BY FRANK GRIFFITHS
The Associated Press
Colombia’s 16-year wait for a return to the World Cup was miserable enough for its supporters. Now they’re coming to terms with a few setbacks before Colombia’s Group C opener Saturday against Greece, including the loss of Radamel Falcao.
The star forward was cut from the squad last week after failing to recover in time from a serious knee injury. While Colombia has other attacking options, Falcao’s exclusion is a psychological blow.
Coach Jose Pekerman described it as his “saddest day” since taking charge of “Los Cafeteros” when he dropped Falcao along with first-choice center back Luis Perea, who was carrying a thigh injury. Then, midfielder Aldo Ramirez was sent home with a foot injury sustained in a training session last week, days after Pekerman announced his final squad.
Falcao, nicknamed “El Tigre,” will be sorely missed. The 28-year-old striker, who joined Monaco from Atletico Madrid, tore left knee ligaments in a French Cup game in January. He was key to Colombia’s successful qualifying campaign, scoring nine goals — a record for the country.
Despite all the bad news, the squad remains optimistic about its chances in a group that also includes Ivory Coast and Japan. Colombia’s main playmaker, James Rodriguez, points out that even without Falcao the team has a strong strike force which includes Carlos Bacca, Teofilo “Teo” Gutierrez and Jackson Martinez.
“The responsibility is weighing on us even more without Falcao, but we’re not alone,” the 22-year-old Rodriguez said. “The attack isn’t going to change. It’s the same. Apart from Falcao, we have Teo, Jackson and Bacca.”
The Greece team considers its opener with Colombia at Estadio Mineirao in Belo Horizonte as the toughest match in the group, and is showing little sign of relief over Falcao’s absence.
“Our aim is to get out the group,” defender Sokratis Papastathopoulos said. “That would be a very big achievement for us ... the first match is the one that gives you strength or disappointment.”
Greece broke a three-game scoring drought with a 2-1 win over Bolivia in friendly played in New York last week. Goal scorer Costas Katsouranis said the result showed his team was improving despite some trouble with finishing chances.
“I think we will be better against Colombia,” he said. “For sure, there will be difficult conditions. It’s hot and it’s humid, so it’s hard to know how that will affect us.”
It’s also unclear how Greece’s late arrival in Brazil might affect the team’s preparations for the first match. Greece arrived a day late after a flight cancellation in the United States, and FIFA had to step in to help the team reach its base in Aracaju.
“We had some problems during our arrival here, but now everything is perfect,” Greece midfielder Yiannis Maniatis said.
Coach Fernando Santos acknowledges that Greece isn’t a high-scoring team, but is confident the goals will come when needed.
“What I’m happy about is that we’re creating more chances,” Santos said. “We’re in a group where any of the teams could qualify, but I do believe we will make it through.”
Santos believes striker Kostas Mitroglou will be ready despite his lack of game time since moving to England at the start of the year to join Fulham, which has been relegated from the Premier League. Santos also selected veteran players, including 2004 European Championship winners Katsouranis and captain Giorgos Karagounis.
Colombia, playing in its first World Cup since 1998, is keen to make up for lost time. But the South Americans are aware that Greece has the propensity to surprise in international tournaments, like it did at Euro 2004.
“Greece is a difficult rival,” right back Santiago Arias said. “We have to concentrate on our lines ... We have everything we need to have a good World Cup.”