Legendary Scottish manager Jock Stein once said “Football is nothing without fans”. Ask any footballer who ever played the game, and he would tell you that the thrill of coming out onto the pitch, with thousands of people cheering you, chanting your name is a feeling unlike any other. There are times when just the atmosphere inside the stadium is enough to make a match memorable, even if the football being played is not.
There can be no doubt that it is the fans that make the game what it is. Without their undying support, football wouldn’t be the most popular sport in the world. But it isn’t always a bed of roses. For every game in which the atmosphere is electric, there are riots and protests outside the ground. Football fans are sometimes no different than the mob that used to watch the gladiators battle it out in the Colosseum in ancient Rome.
One moment they can be seen cheering wildly and willing their team on to get that goal that might win them the game, at others, they can be pelting abuse at the players on the pitch for not performing to the standards demanded from them.
There are few creatures in the world that can go from a state of ecstasy to delirium in a matter of moments like football fans can. So, it is no wonder that football fans are the hardest ones to please.
When Colombia takes on Brazil in Fortaleza on Friday, their fans will be willing them on, in their first-ever World Cup quarterfinal. In James Rodriguez they have someone who has not only scored the goal of the tournament against Uruguay, but arguably is also the player of the tournament thus far. In Jose Pékerman, they have a manager who has the complete trust of his squad, which is filled with the right mix of exuberant youngsters and wily veterans.
Tipped as dark horses at the start of the tournament by many, the South Americans, nicknamed Los Cafeteros have arguably been the team of the tournament thus far and have completely taken Brazil by storm. Thanks to their brand of free-flowing attacking football, they have been the best side to watch in Brazil and now they face the hosts, without any fear or inhibition.
The scenes of Colombian fans parading outside the ground, expressing their delight is in complete contrast to the scenes from 20 years ago. In what was one of the darkest hours in the history of football, Colombian defender Andrés Escobar was brutally gunned down in Medellín, just days after turning a John Harkes cross into his own net at the 1994 World Cup.
2nd of July marked the 20th anniversary of Escobar’s death; an incident that sent shockwaves across a football mad nation. It also showed how fickle football fans could be. Was his mistake, which sent his country out of the World Cup so grave that he had to pay for it with his life? Whatever the case, Los Cafeteros now have a chance to create history; the opportunity to make this incident not what their nation’s footballing history would be known for. As they march into their quarter-final against the hosts they will hope to remove that watershed moment from their memory.
Although the 1994 squad contained some really special players like Carlos Valderrama and Faustino Asprilla, their rapid rise to fame in that World Cup was somewhat tarnished by the fact that it was all attributed to drug money. There was a sense that the squad was playing under intolerable pressure and it finally showed.
Although the current squad mostly plies their trade in Europe, they have been operating with an unabashed freedom that has eluded most of the other sides. There, however, is still a sense of history looming at the back of their minds. As much as they would like to forget it all, there is no denying the fact that the tragic loss of Escobar was one of the key inspirations for the nation to move forward and to show the world they are much more than that one incident. As former Colombian defender Jorge Bermúdez said: “We will never stop thinking about him or feeling that he is one of our own. Every Colombia triumph will also be, in some way, his.”
One of their unsung heroes in this World Cup, Carlos Sánchez echoed the same sentiment when he said: “The emotional aspect is the most important thing to handle because this is a very important match for us. It will take its toll on the emotional condition of all of us.”
Although the death of Escobar is in the past now, footballing violence and Colombia still goes hand in hand. Even in victory, it seems as though the bond cannot be broken. After their 3-0 victory over Greece in their opener, there were at least nine fatalities in Bogotá during a night of celebrations. Some reports say that a further eight had died following the 2-0 victory over Uruguay.
Perhaps it is just one of those things that cannot be rationally explained, much like the emotions of a football fan. Maybe, we aren’t meant to understand it. But one thing is for sure, when Colombia takes to the field against Brazil on Friday, all the pressure will be on the team playing in yellow, but that will not be Los Cafeteros. Instead, Brazil will take on a side who have thus far been playing with a divine curiosity and a mental fortitude that few others look capable of matching. And should the Colombians win, it will go a long towards bringing happiness to the faces of every Colombian, who lives and breathes football.