One of the main reasons why Colombia missed out on World Cup 2018 was their coach Marcelo Bielsa. The deal to have him lead them turned sour, but he could still be a game changer for this country if they can bring him in
Marcelo Bielsa is a football manager who has had success in Chile and Argentina. He was recently hired by the Colombian Football Federation to help them qualify for the World Cup, but he missed out on the tournament. His past successes could mean that Colombia will finally make it to Russia next year.
Honduras won the World Cup under Reinaldo Rueda’s guidance. He led Ecuador to a World Cup victory. His home Colombia, on the other hand, will not get the same honor. He’s already missed two opportunities, and after being fired on Monday, a third is improbable.
Rueda rose to prominence as Colombia’s youth expert over two decades ago. In 2003, he led the under-20s to third place in the World Cup, before moving up to the senior national team midway through the 2006 World Cup qualification campaign. It was a hair’s breadth away. They missed out on fifth place, which would have put them in the playoffs, by by one point, and history would repeat itself in 2022.
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Rueda had more time in charge of the squad in the 2022 qualifiers, having taken over when Carlos Queiroz was fired after just four of the 18 rounds. Colombia lost out on a playoff position for the second year in a row by a single point, and there are moments to be ashamed of. Colombia lost 3-2 against Uruguay, their main rivals, towards the conclusion of the 2006 season. But none of it would have mattered if they had won the following game, against Chile, at home. They drew 1-1, with the two missed points deciding the game.
This time, the pivotal moment occurred in Peru, one of the campaign’s main adversaries. Colombia had every reason to think they were better than everyone else. Rueda won 3-0 in Lima in his debut game in charge. They pummeled the Peruvian defense at Barranquilla, but were unable to score. Even so, it wouldn’t have made a difference. Late in the game, Peru made a rare breakaway, and goalkeeper David Ospina misjudged his angles and allowed in a poor near-post shot. Peru won by a score of 1-0.
Is it a case of bad luck? Maybe it was a factor. However, the Colombian team seems to be considerably stronger on paper. And this game came at the conclusion of a remarkable stretch in which Colombia had gone seven games without scoring a goal. It’s hard to believe this could happen to a squad that includes Luis Diaz (who appeared in all of these games), Radamel Falcao, Rafael Santos Borre, Luis Muriel, and Duvan Zapata.
Colombia’s plethora of European-based talent, including James Rodriguez, adds to their dreadful World Cup qualifying campaign. Getty Images/Marcelo Endelli
Colombia is, without a doubt, solely to fault. And there seems to be an issue that extends beyond Rueda. Colombia’s crowning achievement, the finest World Cup they’ve ever had, came in 2014, when they reached the quarterfinals and James Rodriguez burst onto the scene as a worldwide superstar. Since then, there’s been a sense that the squad is being held captive by James. One of the standout performances of the 2018 World Cup was their 3-0 demolition of Poland. It was also the one time they could rely on James to be in good shape.
He has hardly been healthy enough to do himself credit in recent years, and some have questioned if he is still relevant. Is he a thorn in the side, causing squabbles in the dressing room? Rueda’s successor, whomever he is, may not be a matter that bothers him now that he has passed the age of 30, and has found himself in a footballing exile with Qatari club Al-Rayyan.
However, there are other more issues. Rueda led Atletico Nacional of Medellin to the Copa Libertadores title in 2016. Since then, just one Colombian team has advanced past the group rounds of the championship, an atrocious record for a nation with the largest population in South America outside of Brazil.
The undeniable reality that Ecuador is surpassing Colombia at club and national team level should be a huge source of worry for those in charge of the Colombian game. To avoid relying on the form and fitness of a single volatile star, the nation should be creating enough great players.
Colombia has time to find the right coach, but is Marcelo Bielsa the right guy for the job? AMA/Getty Images/Robbie Jay Barratt
The Colombian FA is not in a rush to find a long-term successor since there will be no competitive games for a time — the next Copa America is in 2024. Of course, they could bring in a temporary caretaker to play some friendly games. Those teams who will play Ecuador in the World Cup — the group opponents are Qatar, Senegal, and the Netherlands — may welcome the opportunity to train against a squad from a comparable school.
But, in the long run, what will Colombia do? Costa Rica national team coach Luis Fernando Suarez is one candidate, though he is currently unavailable. He is Colombian, coached Ecuador to a World Cup spot in 2006, and now has Los Ticos poised to upset New Zealand in June’s playoff.
Colombia might embrace their conquerors and face off against Ricardo Gareca, the Argentine coach who is leading Peru’s national team to greatness. Gareca has a Colombian connection, having played with America of Cali in the late 1980s, when he had considerable success as a centre-forward. He, too, is now occupied, as Peru must beat either Australia or the United Arab Emirates in order to qualify for the World Cup.
And then there’s Marcelo Bielsa, who, after leaving Leeds United, is on the desire list of a number of South American national teams. Negotiating with Bielsa is famously tough, and his relationship with those in charge of the Colombian game would be rocky. However, the appeal is undeniable. Bielsa took over as Chile’s coach at a time when the country’s young potential was blossoming. Chile, like other rumored suitors, Bolivia, cannot give him anything comparable this time.
Colombia, on the other hand, has promise. Outside of the traditional South American top three of Brazil, Argentina, and Uruguay, Colombia is the country most positioned to make a significant effect on the global game. Colombia, with its many major centers and vast, football-crazed populace, provides a pathway to footballing immortality for the ambitious coach. It’ll be intriguing to watch who rises to the challenge of turning promise into reality.