The Miracle Workers – Colombia 2001

Colombia has rarely been considered as a front-runner to dominate the South American Championship, which is now known as the Copa America. But for once, they had proved everyone wrong. Debopam Roy looks back at Colombia’s turn of the century miracle – an unbeaten Copa America title. You can read the other stories of the Copa America series here

Francisco Maturana is a man of miracles. ‘Pacho’, as he is affectionately called, could not have imagined that it would be aerial ‘invasion’ that would halt his march towards his destiny. Here he was, leading Colombia into the final of the Copa America – only the second time ever that Colombia had reached the final and barely had it started that there were a couple of parachutists landing in the middle of the field. They were part of the closing ceremony, but arrived fashionably late. In a tournament which was already marred by the organizational nightmares, that was probably the last straw. It would only be that man, Pacho who would redeem the tournament by producing another miracle of his own – winning the Copa with an all win record and that toowithout conceding any goals, a feat unmatched in history under modern group cum knockout format.

Touchdown (Source: AFP)

The Organization Hiccups

The 2001 Copa tournament was awarded to Colombia amid much resentment. The long drawn drug fuelled violence had claimed more than 40000 civilian lives just in the 1990s and it was hardly a location to inspire confidence. The final straw was the kidnapping of Hernan Mejia Campuzano, the vice-president of Colombian Football Federation by the country’s largest Marxist rebel group, the FARC. Brazil and Venezuela were proposed as alternative hosts but at the last minute CONMEBOL decided to go ahead with Colombia. It was a victory for Colombia’s President, Andres Pastrana, who had brought the Copa America to the political forefront by dubbing it the “Cup of Peace”.
Most of the teams though had planned to send their second string to the tournament saving the first team for the ongoing qualification for 2002 World Cup. Argentina,the runaway leader in the World Cup qualification (they won a whopping 13 out of 18 matches), were at the forefront of this resentment. The Argentine FA claimed that there were death threats to their players. Whether that was a fact, no one knows. But only seven days prior to the start of the tournament, Argentina and Canada withdrew. They were replaced by Costa Rica and Honduras at the last minute and Honduras team barely reached before the start of their first match. Without Argentina, the tournament lost its most charismatic pre-tournament favourites and it was up to Pacho’s band of merry men to salvage the tournament. It was even more ironic that the Argentine pull out came exactly seven years to the date from the killing of Andres Escobar.

It was even more ironic that the Argentine pull out came exactly seven years to the date from the killing of Andres Escobar.

A Man of Destiny

There’s a bit of history with Pacho.  An unremarkable no-compromising defender, Pacho came to management early, at the age of 36. With his first team Once Caldas, he had impressed enough to be given the charge of Colombian national youth team. He did a good job and was promoted to take charge of the senior team and his first Copa in 1987 was memorable as Colombia finished third beating the hosts Argentina – their best ever since finishing second in 1975. The next few years were even more glorious for him. Pacho came back to manage his club side Atletico Nacional and led them to be the first Colombian side to win the Copa Libertadores in 1989 and lost in the Intercontinental Cup to AC Milan at the last minute of extra time. He led Colombia’s national team into the 1990 World Cup after a hiatus of 28 years. The following year, in his charge,Colombia had their best performance(later bettered in 2014) in World Cup competition by reaching the Round of 16. In the Round of 16 match against Cameroon, Rene Higuita’s error proved costly for the Colombians as Roger Milla scored the decisive goal for the African nation. Pacho returned for a second stint at the charge of Colombian national team in 1993 and got them qualified for a second time in a row to a World Cup, with a historic triumph over Argentina in Buenos Aires by 5-0 in a World Cup qualifier. The events at the World Cup, with the unfortunate killing of Andre Escobar, would leave a poor taste. 2001 was the third time calling for Pacho and Colombia. He would make it his most memorable yet.
For the tournament, Pacho had gathered a largely young squad. Only five players played outside Colombia and only one in Europe was Captain Ivan Cordoba. There was also Mario Yepes who was with River Plate and goalkeeper Oscar Cordoba with Boca Juniors and forward Jairo Castillo with Velez Sarsfield, another Argentine club. There was old hand Victor Aristizabal who at 29 was one of the oldest members of the squad. Apart from these four, none of the other members of the squad would even get to play in any of Europe’s top leagues. It was as unremarkable a squad as any you would see. Many would never play a World Cup at all, as Colombia didn’t qualify for the World Cup in the 2000’s.  But with Pacho’s motivational skills, the team would become transformed.

Group Stage Efficiency

Colombia was drawn in a group with Chile, Ecuador and Venezuela in group A. Chile and Venezuela were going through a dreadful World Cup qualifying campaign and would be the wooden spooners later, but Ecuador was having a dream campaign, as second behind Argentina and would eventually qualify for their first World Cup ever in 2002. In the first match, Colombia met Venezuela. They had had a disappointing 2-2 draw at Venezuela only three months back in the World Cup Qualifying campaign. In the end a hesitant Colombia would win 2-0 against Venezuela. The second match would pit them against Ecuador. Ecuador were a traditional minnow but again Colombia had a goalless draw with them in the World Cup qualifier. Chile the third team, had already thrashed Ecuador and with another win against Venezuela were atop the group. Colombia had to stay in touch. A dominant performance saw them win by a goal where the Ecuador goalkeeper Jose Cevallos saved several certain goals.
It was now the summit clash. Colombia had beaten Chile away in the World Cup qualifier. Chile had a superior goal difference. Also,the winner of the group would most likely fall in the same half as the winner of group B – a group that included two-time defending champion Brazil but a Brazil that had lost its first match to Mexico. So when the teams were meeting, Mexico was top and Brazil second in group B. Whoever finished top in group A, would avoid Brazil if both Brazil and Mexico won their last matches, and whoever lost, would end up meeting the second team from group B, which was Brazil at that moment. So there was additional urge to win. In the end it was an ill-tempered match marred by a 34th minute brawl which resulted in a player from both team being shown the red card. The match itself ended 2-0 for Colombia but Chile tried hard after the unfortunate penalty for the first goal.
Colombia thus qualified unbeaten and with a clean slate.  In a remarkable turnaround, the next day, Mexico lost to Peru while Brazil duly despatched Paraguay. Thus it was Chile who were to now face Mexico while Colombia were in the same half as Brazil. In fact it was Peru, the third best team in group B, who were to face Colombia in the quarter-finals.

Knock out hoodoo

Colombia had a remarkable period under Maturana when they finished third in the ’87 Copa. They would emulate that in ’93 and ’95. However the previous two Copa, in’97 and ’99, had seen them go out at the first knockout round to unfancied Chile and Bolivia respectively. So there was some apprehension when Peru was lined up against them. There were numerous suspensions too – Ivan Cordoba and Eudelio Arriaga had seen two yellows. Elkin Murillo was shown the red card against Chile. A tight first half only increased the pressure.  And then Victor Aristizabal stepped up. He had threatened all night and only a stout Peruvian defence had held the fort. He scored two and Colombia had three in a 19-minute-period of the second half and a spot in the semi-final was guaranteed.
Up next was the winner of Brazil vs Honduras match. The same Honduras who had arrived with barely enough players on July 13, 2001 in an airplane provided by the Colombian Air Force after the tournament started and just few hours before their first game. They duly lost that match against Costa Rica but amazed everybody to win the next two matches against Bolivia and Uruguay. And then what was probably one of the biggest upsets ever in Copa history, Honduras won 2-0 against Brazil in a match which saw Brazil captain Emerson Ferreira and Honduras defender David Carcamo were sent off for fighting .And Colombia managed to avoid Brazil once again.

The same Honduras who had arrived with barely enough players on July 13, 2001 in an airplane provided by the Colombian Air Force after the tournament started and just few hours before their first game.

The semi-final got off to a blistering start as left-back Gerardo Bedoya scored an absolute screamer in the sixth minute. Aristizabal duly added another in the second half whichmade him the top goal scorer of the tournament. Colombia won the match 2-0. It was only the second time they had reached the final and the first time since the inaugural Copa America tournament in 1975(the earlier versions were called South American Championship).

The Final

The final was played in the Estadio El Campin in Bogota and the 47,000 capacity stadium  was packed to the brims. Mexico had been the form team in that they had defeated Brazil and Uruguay – two teams that had won the last three Copa tournaments. In Jared Borgetti, they had top striker who had scored against both those champions. The final began in the bizarre fashion where the parachutists arrived late to halt the play for three minutes. It was a scrappy final with fouls aplenty. Mexico had Juan Rodriguez sent off in the 80th minute for a tackle from behind on Jairo Castillo, and Gerardo Torrado dismissed in injury time. The winning goal was scored midway through the second half as Ivan Lopez’s free-kick was glanced home by captain Cordoba to send the crowd into raptures.

Colombia, Copa America Champions, 2001
Colombia, Copa America Champions, 2001

Colombia thus became the seventh country to win the Copa America .

The Aftermath

Colombia had five matches remaining after the Copa in the World Cup qualifying. They lost to Peru and drew with Uruguay and even after winning the final two matches, finished with just a goal difference away from qualification. Both Uruguay and Colombia finished on 27 points but Uruguay advanced to the CONMEBOL/OFC play-off where they beat Australia to go to the World Cup proper.
Francisco Maturana, would go on to manage Colombia once more time in 2002-03 without many wins. None of the Colombian winning members would break into Europe except Cordoba and Yepes who had stellar defensive stints at elite clubs in Europe. Victor Aristizabal, the man who top scored in the tournament with six  goals would finish his Colombian stint within next two years. He managed only nineother goals in his 60 other career matches.
The unbeaten win of the tournament without conceding, would always place the 2001 Colombian vintage at a high pedestal. However the fact that they achieved it without facing Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay at all – the three bigwigs of South America, would always provide a postmark on the win. It was probably the collective zenith for a group of players and a country amid unprecedented chaos and they achieved something which transcends the mere statistical realms and which has never been achieved before or since in Copa America history.