In praise of Colombia, the World Cup's most fun team

Jamie McDonald

From the fifth minute of their opening match against Greece, we all knew Colombia were going to be different. First, the goal was absurd: Juan Cuadrado sent in a low cross, which James Rodríguez dummied, catching Pablo Armero off-guard as the ball bounced off the leg of Kostas Manolas. The fullback still managed to get his toe on it, and away he went, screaming to the touchline.

But the Napoli man wasn't alone. His entire team, from those already on the pitch to those celebrating on the sidelines, joined him. To dance.

From that moment on, we were hooked. The majority of football fans are a jaded bunch. Even those newest to the sport are already aware of players' reputations for diving. Supporters know who on their team is most likely to selfishly keep hold of the ball, trying for individual glory rather than working for the good of the team. And everyone knows there's no guarantee that any player is going to stick around, should a club with an excess of cash come a-knockin'.

We fans are still able to delight in football, of course. A sublime half-volleyed shot, a last-minute, inch-perfect tackle, a determined fight from a decided underdog. But rarely do we see footballers themselves delighting in the simple joy of playing.

Not so with Colombia. They clearly place a premium on just. having. fun.

Colombia came second in CONMEBOL qualifying thanks to the introduction of José Pékerman at the helm. The team had semi-stuttered in their start, beating Bolivia only to draw against Venezuela and lose to Argentina. Pékerman came on board and, after shifting his style into the free-flowing attack we so enjoy today, drove them to near-top heights.

But los cafeteros could have been forgiven for shutting down, for playing cautiously at the World Cup. After all, they'd lost Radamel Falcao, who'd scored nine goals in qualifying, to injury. Their label as a dark horse for top honors had been rescinded, and many thought they might fall at the first hurdle.

No way. After beating Greece 3-0, with goals from Armero, Teófilo Gutiérrez and James Rodríguez, Colombia only seemed to grow stronger. James scored again against Ivory Coast, as did Juan Quintero. They went into the match against Japan already having clinched a place in the group stages, but decided to demolish their opponents anyway. Juan Cuadrado converted a penalty, Jackson Martínez added two more, and James finished off the 4-1 victory with a sassy little chip in the 90th minute.

With such outrageously delightful victories, Colombia also needed to up their dancing game. And so they did, with a little routine nicked straight from Michael Jackson's Thriller video:

Next up, Uruguay. Colombia probably knew they had this one in the bag, what with Luis Suárez getting banned for sampling the delights of Giorgio Chiellini's skin and all. But Uruguay looked determined to hang on as long as possible, sitting deep and barely considering the possibility of launching a counter-attack.

Uruguay's plan hit the skids before 30 minutes were up, thanks to The Goal to End All Goals. James' fourth goal of the tournament had jaws around the world hitting the floor. He controlled the ball with his chest, then turned, volleying his shot in as he did so. The ball smashed against the underside of the bar, leaving Fernando Muslera utterly helpless.

James knocked in Colombia's second as well. This one was less a showcase of individual brilliance of the playmaker, and more of a wordless description of just how in tune the players are to one another. With so many sides in this World Cup relying heavily on the brilliance of just one star, Colombia reminded us of why teamwork is so important. A series of short passes brought the ball up the field, culminating in Armero's cross to Cuadrado on the right. The Fiorentina man sent in a perfect header, with the ball landing perfectly for James to slot home.

Clearly, this goal deserved an even more fabulous team celebration. Worry not: Colombia had prepared for just this moment. The chemistry radiating throughout the team inspired a lovely hip shimmy, complete with smoldering eye contact between James and Cuadrado:

Colombia seemed near-on invincible. Despite heading into a quarter-final clash with a Brazil side tipped to win it all, many had started to believe that it was, in fact, los cafeteros that could actually lift the cup.

Instead a combination of factors left Colombia reeling. Luiz Felipe Scolari had evidently sent his team out with the instructions to hamper James by any means possible, a task they were permitted to get on with by a referee who refused to take his cards out of his pocket. As a consequence, Colombia's explosive attack was rarely in evidence, and Brazil were able to take advantage of their rather shaky defense, scoring on two set pieces. A late penalty gave Colombia a consolation, but in the end, they were out with a 2-1 loss.

Their World Cup campaign may also be marred by a rash challenge from Camilo Zúñiga in the 88th minute. Neymar was carried out on a stretcher, eventually to be diagnosed with broken vertebrae, keeping him out of the rest of the tournament.

It is, perhaps, the least fitting ending for a team that did so much to restore an innocent joy to football. Colombia's legacy should be written in smiles, not in tears.

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