Will Colombia turn to Marcelo Bielsa after World Cup failure?

Reinaldo Rueda coached Honduras to a World Cup. He took Ecuador to a World Cup. But he will not have the same honour with his native Colombia. He has fallen short twice — and after being sacked on Monday, a third opportunity would seem extremely unlikely.

Rueda made his name nearly 20 years ago as Colombia’s youth specialist. He took the under-20s to third place in the World Cup at that level in 2003, before landing the senior national team job mid-way through the qualifying campaign for the 2006 World Cup. It was agonisingly close. By just one point they missed out on fifth place, the playoff position — and history repeated itself for the 2022 edition.

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In the 2022 qualifiers, Rueda had more time at the head of the team, coming in after just four of the 18 rounds when Carlos Queiroz was sacked. Once again, Colombia missed out on the playoff spot by a single point — and once again, there are moments to look back on and grimace. Toward the end of the 2006 campaign Colombia lost 3-2 away to Uruguay, their direct rivals. But even that would not have mattered had they managed to win the next game, at home to Chile. They drew 1-1, and the two dropped points proved decisive.

This time the key moment came at home to the direct rivals in this campaign, Peru. Colombia had every reason to believe in their own superiority. In Rueda’s first game in charge they won 3-0 in Lima. On home soil in Barranquilla, they battered the Peruvian defence, but could not score. Even this would not have mattered. But late on Peru launched a rare breakaway, and keeper David Ospina got his angles wrong and let in a tame shot at the near post. Peru won 1-0.

Bad luck? Perhaps that was part of it. But, on paper at least, the Colombia squad looks much stronger. And this game came towards the end of an extraordinary run where Colombia went seven games without scoring a single goal. It is barely credible that this could happen to a team with Luis Diaz (who played in all these games) as well as the likes of Radamel Falcao, Rafael Santos Borre, Luis Muriel and Duvan Zapata.

Colombia, clearly, only have themselves to blame. And there would seem to be a problem that goes deeper than Rueda. The glory moment in Colombia’s history, the best World Cup they have ever had, was in 2014 when they reached the quarterfinals and James Rodriguez broke out as a global star. There has been a feeling ever since that the team is a hostage to James. Their 3-0 thrashing of Poland was one of the outstanding performances at the 2018 World Cup. It was also the only time they could count on a fit James.

More recently he has seldom been fit enough to do himself justice, and doubts have even arisen over whether or not he remains relevant. Is he a disruptive influence, a cause of dressing room rifts? Now that he has gone past the age 30 mark, and has found himself in a footballing exile with Qatari side Al-Rayyan, this may not be a question that concerns Rueda’s replacement, whoever he might be.

But there are plenty of other problems. In 2016, Rueda took Atletico Nacional of Medellin to triumph in the Copa Libertadores. Since then, though, just one Colombian side has managed to qualify from the group stages of the competition — an appalling record for a country with, outside Brazil, the biggest population in South America.

The undoubted fact that World Cup-bound Ecuador are outperforming Colombia — both at club and national team level — should be a major cause for concern for those who run the Colombian game. The country should be producing enough quality players to avoid dependence on the form and fitness of one temperamental star.

With no competitive games for a while — the next edition of the Copa America is in 2024 — there is no immediate hurry for the Colombian FA to bring in a long-term replacement. They could, of course, bring in a short-term caretaker to play some friendlies. Those teams who are due to face Ecuador in the World Cup — Qatar, Senegal and Netherlands are the group opponents — might relish the chance to practice against a side from a similar school.

But what do Colombia do long term? One candidate, although he is not free at the moment, is Costa Rica national team coach Luis Fernando Suarez. He is Colombian, did a fine job with Ecuador in 2006 and now has Los Ticos primed for a World Cup berth should they defeat New Zealand in June’s playoff.

Colombia could embrace their conquerors and take on Ricardo Gareca, the Argentine coach who is doing such magnificent work with the national team of Peru. An added attraction is that Gareca has a connection with Colombia, playing with great success as a centre-forward for America of Cali in the late 1980s. He, too, is currently engaged as Peru must defeat either Australia or United Arab Emirates to secure a World Cup spot.

And there is the option of Marcelo Bielsa, who finds himself on the wish list of a number of South American national teams after leaving Leeds United. It is notoriously difficult to negotiate with Bielsa, and his relationship with those who run the Colombian game would not be smooth. But the attraction is obvious. With Chile, Bielsa took over at a time when a wonderfully talented generation was emerging. Chile cannot offer him anything similar this time, and nor can other rumoured suitors, Bolivia.

Colombia, though, can offer potential. Outside the traditional top three of South American football — Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay — Colombia are the nation best placed to make a serious impact on the global game. With its proliferation of urban centres, and its large, football crazy population, Colombia offers the ambitious coach a gateway to footballing immortality. It will be fascinating to see who accepts the challenge to turn potential into achievement.

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