So far, the 2014 World Cup is living up to the hype. And no team is living up to it more than Colombia.
Yesterday, in one of the best games of the Cup so far, Colombia defeated a good Ivory Coast team, 2-1. Earlier, they overran a good Greek defense to win 3-0.
But the real story is the flair with which Colombia plays, a flair reminiscent of the wonderful Brazilian teams of the 1980s (and, I assume, the Colombian team of the early 1990s that, unfortunately, failed to show its quality at two World Cups). In James (“Don’t call me ‘James'”) Rodriguez, Colombia has a “number 10” worthy of the great Brazilian Zico and Colombia’s own Carlos Valderrama. And in Juan Cuadrado, it has a winger who, at times, has looked like Garrincha (to go back a few decades earlier) in those grainy old films.
In fairness, Cuadrado hasn’t faced stiff opposition. Greece’s left back Jose Holebas is a DINO (defender in name only) and the Ivorian left back, Arthur Boka, is 31 years old. Still, Cuadrado was probably the best winger in the Italian league this year, so what we’ve seen in Brazil is no fluke.
How far will Colombia go? Probably not all the way. For one thing, they appear to lack a top notch replacement for their great center forward Falcao who, by the way, is named after a Brazilian superstar of the 1980s.
More importantly, the defense looked shaky against the Ivory Coast. I have always been a big fan of Mario Yepes, Colombia’s star center back. But he’s now 38 years old. And the fullbacks, though excellent in attack, leave something to be desired at the other end. The defensive left back brought on to protect the lead looked worse than the attack-minded Armero, whom he replaced.
But then, the great Brazilian teams of 1982 and 1986 didn’t go all the way either.
England, meanwhile, is on life-support, having lost its first two matches 2-1. Ironically, the English are playing better in this World Cup than in 2010, when they drew their first two matches. Unfortunately, the opposition — Italy and Uruguay — has been tougher.
There is plenty to second-guess about England’s World Cup campaign. Against Italy, manager Roy Hodgson made the mistake of playing Wayne Rooney at left wing. And late in the match when England desperately needed a goal, he made (at best) like-for-like substitutions.
Hodgson did better tactically against Uruguay, but England was undone by the brilliance of Luis Suarez. England was also unlucky that Uruguay’s star defender, Diego Godin, wasn’t sent off early in the match for a second cardable foul.
But when you need to play 11 vs. 10 to get a result against a good, but not great, team, your real problem is lack of quality, not lack of luck.
And so it is with England. Who in the starting 11 is truly “world class?” Rooney, certainly, if you play him in the middle. Steven Gerrard, as well, but at age 34 and coming off a long EPL season, he’s not playing at the level. Leighton Baines, maybe, but he’s only produced one half of top notch play in Brazil.
After that, no one — not yet.
Uruguay, by contrast, had four world class players — Suarez, Edinson Cavani (who marked Gerrard and still managed to assist on both goals), Arevalo Rios (who dominated in defensive midfield) and Godin. Indeed, Suarez transcends the label “world class.”
Put this English team in its 2010 group, and it almost certainly qualifies for the knockout round, quite possibly as winner of the group. But in this year’s group, it now will take a miracle for England to advance.