Football: Not all the president's men

The players revolt, a star is sent packing and the head of state intervenes. All in a week's work for Colombia; Andrew Longmore visits a World Cup camp where temperament and tempers tested team spirit
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AT the end of a hard training session at their base in Tours du Pin, Hernan Dario Gomez, coach of the Colombian team, wiped the sweat from his forehead and pronounced that it had been a tough week. And when a Colombian talks of a tough week, he does not mean the fax machine breaking down or a tube strike. After a tough week, a Colombian is happy to see the sun rise.

This has been the schedule for Gomez. On Monday, a 1-0 defeat by Romania followed by a tantrum thrown by Tino Asprilla, his most gifted attacker; on Tuesday, a revolt by his players against Asprilla, who is forced out of the team and heads for Paris. On Wednesday, a visit from the President of the Colombian Football Federation bringing news from President Ernesto Samper himself that the reinstatement of Asprilla is a matter of the utmost urgency. On Thursday, a call from Asprilla promising to be a good boy and apologising to coach and team-mates, followed by another vote among the players and confirmation by Gomez that he would stand down as national coach as soon as the World Cup campaign finishes. On Friday, 21 Colombians, augmented by three members of the local town team, put the finishing touches to their preparation for the second group match against Tunisia in Montpellier tomorrow, which the Colombians must win.

"It has been a hard week not just for me, but for the whole team," Gomez said. "But, as you saw today, the team are working well and pulling together now. We have to go on." The Colombian journalists, who like and respect Gomez, shrug their shoulders at the new crisis. With three of the country's clubs owned by the sisters of drug barons currently serving prison sentences and the spectre of the death of Andres Escobar after the last World Cup still hanging over the team, the Asprilla Affair has been no more than a routine piece of infighting.

"There is always something happening with the Colombians, nothing much to do with football usually," said Rafael Mendoza, a journalist with El Espectador. Few countries, though, could turn a petty footballing squabble into a national election issue in the space of 24 hours. Paul Gascoigne might warrant a passing mention on the floor of the House of Commons, the cause of Asprilla was deemed populist enough to sway majorities.

Today is the second round of the presidential elections. The first produced a majority for Horacio Serpa, the former Interior Minister and the preferred candidate of the outgoing President Samper of just 40,000 in an electorate of 12 million. By mediating a truce between Asprilla and the team, Samper hoped to stamp his presidential authority on the one issue likely to unite the diverse factions in Colombia. He miscalculated badly. Not only did Asprilla, a temperamental hero to the lawless street kids of Bogota, compromise his macho image by reading out a humiliating public apology la Sheringham, he suffered rejection by his team-mates and a flood of telephone calls to the national television station in Bogota supporting the decision of Gomez to throw him off the team.

In a private vote at the Relais de la Tour, the hillside hotel overlookng the small town of Tour du Pins 35km south east of Lyon, only goalkeeper Farid Mondragon, a long time friend, and fellow forward Victor Aristizibal supported Asprilla's return to the squad. Maurizio Serna and Jose Santa abstained. Aristizibal, along with Gomez, had been the subject of anonymous death threats before the recent warm-up game against Scotland in New Jersey. Asprilla said he would not play if Aristizibal was left out of the team in the same way as Gabriel Gomez, Hernan's brother, after similar threats in the US in 1994. An investigation in Colombia suggested that the threats then were part of a CIA plot to prevent Colombia, a team involved in a drug war with the US, winning the World Cup. "I'm tired of threats," Asprilla said. "What sort of country do we live in?" The sight of young Ivan Cordoba, one of a new generation of Colombian players, wearing the No 2 which once belonged to Escobar provided an eloquent response.

Escobar was gunned down by a hired assassin in a car park in Medellin in the early hours of the morning of 2 July, 1994, 10 days after his own goal had cost his side a place the World Cup and the drug barons several million pounds in bets. Pele, no less, had suggested Colombia could win the tournament playing an innovative brand of one-touch football which owed much to the narrow, congested, streets of Bogota, Medellin and Cali where most Colombians learn their trade.

"It was very different then," said one Colombian journalist. "When we beat Argentina 5-0, I thought: 'God, we have to win the thing now'. Expectations were so high and there was a lot of money riding on that game. No one expects too much of this team. Asprilla will not be in the same danger as Escobar."

No one in Newcastle will need reminding of Asprilla's temperament or talent. Geordies will live on the tale of his hat-trick against Barcelona in the Champions League, but mostly his skills were sporadic. In Colombia, he has been untouchable until now. "He was too popular," said Andres Nieto of Oti TV. "If you go to a poor town and ask who the president is they will not know. If you ask who is the coach of the national team, they will say 'Asprilla' because they think he does everything."

In 1994, Francisco Maturana, the Colombian coach, wanted to expel Asprilla after a late-night drinking session, but was persuaded not to by the sheer weight of Asprilla's popularity. His relationship with Gomez has been equally explosive. Asprilla's international career has been a catalogue of sulks. No one doubts his brilliance but the tide is beginning to turn against his petulance. "His departure is terrible for the team," Nieto said. "He is one of the best forwards we have ever had but when you have a coach as volatile as Gomez and a player who behaves like a child, it is potentially a recipe for disaster."

A public row followed the warm-up game against Yugoslavia as Asprilla accused Gomez of favouring players like Carlos Valderrama, and the final straw came in an interview with national Radio Caracol the morning after his late substitution in the defeat by Romania. "Tino wants to be the leader of this team," Gomez said earlier this week. "But I have only one No 10 and that is Valderrama." Privately, many Colombians feel the electric- haired midfielder has lost his powers, but he is the epitome of what his countrymen call El Torque, the one-touch maestro.

The irony of Asprilla's expulsion is that, at a time when Colombian football is desperately trying to cleanse its image, his replacement could be Anthony de Avila, "El Muchacho", the kid as he is known, even at 34. The same de Avila who dedicated his late winner against Ecuador to the brothers Gilbert and Miguel Rodriguez Orejuella, founders of the Cali drug cartel currently serving life sentences in Bogota and his long-time patrons. The goal ensured Colombia's qualification for France. Soon after, de Avila's contract with the New York Metrostars was not renewed and he is now playing for Barcelona Guayaquil in Ecuador. But he has, against the odds, kept his place in the national team and could start against Tunisia.

Gomez believes that the departure of Asprilla has already strengthened team spirit. Colombian journalists noted the change of mood in training the following morning. But these are the last twitches of an ageing side. Valderrama is 36, de Avila 34, Rincon and Valencia 30. Asprilla himself is now 28. The Federation, Gomez says, want a foreign coach, probably a Brazilian, to usher in a new era. A fully committed Colombia, bent on qualification at England's expense in Lens on 26 June, is not a prospect Glenn Hoddle will relish, with or without Asprilla. "We are not even thinking that far ahead," Gomez said. A week can be a very long time in Colombian football.