emergence at this tournament has tremendous significance: It is seen as a symbol of how far the country has come since those dark days.
On the other side, Uruguay were in paroxysm. Uruguayan forward Luis Suarez infamously took a bite out of Italian defender Giorgio Chiellini in their second group match, and FIFA dished out an unprecedented ban a result, barring the Liverpool forward for nine games and all soccer activity for four months. Suarez — a three-time offender, mind you — is in Montevideo, and his country is in deep denial.
Many Uruguayans persist in the delusion that Suarez is not only innocent, but that there is a massive international conspiracy against them. Bizarrely, in this fact-free telling, Suarez is somehow a fall-guy for the “bigger powers." Uruguayan players and their media alike have vociferously protested his innocence, his history and those very visible bite marks notwithstanding. (My personal favorite is the idea floated among the more rabid local outlets that Chiellini had the marks drawn on himpre-game, a conspiratorial turn that would wow even Thomas Pynchon).
Regardless of such fruit-loop notions — and Suarez’s rapidly “evolving” narrative of the incident — Uruguay were without their most effective and potent player, and it showed from the outset. In the end, Saturday’s match would turn out to be a day for the record books for the young man who usually goes by “James.” Rodriguez has now scored seven goals in Colombia’s last six games and he is the first rookie since Italy’s Christian Vieri in 1998 to score in his first four games at the World Cup. Perhaps more telling is that James is also the first man since 2002 — when Brazil greats Ronaldo and Rivaldo both did it — to score in four straight World Cup games.
”I think now the toughest is coming up,” Rodriguez said of the quarterfinal match against Brazil after Colombia’s victory over Uruguay. ”I’m happy because we are making history and as a young man I dreamed of being here. And of course we want to do even more.”
Uruguay manager Oscar Washington Tabarez fielded a trio of centerbacks and looked to keep Colombia well away from their penalty box, hoping that they could steal something on the counter. For most of the first half, it worked well, with Juan Cuadrado sailing about the field looking for an opening and finding nothing but blue shirts, and Jackson Martinez reduced to harmless crosses.
But James, who currently plies his trade at Ligue 1 side Monaco — for how much longer, well, we shall see — is a special talent. He has been one of the emerging stars of this young World Cup, and his explosive turns in the games against Cote d’Ivoire and Japan were noted world-wide. On Saturday, he added another leaf to a burgeoning portfolio, scoring an absolute scorcher on what seemed to be a broken play.
"For me, talents are those who do things that have nothing to do with their life experience," Tabarez said. "Diego Maradona, Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez and James Rodriguez — they do things because they have a certain gift which makes them special. It is not up to me but I believe from what I have seen that he is the best player in the World Cup."
Alvaro Pereira headed away a cross from the edge of the penalty area out to Abel Aguilar, who headed it back in in an attempt to re-start Colombia’s attack. With his back to goal, and parked on the edge of the box, James chested the ball down gently, as if settling a baby to sleep, and then turned and crashed in a volley that dipped into the goal. Muslera actually got his fingers to the shot, deflecting it, but not enough — it caromed off the underside of the bar and in.
James would then add his second just after the break, turning in a brilliantly-worked team goal. West Ham’s Pablo Armero sent in a deep cross to the far post that Cuadrado headed back and down for James to simply run onto and tap home. It was arguably the best team goal of the entire World Cup, a textbook attack that pulled apart Uruguay’s back three and left Muslera chasing at ghosts.
Uruguayan attacks were rare, with Maxi Pereira coming closest, toe-poking a volley on late that David Ospina was right there to smother. Edinson Cavani was rarely a factor, completing a disappointing World Cup for the misfiring superstar. Now, Colombia look forward to a Brazilian side that needed penalty kicks to get past a dogged Chilean side. They will relish the challenge. The hosts, on the other hand, might be feeling a tough of indigestion at the thought.
And Uruguay? They take their supposed slights and paranoiac delusions back home. It is a shame, for they were a team of glory not so long ago — but in defending Suarez, they have been laid as low as he. It is hard to feel any sympathy with them for their exit as a result.