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Colombia's 2001 championship-winning national soccer team. Photo Courtesy of athlet.org.
Colombia's 2001 championship-winning national soccer team. Photo Courtesy of athlet.org.

The Perfect Storm

A convergence of timing, fate and a little divine influence took the 2001 Colombian soccer team into the record books.

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With the first-round matches of the 2019 Copa America almost complete, who will emerge as the front-runner in the tournament? Argentina, Brazil, and Chile are predicted to go to the Finals.

However, here’s the real question: Can any team go undefeated in this year’s Copa América?

In the history of the 103-year-old competition, only three South American countries who have gone undefeated. Uruguay did it in 1917 and 1987, while Argentina accomplished the feat in 1921. In each of those years, the winning team played only two to three matches. What if I told you the third undefeated team played six games without a loss and on top of that didn't concede a goal? Oh yeah, what if they won it all too? The first thing you would say is ‘that's impossible.’ That would take an act of God to happen. Well, the Lord does work in mysterious ways. Here's a barbet that you would win. Back in 2001, the Copa América juggernaut was none other than Los Cafeteros of Colombia.

Les Rouges, La Albiceleste, y Los Catrachos
The 2001 Copa América took place in Colombia. At the time, 10 South American countries participated in the two-week tournament. Mexico and Canada were also invited to partake in the competition.

Before the tournament, meetings were held by CONMEBOL authorities who were concerned about potential security issues in Colombia. There were several bombings before the June kick-off which led to the deaths of 12 people and injured 200. The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) raised the public’s fear due to the kidnapping of the vice-president of the country’s football federation, Hernán Campuzano.

At one point for five days, Copa América did not exist.  Colombian President Andrés Pastrana wanted the games to go on. “Let us root for peace,” Pastrana begged during an interview, in which he stressed the urgency to “defeat violence and the violent minority.”  Unfortunately, the organization already made its decision. Although Venezuela offered to host the competition, the organization suddenly decided to move forward with its plans for Colombia, and the games continued on schedule. Some say the pressure from television companies and sponsors had the final say in the matter.

Now Canada, who were the CONCACAF champions at that time and formerly part of the tournament, decided to disband the training camp when the games canceled. Their players all returned to their individual club teams. By fate, Costa Rica got the call within a few days of the first match and accepted to take Canada's place.

The Argentine Football Association was furious about the reversal that kept the tournament going. Claims spread that the team received death threats from terrorist groups. Although Colombian authorities assured Argentina's safety by implementing more protection, the team withdrew from the competition. What if we were the proverbial fly on the wall watching the emergency meetings at CONMEBOL headquarters?

Dateline: July 10th - 24 hours before the games were to begin. "Who can we reach out to for the last spot in the Copa America?" "I know, let's get Honduras!" Wait. What?

Honduras - "Los Catrachos" -  the nickname for Hondurans who originated from General Florencio Xatruch in the war of 1856-1857. When Honduran troops would arrive, people would yell, "Here come the Xatruches." The phrase later changed to "catruches" and finally catrachos. The team that year was having a string of bad luck. 2001 marked the first time in Honduras' history that the team did not qualify to the CONCACAF Gold Cup. Honduras fell short for a second World Cup bid with their loss to Trinidad & Tobago. In the game, 11 shots by Honduras hit the goalpost, while the only point of the game came from Trinidad & Tobago's single shot on goal.

Photo Courtesy of futbolred.com
Date to the Dance
Despite the shock and joy of being in their first Copa América, Honduras had a very limited squad to scramble together at the last minute. In some cases, better late than never. The Colombian Air Force helped the Honduran team by providing an airplane and get to their match a few hours before it started. An issue that arose with the tournament was that a majority of teams sent players that were lacking the first-team experience. Many coaches preferred to save their star players for upcoming World Cup qualifiers. Lack of seasoned players proved to be an omen of things to come for the defending Copa América champions, Brazil.

Without stars like Ronaldinho and Ronaldo, Mexico defeated them 1-0 in their first match. The defending champions righted the ship and made their way to the knockout stage. While teams like Uruguay and Mexico were battling their way through their groups, Colombia’s route was reasonably comfortable with three consecutive wins and a trip to the knockout stages. After Honduras’ loss in their first game of the tournament, the team won their next three matches and made their way to the quarterfinals. The talk of Los catrachos being the Cinderella team of the Copa gained momentum.

David vs. Goliath
Having played their group games in Medellín, Honduras now traveled to Manizales to face the mighty Brazilians. Despite Brazil not having several of their star players, it was still a very talented squad. Many of the substitute players for Brazil could have been legitimate starters if playing for other countries. Coach Luiz Felipe Scolari’s had an arsenal at his disposal. It seemed destiny that Honduras’ time had arrived to bow out with a lopsided loss.

What happened instead was the biggest upset in the tournament’s history. Brazil was defeated in a 2-0 final and ousted from the competition. Scolari knew what the ramifications were of this defeat. “I, Big Phil, will go down in history as the Brazil coach who lost to Honduras,” he said. “It’s horrible, but Honduras played better than us and deserved to win.”

Although their victory was one for the record books, all good things must come to an end. Their semifinal game against Colombia proved to be their last. With a goal from Gerardo Bedoya in the sixth minute of the match, and an insurance goal by Víctor Aristizábal in the sixty-third minute, Colombia advanced to the finals to face Mexico while Honduras once again faced Uruguay in a battle for third place.

Flirting with Perfection
Famed Green Bay Packers coach Vince Lombardi once said, “Perfection is not attainable, but if we chase perfection we can catch excellence.” This tournament was far from perfect. From cancellations and restarts to not enough teams to play a match, the 2001 Copa América had its share of flaws and mistakes. Colombia was still undefeated heading into the finals of Copa América. As an added pressure, the team had not conceded a goal in five games. Would Los Cafeteros etch their name in soccer history or would they come up short against “El Tri”?

Estadio El Campin was the sight of the final. With over 47,000 fans packed in the stadium cheering with excitement, it seemed that nothing could distract Colombia from winning their first Copa América title - except for a little interruption of the game by four parachutists landing on the pitch during the fifth minute of the match. Los Cafeteros did not lose their momentum and continued to put pressure on Mexico. Colombia’s big break came during the 65th minute of the game with a header into the net by Ivan Cordoba. Although Mexico pressured Colombia throughout the match, it was not enough to deny the country and their native sons from hoisting their first ever Copa América championship and making soccer history. To this day, no other team has won the Copa América without either losing a game or conceding a goal in the process.

 
Who will rise to the top this year? Can a team match the infamous “perfect tournament run” of 2001? Is it Brazil's time to raise the trophy in front of the home crowd for the first time in more than a decade? Will Messi and Argentina add yet another title to the already-crowded mantle? Can Chile three-peat as champions? Can Colombia relive the memory from 18 years ago and have history repeat itself one more time? Anything can happen, so pass me my beer from the barbet and let's watch the beautiful game.
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