By Nick Dorrington
Twenty years ago Colombia traveled to Buenos Aires needing just a draw to confirm their place at the 1994 World Cup and consign their hosts, Argentina, to a playoff against Australia. What followed was one of the most famous victories in the history of World Cup qualifying, a 5-0 thrashing which, via the endorsement of Pelé, elevated Colombia to a position among the favorites for the upcoming World Cup.
Diego Barragán was on the Colombian bench that day. A coach and physical preparation specialist, he had worked alongside Francisco Maturana at Atlético Nacional and Real Valladolid and was an integral part of the national team coaching set-up. He remembers that the team was full of confidence ahead of the fixture.
“We had a history with the Argentine national team,” he recalls. “In the Copa America of 1987 we won 2-1 in the same city and the same stadium as the 5-0, against the team that was the champion of the world in Mexico ’86 and still had the same coach, Carlos Bilardo. In 1989 we beat them 1-0 in Barranquilla, and in the Copa America of 1993 in Ecuador we drew 0-0 and they won on penalties. We had also been very good in qualifying up to that point and had beaten them 2-1 at home.”
The team could sense the tension of the locals from the moment they arrived in Argentina and so there was little need for Maturana or his staff to go to any great lengths to get the players motivated for the match. “It is interesting that before the match the coach did not speak much,” Barragán remembers. “We had seen a lot of worried Argentina supporters on our trip from the hotel to the stadium, which bred confidence. The key topic was the ball: keep it, play well and the game will be ours.”
A draw would have been enough for Colombia to qualify, but the team was not set up to play for that result. “It has never been part of my footballing philosophy to play for a draw and that was the same with the national team,” Barragán explains. “We didn’t care too much about results. In football, the team who has the ball and shows intent to win is usually the one who does.”
Colombia suffered a few scares in the first half, with goalkeeper Óscar Córdoba alert to cut out a couple of attempted through balls and the hosts flashing a couple of other chances wide. But they took the lead just before the interval when Carlos Valderrama snaked between two challenges and slid a ball through to Freddy Rincón, who took it superbly in his stride, rounded the goalkeeper and finished into the empty net.
Valderrama was at the heart of all of Colombia’s best play. Strong in possession and with devilishly quick feet in close quarters, he was the focal point through which his side’s attacks were built. “Valderrama was one of the key components of the national team,” Barragán explains. “He was vital in the construction of the style in which we wanted to play. But his role was given importance by the players who surrounded him and were also vital in developing the Colombian style of football: Rincón, Faustino Asprilla, Leonel Álvarez, Adolfo Valencia, Andrés Escobar, Luis Herrera.”
Five minutes after the restart Colombia were 2-0 up, Asprilla turning inside a defender and prodding the ball into the back of the net. “When Asprilla scored the second at the start of the second half, we repeated our previous instructions,” Barrágan recalls. “We told the team to play with intelligence and to try and keep possession for longer to play a little with the frustration of the Argentines.”
The team did that and more, with further goals from Rincon, Asprilla and Valencia sealing a famous victory that would have eliminated their hosts had Paraguay not failed to win in Peru. It was a result that changed everything. “After the match many people, as we say here, ‘jumped on the bus of victory,’ and there were sponsors, politicians and directors who got involved and contributed nothing but chaos,” Barragán remembers. “After the 5-0 we could not work in the way that we needed to.
“People forgot that the results were achieved because of the work we did between 1987 and 1990, and from 1992 to 1993. For example, for the qualifiers in 1993 we had 18 weeks of training and nearly the same amount of matches – 16 between friendlies and qualifying. There were 126 training sessions and we were together in concentration for 18 weeks, 10 without travel or time off. Afterwards everything was improvised.”
What came next is well documented. Colombia arrived in the United States as many people’s dark horses to win the World Cup, but suffered a humiliating group stage exit, losing to Romania and the host nation. Defender Andrés Escobar paid for the failure with his life when he was gunned down in Medellín a few days after returning from the tournament.
But despite Colombia’s inability to turn their potential into tournament success, the 5-0 win over Argentina brought worldwide attention to the talent of the country’s footballers and is a match that will always hold a position of significance in the history of Colombian football. “It was an important historical moment,” Barragán explains. “Twenty years have passed and we are still talking about it.
“A few days after the match I spoke with an Argentine friend and he said to me, ‘How many of your squad play abroad?’ And at the time there were maybe one or two. We defeated Argentina and suddenly five or six more moved away. Just a few years later we became exporters. Today that history is displayed through Falcao, Jackson, Zuñiga, Cuadrado and others. Colombian players are now stars on the world stage.”