Natal: On September 5, 1993, a date etched in the memory of all Colombians, the Colombian soccer team upset the order of things.
The country's soccer history has been a story of underachievement, but that day, in a World Cup qualifier considered one of the greatest matches ever played in Latin American, Colombia danced around the Argentine defense and scored five goals. Alfio Basile, Argentina's manager at the time, called it "a crime against nature." Colombians, understanding the magnitude of the victory against the heavily favored Argentines, called it "parricide."
Diego Maradona, the Argentine star, said afterward: "Colombia can't break history. Argentines have to continue as we are: Argentina on top, Colombia underneath."
More than two decades later, Colombia, playing in its first World Cup since 1998, has reason to believe.
Coach Jose Pekerman has been blessed with a balanced squad of young and mature players, and Pekerman, an Argentine, has imbued the team with a sense of purpose despite the pretournament loss of the injured star striker Radamel Falcao, whose brilliance seemed to rub off on his teammates.
Colombia, which will face Uruguay on Saturday in Rio de Janeiro in the Round of 16, proved itself worthy in the qualifying campaign, finishing as the runner-up to Argentina in the South American zone. But then it was Argentina that helped teach Colombia how to play the game.
From 1949 to 1954, with the establishment of a breakaway league free of international restrictions, Colombia was able to secure the services of some of the best soccer players on the continent, an era known as El Dorado.
Players gravitated to places where their countrymen had settled: Brazilians in Barranquilla, Argentines in Bogota, Uruguayans in Cucuta and Costa Ricans, said to play the game beautifully, at the University of Bogota. When this soccer circus of foreign players closed, the domestic game reverted to its amateurish state.
It was not until the 1980s that Colombian soccer gained any momentum, drug money and soccer having by then combined to make a heady cocktail. But the progress faltered when Andres Escobar, a defender on the 1994 national team, was killed outside a Medellin nightclub on the day the World Cup entered its knockout phase. His crime: steering the ball into his own net against the United States.
Soon after, as the story goes, the Colombian author Gabriel Garcia Marquez was told that only three important things had taken place in his home country: the vast riots that leveled Bogota in 1948, known as El Bogotazo; the 1967 publication of his novel "One Hundred Years of Solitude"; and the 1993 victory over Argentina. Garcia Marquez supposedly responded: "And you know what the terrible thing is about what you say? That it's true."
Now, improbably, the country has its best chance yet of making it to the quarterfinals. Only Uruguay stands in its way.
Uruguay has shown an ability to channel a fighting spirit, but this match might prove beyond its reach. Colombia won, 4-0, in a matchup during qualifying, and without Luis Suarez, who was suspended for the rest of the tournament for biting an Italian opponent, Uruguay will be far weaker up front.
Still, Uruguay, a two-time World Cup champion, has history on its side, with the country's 1950 victory over Brazil in particular still looming large in South American soccer.
This will be of no concern to Pekerman, Colombia's coach, who has established a strong bond with his players and a winning mentality - without any deference to any soccer hierarchy.
© 2014 New York Times News Service