For women’s soccer diehards paying close attention, the long-awaited rise of a nation in soccer-crazed South America to challenge Brazil’s dominance wasn’t a complete shock. At the 2010 U-20 World Cup, Colombia went to the semifinals (one round farther than the U.S.) featuring many of the same names that were playing for the full team five years later in Canada.
South America women’s soccer being what it is, Colombia qualified for both the World Cup and Olympics way back in September of 2014 when it beat host Ecuador and tied Brazil on its way to a second place finish at the Copa America Femenina.
And slightly under the radar, Colombia followed up last year’s World Cup success by going to the finals of last July’s Pan American games, beating host Canada (albeit not quite a full squad) in the semis before losing to Brazil in the final.
The 2016 Olympics are now the fourth consecutive major tournament Colombia has qualified for (prior to the 2011 World Cup it had zero), so all that experience should lead them to bigger and better things fairly close to home in Brazil, right?
Well, not necessarily.
Unfortunately, while the team has improved greatly, support from its own federation has not exactly been commensurate with their on-field success. To wit, after the Pan American games finished, Colombia went eight months without a competitive match, finally emerging against the reigning, well-oiled champs this April and the result was a little disheartening, if not predictable, a 7-0 beating by the U.S. that could have been worse. With essentially the same lineup, Colombia did a little better four days later, falling 3-0, but never recorded a shot on goal against a somewhat changed U.S. squad. Making things worse were reports that Colombia had not been paid, other than expenses.
And then? Not much. A couple of friendlies with Venezuela six weeks ago, both of which they won (2-0 and 1-0) and all they have to deal with at the Olympics is a group of France, New Zealand, and the United States. It marks the fourth straight major tournament the U.S. and Colombia will meet. Their last meeting at the Olympics is best known unfortunately for Lady Andrade’s cheap shot on Abby Wambach (the game ended 3-0 for the U.S.), so they will certainly know each other and it’s hard to imagine France taking Colombia lightly after last year’s stunner.
Colombia was dealt more bad news earlier this month when star Yoreli Rincon broke her fibula in training and was ruled out of the Olympics. Andrade started the season with Western New York in the NWSL, but asked for her release when she wasn’t given a regular place in the team by Paul Riley. And it appears that youth pipeline has stalled. After that run in 2010, Colombia has failed to qualify for the last three U-20 World Cups, having been beaten out by Venezuela and Paraguay in the last two.
Reports of Colombia’s demise may be slightly exaggerated, however, as most of the team from last summer does return, minus Rincon and midfielder Daniela Montoya, who scored the first goal at the World Cup, and whose omission is controversial and a bit baffling. But impressive goalkeeper Sandra Sepulveda is back, as are veteran defenders Natalia Gaitan and (American born and former Maryland star) Nataly Arias.
Even without Rincon, Colombia appears to have some firepower that could give even this tough group trouble, led by Andrade, even if she hasn’t played much competitive soccer since last July (she did not feature in the friendlies against the United States). But she is joined by Diana Ospina and Catalina Usme on the front line. Usme was a super sub at the World Cup, but has been Colombia’s most reliable goalscorer of late (20 goals in her international career, most by far on the roster) and seems to be in solid form.
Controlling the midfield and therefore the ball will be extremely difficult for them, but the blueprint for possible success was set last summer in the upset of France and the first half against the U.S. Coach Felipe Taborda has been very successful at getting his team to believe they can compete with the world’s best, but it remains to be seen if Colombia can recapture the swagger that made them one of the great stories out of Canada last summer. If they can, they can beat New Zealand, give the U.S. and France trouble, and advance into the quarterfinals. If they can’t, it will likely be a repeat of their last Olympic appearance four years ago: three straight losses and back to search for more funds from its federation to stay together until the next major tournament comes along.
KEY PLAYER: Catalina Usme – Colombia did not score at the 2011 World Cup or the 2012 Olympics. Usme may be their best hope against a very tough group.
GROUP PROSPECTS: Will likely have to beat New Zealand to be in a position to advance, but probably looking at last place.